About time

You can read that two ways:

First, as in, “Finally, a new post! It’s been forever!”

Alternatively, as in, “I think we need to have a talk about how you’re managing things.”

I really don’t know how regular bloggers stay so, well, regular. Priorities, I guess. This little site is about forty-two places down my list of things to do on any given day, which might explain why I’ve written nothing since mid-December. Since then we’ve been back to the US for Christmas, had a lovely New Year’s Eve in Amsterdam, been sick for a few days, and survived a particularly bleak and windy Dutch winter. (Yes, I know winter’s not over yet…it’s only February, and it was 0 degrees Celsius this morning, but the days are lengthening and the sun is shining and dammit, we’ll take it. And we’ll call it spring if we please.) Magere brug

I have also officially finished another online class, one more step in my seemingly-endless march towards a Master’s degree. Yesterday I turned in my final assignment and my next class doesn’t begin until Tuesday, so I finally find myself with a little extra time. This whole week has given me some time to myself, as my dear husband has been back in Boston taking care of some things at our house. So for the first time since I moved here three years ago, I’ve been on my own. Back to single-serve portions of salmon for dinner, as I did then!

In that first winter in Amsterdam, I was in the habit of waking up early on Sunday mornings and biking around the frosty, empty city. I was trying to get used to cycling. I had to get the feel of the back-pedal brakes on my bike. And I had to try to figure out the semi-circular layout of this new place. Sunday mornings I had the city to myself; I’d bike around, get lost, and eventually find my way home again, all before most Amsterdammers were awake.

feb-morning-2018-e1518971307393.jpgThis morning I woke up early, even though I had been out late at dinner with friends. The sun was shining and the light over the city was so pure and lovely that I just couldn’t stay inside. I threw on some clothes and headed out into the freezing morning cold. No destination in mind, just a wandering path from one canal to another, over a bridge, a stop at the Amstel. Once again, I had the city almost to myself. There were a few morning joggers, and a handful of people who hadn’t gone to bed yet. But mostly, it was just me, greeting the morning on now-familiar streets, even if I still don’t know their names.

As I biked up Prinsengracht, the hour struck 9:00 am. The Noorderkerk and the Westerkerk traded chimes, never quite getting synched up, but providing a brief, happy soundtrack to my morning ride. And in spite of the cold, and the thin layer of frost on my bicycle tire, I couldn’t help but think that spring was in the air…

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Still here…

You may have thought that the blog had gone dark, as it’s been months since my last update. But no, we’re still here. And today, an early Sunday morning in mid-December, while I sit on the couch and watch the sunrise over Amsterdam, I have finally found a moment to come back and say hello.

Shortly after moving here in 2015, I wrote about the contrast between our Everyday Self and our Vacation Self. I was trying, in those early days, to figure out how the adventurous and daring Vacation Self – who helped get me to Amsterdam – could stay present while the hum-drum activities of daily life got sorted out. Since then, I’ve gotten better at balancing these elements of myself, and I try to maintain my traveler’s energy and curiosity, even if it’s just on my daily bike commute. Still, as we wrap up our third year abroad, it is clear that the Everyday Self is running the show.

As much as I’d like to say that my absence from the blog is due to a whirlwind series of vacations and parties and invitations, that’s not entirely true (although there have been some of each of those things). It’s closer to the truth to say that I’ve been busy, and also lazy, and the blog has fallen victim to both of those states. But no more excuses! Instead, here’s a little run-down of what we’ve been up to:

  • The day we returned from Croatia I started an online certificate program in copy editing. The first class focused on grammar and made me even more of a grammar snob than I was before, because now I can explain in detail exactly why your use of the semi-colon is incorrect.
  • At the same time, I’m working more consistently on the Masters program I started several years ago. I was taking a (very relevant) class in intercultural communication. My final paper was submitted yesterday, and I’ll be starting a new class in early January.
  • Language-learning continues! I’m always trying to improve my French, so I’m doing Skype lessons with a French tutor. I’d rather you just didn’t ask about my Dutch, but if you do, I can now say Ik doe echt mijn best.
  • St EmilionOur annual “Thanksgiving” getaway found us in Bordeaux, where we enjoyed some sunshine, lots of great wine, and perhaps the most delicious thing we’ve ever eaten, thanks to our food tour guide, Virginie.
  • Culture! There is something happening all the time in Amsterdam. Thanks to the John Adams Institute, I attended readings by Mohsin Hamid and Colson Whitehead, both of whom wrote books that I loved (and both of whom were surprisingly funny). I finally went to the Paradiso, one of the more famous music venues in the city, and introduced a new friend to the (music of the) brilliant Josh Ritter. We also spent a freezing hour in the Portuguese Synagogue at a candle-lit concert. The Synagogue, completed in 1675, has no electricity (thus, no heat), but is one of my favorite places in Amsterdam.
  • Friends! We had some unexpected visitors some months ago – old friends from Boston who were on vacation in St. Maarten when Hurricane Irma struck. The only flight they could get off the island was to Amsterdam. It was not the vacation they expected, but we did our best to make it memorable. We were also invited to a 40th surprise party recently, and back in October we had a fun but very rainy and dark adventure in the woods with our friends and their 2-month old baby. (The same friends with whom we went wadlopen…I’m starting to see a pattern here.)
  • Food! I’ve discovered and mastered a couple of new recipes, one that involves buying sausage from a butcher at a local market, which is also my weekly experiment in speaking Dutch. And, thanks to my dear husband, who found a small-batch cookie recipe (four cookies!), I now make near-perfect chocolate chip cookies.
  • Fitness! One can’t eat cookies every night without finding that one’s pants suddenly don’t fit the way they used to. Earlier this year, a Boston friend told me about November Project, and though it took me a few months, I finally found my way to the Amsterdam tribe. I’ve been a pretty regular attendee ever since (even this past Wednesday, when it was cold and icy). If you’re a morning person and you live in a city with an NP tribe, check it out. It helps if you’re ok with hugging strangers, too.
  • Bordeaux church

    Christmas! We have a Christmas tree seller literally outside our front door, so I gave in this year and bought a small, table-top tree. Along with a few strands of lights and some fresh greens, it actually feels more like the holiday season.

So that brings us back to this sunny, lazy, Sunday morning. No papers to write or chapters to read or workouts to do. Just some packing, as we’re heading back to Boston on Wednesday for Christmas. And maybe some cookies to bake? It is the season…

 

The end of the experiment

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Sunrise over the sailing school just outside our apartment.

My month-long Amsterdam Instagram project has come to an end. I’m happy to say that I successfully posted a photo every day for #thewholedammonth. To be honest, it was more of challenge than I expected, but I learned a few things along the way:

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Look up! Where the A’DAM Tower meets the EYE

  1. I am not a good photographer. Even though I’m armed with only my iPhone 5S, I can’t blame the quality of the camera. I’m just not good at translating what I see in my head to something worth sharing. I don’t see angles or better perspectives, my pictures are often blurry, and the finished product never looks the way it did inside my brain.
  2. I am not a good photographer, (Part B). In addition to being technically inept, I also noticed that I wasn’t always comfortable stopping and taking (seemingly) random photos. I felt a bit self-conscious, which is ridiculous, since everyone in Amsterdam is taking pictures all the time. Some with selfie sticks. Also, taking a photo is just about the least embarrassing or showy thing one can do in this anything-goes city. I can’t explain my discomfort, but I was aware of it.
  3. Paying attention is hard. In the everyday comings-and-goings of life, you get used to the scenery around you. You can get used to anything, even if you swore at first you’d never tire of it: a peaceful ferry ride, the bike path that passes a windmill, the flower boxes on the canal houses. It’s not easy to snap yourself out of auto-pilot, and try to be more aware of what’s around you. Still…

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    At the OBA, Amsterdam’s public library.

  4. It’s worth it to try. I found I approached my commute and my travels through the city with open eyes. Sometimes I felt like I was wandering around to get a photo of something – anything – to keep the month-long streak alive. (As my dear husband pointed out, by the middle of week two I had photographed every element of my daily commute – I really stretched my bike ride into a Instagram extravaganza.) But at other times, my photo project helped me to be more alert and aware of the small things.

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    Closed for repairs, but still an awesome bridge.

  5. I live in a pretty damn beautiful place. If nothing else, this month was a reminder that Amsterdam is gorgeous. It’s beauty isn’t always showy or grand (much like the Dutch themselves). Instead, there’s a philosophy about everyday objects and landmarks beautiful. Yes, we need a bridge here, and there’s no reason it can’t be a dramatic, swooping arc of red steel, conjuring up a roller coaster ride or the back of a dragon. And yes, of course we need a library, so let’s give it whole walls covered in furry, yellow-green textile, and let’s put a terrace on the 7th floor with a view over the city center. Why not? Everywhere I looked, I saw Amsterdam’s commitment to the idea that city life and civic space can and should be inspiring.

Now that I’m at the end of this effort, the challenge is to try to integrate these lessons into my everyday, even as the remainder of the year picks up speed and starts racing by. Thanks to those who cheered me on and helped me see what’s in front of me.

July: The whole dam month

It’s July 1st, and as of today, we don’t have any travel plans for the coming month. (That could, of course, change at any time. We may just hop a train to…somewhere before the month is out.)

We’ve done a lot of traveling during the past two years. Amsterdam is a great location from which to explore Europe, and we’ve covered Italy, Spain, Portugal, France (multiple times), Denmark, Malta, most of the U.K., Poland, Belgium, Germany. We’ve also seen a lot of the Netherlands, from Maastricht to the mud flats of Ameland. As a result, we have a reputation of always being on the go. Every weekend, a new city! But that’s not the case this month.

So…since we’re staying put in our adopted city, I’ve decided to give myself an assignment for July. It’s a way to make sure that I’m not taking Amsterdam for granted, that I still see the lovely things around me, even if they’ve become everyday sights. For the whole “dam” month, every “dam” day, I’ll be posting a photo from Amsterdam. The daily shots will be on Instagram (@kgkamsterdam, #thewholedammonth, if you want to follow along), and I’ll do my best to collect the photos here, once a week.

As humans, we’re adaptable. We get used to anything, whether it be deprivation and discomfort or luxury and excess. We settle in to our life and our surroundings and we often forget to lift our heads and look around. My July project is a small attempt to counter that tendency; to pay more attention to what’s around me and to share what makes Amsterdam unique and beautiful in my eyes. Enjoy!

Kings, castles, and unexpected elves

I’m already a week behind in reporting on our long and festive four-day weekend! Well, better late than never. We begin on April 27th:  Koningsdag, the Netherlands’ annual celebration of the King’s birthday and all things Oranje. King Willem turned 50 this year and the country celebrated with the usual mix of parades, music, boats, and lots of drinking.

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So. Much. Orange.

Koningsdag is a day like none other. First, it is the one day of the year that you can sell things without a permit, so Amsterdam becomes one giant flea market. Weeks before the holiday, people claim their space on sidewalks, marking their territory with chalk or masking tape. There are some traditional activities: children play music or organize games of chance, hoping to earn some small change. For a euro or two, you can throw eggs at someone who has volunteered for this strange duty.

In the city center, there are stages and DJs and food and drink everywhere. The first year we experienced Koningsday, we were both surprised by the atmosphere and the attitude. When you consider that most people have been drinking (some heavily) for hours, the party is remarkably friendly and festive. This year, we spent the morning in our new neighborhood, which had a festival that covered several blocks. In the afternoon, we met up with some friends in the busiest part of town, just off of the Prinsengracht. After getting through the worst of the crowd, we did have a good time, enjoying the people watching and learning some classic Dutch songs at a corner bar.

Continuing with the royal theme, on Sunday we decided to go to Kasteel de Haar, located outside of Utrecht. A colleague had gone recently and recommended it. Although it involved two trains and either a bus or a bike ride, we figured it was a lovely day for an adventure, and we headed out. I will note that on the Castle’s website, I read that the visiting hours were different due to an event (“Elfia”), but I didn’t think much of it. I really should have paid more attention to that.

In Utrecht, while we waited for the next train, we noticed a number of people in costume. A Hobbit here, a sort of anime-elf woman, there…no theme that I could figure out. When we got off the train in Vleuten, there they all were again. And more. It seemed clear to us now that something was indeed happening at de Haar, and it involved a lot of mythical creatures and very creative costumes.

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Every soldier needs a broodje.

With some help from a young Dutch couple (who were as puzzled by all the costumes as we were), we made our way via shuttle bus to a stop about 15 minutes from the castle. As we walked closer, we saw even more: zombies, British redcoats, guys from Braveheart, angels and demons and teddy bears. By the time we arrived at the entrance, it was clear that this was no ordinary day at the Castle. The Elfia fantasy festival was in full swing, and a visit to the castle would require a €24 festival ticket for each of us. Our curiosity was pretty high, I’ll admit, but not high enough to justify the cost of entry. We gave the elves their victory.

We did manage to rescue the day from complete failure. Another bus ride and a short train ride brought us back to Utrecht, a city we both really enjoy. We found a table in the sun at one of the many lower-level canal-side restaurants, and I enjoyed the season’s first glass of rosé.

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This is as close as we got to the castle.

What I still can’t figure out – and I’ve given it more thought than it merits – is the underlying theme of Elfia. In what universe do Luke Skywalker, fairies, Scottish warriors, Victorian ladies, Harry Potter and zombies co-exist? Maybe I’m looking for something that isn’t there, and, much like Koningsdag, Elfia is a celebration just for the sake of celebrating.

We will make another attempt to visit the Castle. Next time, though, we may try to convince some friends with a car to join us. And we’ll check the website first.

Holy Mole (Enchiladas)*

We’re often asked what we miss about living in the U.S. Other than family and friends, our most common answers involve food. Sometimes it’s a very specific meal from a very specific restaurant, like a slice of Sicilian pizza from Gino’s in Williston Park (my hometown), or the crab cakes at Legal Seafood. At other times, it’s a more general nostalgia for breakfast cereals or unlimited soft drink refills.

The Amsterdam food scene is diverse and vibrant, and always seems to be getting better. We’ve found good Indian restaurants, great Italian, we’ve been introduced to Indonesian…in short, we eat pretty well in Amsterdam. One notable exception is Mexican. Now, I should admit up front that we’ve never actually been to Mexico. We have, however, eaten at restaurants owned by Mexicans, where we were at least led to believe that we had eaten and enjoyed “authentic” Mexican food. We’re also smart enough to recognize that American chain restaurants like On the Border or Chili’s may fit an occasional need, but should not, under any circumstances, be mistaken for Mexican food.

So we don’t have many Mexican options in Amsterdam (although we seem to be drowning in tapas places). One well-known and well-reviewed Mexican restaurant has gotten our business twice, but the service was so bad and the attitude of the staff so off-putting that I don’t want to go back, no matter how good the enchiladas were. And then a friend-in-the-know, a displaced New Yorker who has some expertise in the field of tacos, suggested we check out Mexico Boulevard.

Located in a part of town we’d never visited before, not far from the Amstel and somewhere between the IJsselbuurt and the Rijnbuurt neighborhoods, Mexico Boulevard certainly looked the part of an authentic Mexican restaurant. Steel sculptures of a mariachi band greeted us from the window, and the interior was bright and colorful and comfortable. We received a warm welcome from Jan, the Dutch half of the restaurant’s pair of owners, and we knew that behind the scenes in the kitchen was Ana, who brought her family’s authentic recipes and love of tradition with her from Mexico. (Yes, of course, we looked at the website and the menu before we visited. Doesn’t everyone?) Together, they created the best Mexican meal we’ve had in Amsterdam. Period.

We both had enchiladas; my Suizas Enchiladas had the tangy, acidic bite of fresh tomatillos, and the Enmoladas met my husband’s high standards for mole sauce. The portions were generous and the black beans – which I usually don’t give much attention – were especially good. We paired our food with a couple of glasses of sangria, naturally. No room for dessert, this time, but the lemon cream pie caught my eye. Finally, our long-standing itch for good Mexican food was scratched.

*Credit for the title of this post goes to my husband. “Holy mole” were the first words he spoke after his first bite. That’s how much he liked the mole. And yes, he can be as cheesy as the enchiladas.

Lifelong language learning

We breathe in our first language and swim in our second.

-Adam Gopnik

About 25% of non-Hispanic American adults speak a language other than English well enough to have a conversation. The figures here in the Netherlands tell a very different story: 90-93% of Dutch people speak English, 71% speak German, and 25% are conversant in French. Do the math, and you’ll realize that proficiency in a 2nd and 3rd language is as Dutch as bicycles or bitterballen. It is a reflection of the size of the country (small), its location (surrounded by Germany and Belgium), and its history (global commerce). While I can’t comment on the German skills of Dutch people, I can say that their English is quite good, something that many attribute to television. In neighboring European countries, English-language programs are dubbed in the local language. Here, TV and films have Dutch ondertitels, which means that people hear a lot of English, and that the English spoken by many Dutchies is peppered with British or American slang.

If you grow up in the U.S., a second language is an academic exercise, not a necessity. Many students stumble through high-school level French or Spanish, learning just enough to pass the required test, never really understanding the use or benefit of a second language. In contrast to the modern English spoken by the Dutch, the French I learned in school always seemed from another era: formal, stuffy, a bit archaic. The things we really needed to know – the idioms and everyday expressions that give real-world confidence – were never taught.

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Language apps only teach the most useful phrases, right?

(That said, I will never forget that during my first visit to Paris I was approached by a woman on the street who asked, “Où est la bibliothèque?” It was a text-book question, pulled from one of the endless, useless dialogues we practiced in class, right up there with, “Est-ce que vous voulez jouer au tennis avec moi?” I swear I looked around for my French teacher Madame Clines…it had to be a joke, right? Never in my life have I been so prepared to answer a question.)

For me, language learning has become a life-long pursuit. I’ve shared a lot about my experiences learning French, including the immersion program that I did several years ago. French remains both my favorite language and a constant challenge. I don’t do as much as I should to keep it up. I progress and forget, I have periods of more intense practice and study, and then I’ll go weeks or months without using it at all.

Then there’s Dutch. To be honest, I’m embarrassed that my Dutch is as poor as it is. We don’t plan to stay here forever, and we don’t technically need to speak Dutch, especially in Amsterdam. But after 2 years, I feel like I should know more, or at least try harder. My comprehension has improved a lot, in part because my co-workers often just speak Dutch in front of me. And I know enough to get by. I can introduce myself and read a menu and order a drink and probably ask for directions. But as with my early French lessons, I often feel that the little Dutch I do know is formal and not very useful. It’s the practical, every-day things I miss. Those small expressions and pleasantries that act as social and conversational lubricant. Maybe with a few of those in my pocket I’d be more likely to chat with a neighbor in Dutch, or finally agree to “Nederlands vrijdag” in the office.

In the meantime, at least I’m prepared if anyone in Amsterdam ever asks me about grandparents and farm animals…