What we’ve been up to…

January is normally a slow, lazy month for us. The short days are grey and uninspiring, and our instinct is to cozy up in our apartment, watch too much television, and (in the evenings) work our way through the international liquor collection we built up from last year’s travels.

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Mid-day, mid-January, from the north side of the IJ River

We did manage to drag ourselves out a few times last month, twice to the annual Amsterdam Light Festival. This is one of my favorite local events. Last year we did the walking route and this year we managed to also do the boat route.

Having experienced both, I have to admit I like the walking route better, in spite of the cold. You go at your own pace, get closer to the art, and have the chance to stop along the way to warm up with some gluhwein. What could be better?

The glass-topped boat tours are a staple of the Amsterdam tourist scene, and we’ve done enough of them to last us a lifetime. When friends come to visit and the weather is good, we opt instead for the Friendship cruises, which offer smaller, open-air boat and on-board cocktails.

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BUT, for the Light Festival we made an exception and boarded our evening cruise with 50-some tourists and locals. We put on the headphones and listened to the guide, and even laughed at some of the jokes made by our “Captain”. Many of the installations I had already seen, at least from a canal-side view. One of the best things about the Light Festival is the first day or two, when the art work is being installed but I don’t know exactly what or where they are. I’ll be on my bike and turn a corner and suddenly there’s a giant bunch of tulips in the canal, changing color and lighting up the water.

img_2819As for the boat cruise, it was nice to see the light installations from the water, as several are meant to be seen, but I think we could have lived without the tourists taking selfies out every window, and the humid, greenhouse-like environment of a glass boat in January. Lesson learned.

We’ve not been great about using our Museumkaarts this year, so in an effort to remedy that, we headed to the Nieuwe Kerk last weekend to see an exhibit about Marilyn Monroe, who would have been 90 years old this year. Neither of us are big fans of Ms. Monroe; we both admitted that we’ve never seen one of her movies from start to finish.

The exhibit was an odd one. I’ve seen a few other exhibits in the Nieuwe Kerk and it’s not my favorite setting. The “new” church was built in the 15th century and it is cold and cavernous. There were costumes from Monroe’s films – the famous dress from the “The Seven Year Itch” making its Netherlands debut – and many of her personal items, including some that I found strange to have kept for so long. (An eyeliner pencil from 1956?)

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The juxtaposition of this sombre space with the sex appeal of Marilyn Monroe didn’t quite work for me. The exhibit seemed to whitewash her difficulties with substance abuse and mental health issues. Still, it was interesting to learn more about her early life and about the many ways she tried to control her own career and image – not an easy thing for a woman of that time to do, especially in Hollywood.

The other thing we’ve been up to is finding a new apartment! Just after we returned from our Christmas holidays, the owners of our current rental confirmed that they planned to sell the apartment this year. So…on the move again! The good news is that we’ve become experts in the Amsterdam expat rental market, and were able to find a new place in about a week. We have already gotten the keys and will be moving over the next few weeks. The new place does have a guest room, of course, and visitors are welcome!

The end of the month brought the launch of my company’s new website, a project I was working on for a long time (you can check it out at http://www.idafoundation.org), and the booking of our first weekend getaway in 2017: Sicily!

As the days get longer, we’ll be settling in to our new neighborhood and looking forward to the brightening spring that can’t be far off…

 

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2017

On more than one occasion during my childhood, my mother managed to squash her children’s potential birthday meltdown by reminding us that, “If you cry on your birthday, you’ll cry all year long”.

I never really believed her, but I seem to have internalized the idea just the same. Only I apply it to New Year’s Day. I’m not one for New Year’s Eve parties or resolutions or grand plans for the year ahead. But I do think it’s important for the year to be well-begun, and I’ve long believed that January 1st can set the tone for what is to come.

If I continue to believe that, then 2017 is not looking promising. It’s 3:40pm as I write this and I’ve been in bed most of the day. Any plans for New Year’s Day have been thwarted by a continuing cold. The “12 days of Christmas” we spent in the U.S. were not filled with lords a leaping or ladies dancing, but rather with boxes of Kleenex and endless doses of NyQuil. It was not how I wanted to spend our limited time with family and friends. Thankfully, I managed to keep most of our appointments and dinner dates, but I didn’t feel fully present for some of them, lost in a haze of medicine or struggling from a lack of sleep.

And now we’re back in Amsterdam, another year having gone by. In spite of all the public loss and the political disappointment, 2016 was a good year for us personally. We traveled a lot, hosted visiting family, made new friends and deepened other relationships.

If I take a glass-half-full approach, maybe the year is not off to such a bad start. After all, I’m well-rested, I finished a book, spent time with my husband, and finally posted something here. There are still a few hours in the day to email old friends, work on my French studies, and make a nice meal. Not a terrible way to begin a new year, right?

If nothing else, 2017 will be a year of uncertainty. If you’re anything like me, you may be wondering what we can do to be a force of reason and goodness in an uncertain world. As I do every year, I turn to my favorite New Year’s poem and its reminder that we need to “stay alert, reach out, speak when not spoken to…”. Training starts today. Happy 2017.

New Year’s Resolution
Philip Appleman
Well, I did it again, bringing in
that infant Purity across the land,
welcoming Innocence with gin
in New York, waiting up
to help Chicago,
Denver, L.A., Fairbanks, Honolulu–and now
the high school bands are alienating Dallas
and girls in gold and tangerine
have lost touch with Pasadena,
and young men with biceps and missing teeth
are dreaming of personal fouls,
and it’s all beginning again, just like
those other Januaries in
instant replay …
But I’ve had enough
of turning to look back, the old
post-morteming of defeat:
people I loved but didn’t touch,
friends I haven’t seen for years,
strangers who smiled but didn’t speak–failures,
failures. No,
I refuse to leave it at that–because
somewhere, off camera,
January is coming like Venus
up from the murk of December, re-
virginized, as innocent
of loss as any dawn. Resolved: this year
I’m going to break my losing streak,
I’m going to stay alert, reach out,
speak when not spoken to,
read the minds of people in the streets,
I’m going to practice every day,
stay in training and be moderate
in all things.
All things but love.

No turkey, but tapas

There’s no Dutch equivalent of our American Thanksgiving, but that’s not going to stop us from celebrating with a long weekend getaway. We’re off to Madrid, so our Thanksgiving dinner will include patatas bravas instead of mashed potatoes. It won’t be a traditional meal, but living abroad has taught me that the trappings of a holiday matter a whole lot less than the person with whom you share the holiday. This year, as always, I’m grateful for my generous, patient, and loving husband, who has made this adventure abroad possible. (And who will have his patience tested by the horrible Spanish I am about to unleash on the good people of Madrid.)

Many believe that gratitude is something that can be taught, or cultivated. I don’t think it is a natural state for most of us. And in difficult or stressful times, it can seem that we have little for which to be grateful.

I’ve written many times (too many?) here about David Whyte’s remarkable book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. I return to it over and over and always find just what I need, or just what I didn’t know I needed. Here he is on gratitude:

Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously, part of something, rather than nothing.

It isn’t about cataloguing a list of what we’re thankful for – though that never hurts – but about paying attention and being alert to the wonder in the simplest acts of our lives.

Thankfulness finds its full measure in generosity of presence, both through participation and witness. We sit at the table as part of every other person’s world while making our own world without will or effort, this is what is extraordinary and gifted, this is the essence of gratefulness, seeing to the heart of privilege. Thanksgiving happens when our sense of presence meets all other presences. Being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention.

Wherever you are on Thanksgiving, whether you’re celebrating or not (or wishing you were) I hope you’ll join me in an effort to pay attention, and to cultivate a sense of presence. Although my seat at the table is far away from family and friends, I am grateful that we are all part of each others’ world.

It’s October Already?

Well, not quite yet, but by the time I write and post this, it may be.

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A lovely sunset to enjoy on my commute home…September is so pretty

September has gone by in a blur and I’ve fallen far behind. I haven’t told you anything about our wonderful trip to Lyon, or how amazing the weather has been for the past few weeks, or how my longest race to date (10 miles!) went, or that I’ve (finally!) re-started my graduate program and I’m taking a fascinating class in negotiation and mediation. Add in ongoing training for a 1/2 marathon, general life administration, and a full day, company-wide event that was about 5 months in the planning, and you’ve got my September.

But…I’m not going to tell you anything about anything right now. I think I’m just going to ride out the rest of September and start again when October rolls around this weekend. The wonderful Indian Summer has officially ended in Amsterdam. The windswept rain came in today, with more predicted for Saturday and Sunday. So I’ll make a cozy weekend of it, and settle in to write, maybe with a cup of gourmet hot chocolate sent from the other side of the world by a friend we made in Berlin. I’ll tell you about that, too.

Until then, enjoy what’s left of September, my favorite month. It’s been a good one this year, and I’m grateful for that.

The view from up here

I’m taking a quick break from all the running talk to share what may have been my sportiest, most active day ever, at least since I’ve been in Amsterdam. Last Saturday started like most other Saturdays, with my regular group training run, although due to the heat and my plans for the evening (more on that in a second), I cut my run short. While the rest of the group logged 18km, I finished up at 13km. After a casual bike ride to a lovely lunch, and some afternoon down time, it was off to the newly opened Lookout at the Amsterdam Tower. But this was no touristy sight-seeing visit. This was business.

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Every day, I ride that little ferry in the bottom right corner, crossing to Noord. Lucky me.

A few months ago, a friend introduced me to Rocycle, a “party on a bike” spin class that had recently come to Amsterdam. Although I had wondered at the time why anyone in this bike-crazy city would be interested in a spin class, I have to admit that it was a lot of fun, and a great workout. I’m not even close to being a regular at the spin studio, but I am on the Rocycle email list. I read that they were hosting a rooftop sunset ride at the A’dam Tower, raising money for the A’dam Music School. And I wanted in.

To loosely paraphrase the very funny Kristin Newman in her memoir/travelogue “What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding”, sometimes you have to do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it. This seemed like an only-in-Amsterdam experience, and I wanted to be a part of it.

I wasn’t in the best of shape for the Rocycle workout, to be honest. My legs were tired from the morning run and I couldn’t find (or keep) the pace for some of the combinations. But I didn’t worry too much about that…I just looked out over the IJ River, and watched the sunset, and felt the wind whipping around us, and knew that this was a true Amsterdam experience that I would not soon forget, even if it left me sore and sweaty.

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And off we rode, into the sunset…

 

(Definitely Not) Born to Run

I have a love/hate relationship with running. As a tall, gangly, pre-teen, I got feedback from my softball coach about my running style. My long legs didn’t result in a long stride, and after getting a hit, I was often arriving at the base just before the ball. Family being what it is, my siblings translated my coach’s criticism into, “You run funny”, and after hearing that a few times, I decided I would do whatever was necessary to avoid running.

Avoidance worked for a long time. My teen years were focused on volleyball, which brought its own challenges to my still-gangly body. My high school boyfriend was an accomplished long-distance runner who did his best to get me to join him, without success. I was too self-conscious, and also too other-conscious. His speed, stride, and overall energy for running embarrassed me. I can say now what I couldn’t see then: that his running was strong and beautiful and desperate, given all he was trying to outrun. Running probably saved his life.

As an adult, cycling became my primary sport. On the bike, I felt coordinated, capable, and fast. I started cycling long distances. I completed the 3-day Boston-NY AIDS Ride in 1999 and 2000, both of which were transformative events. After a few years and a few more multi-day cycling events, I started to look for something new. (I do that a lot, I’ve been told.) I didn’t want to stop cycling completely, but I wanted more of a challenge. I wanted to push myself and feel the same sense of accomplishment I had after the AIDS Ride. Somehow, I landed on My Next Thing: triathlon.

I’m a decent swimmer, and that’s the shortest part of the tri, anyway, so I knew I could train and get ready for that leg. The biking would be easy. But, there it was, the last hurdle of triathlon, lurking at the tail end of the race, taunting, daring me to come for it: running.

I found list of area triathlons and picked a sprint-distance race in Lowell, MA that August. I then set out to become a runner. I approached running with a rational, almost academic attitude (I do that a lot, too, I’ve been told). I got Runner’s World magazine from the library. I joined my local running club and their weekly “Walk to Run” program. And I started running.

It was awful. It hurt. I couldn’t breathe. I got side stitches. I was slow, plodding. I hated it.

And it pretty much stayed that way for years, even as I kept on running and doing triathlons. I became a regular at the women-only Title 9 Triathlon, and even recruited family and co-workers to race with me. I would train and prepare, and every year, the run would suck. I would lose time, have no energy, and usually give up and end up walking (just for a minute or two). It never got better, or easier.

For the 2013 race, I had a new strategy. I embraced the suck. The run was going to be rough no matter what, so what was the point of “saving my legs” during the bike? I went all-out, aiming to finish in an hour and 25 minutes, which would be a personal best. With only a mile to go on the run, I checked my watch and calculated that I was close to hitting my goal time, but only if I kept on running. As the photo shows, (you can see most of the clock over my shoulder) I crossed the finish line at 1:25:17, 4th in my group.

Title9 2013 finish

Little did I know that about 6 months later, I would be sidelined with plantar fasciitis, a common and incredibly painful injury which, at its worst, felt like someone was jamming an ice pick straight up my heel. It took over a year to recover, including several months of physical therapy. I gave up on running, feeling that I finally had a good excuse not to run. I wasn’t interested in risking a relapse for an activity that I didn’t enjoy in the first place.

It was winter 2015 when we moved to Amsterdam, and the walking and biking was enough to keep me fit. Another year went by without any running. And then, at a work event in January of this year, maybe over a beer or two, a friend convinced me (“I’ll do it if you do it…”) to join the company team in a road race in September. The Dam to Dam is a 16 kilometer – that’s 10 miles for you non-metric folks – race from Amsterdam to Zaandam. At the time I was coerced into participating, I had never run further than 7 miles in my life.

And here we are, less than four weeks away from the Dam to Dam, and I am a runner. Again. Or maybe at last. I connected with a running group (old habits) and have been training three times a week. Last week I ran 17.6 km. In the course of one of my long Saturday runs, I decided that I would also do the Amsterdam Half Marathon in October, because, why not?

The truth is that I am enjoying running for the first time. Maybe it’s the group and the support. Maybe it’s the short hop from our apartment to the Vondelpark, where I do my weekday workouts in the peace and stillness of the early morning. Maybe all the biking got me in better shape, so the running is easier on my body. I probably still run funny. (Who doesn’t?)

In the past when I ran, I would think primarily about how much I hated running, which was not terribly productive. Now, I run without music, and that gives me a lot of time and space with my thoughts. But more on that next time…it’s taken me about as long to write this as it does for me to run 10km (I’m still slow and plodding) and I need to get up early for an interval workout.

One foot in front of the other…

 

Dutch lessons, take 2

Hoi allemaal!

Yes, that’s right, more than a year after my first attempt at Dutch, I am back in the classroom. Today was day 2 of a five-day intensive program, with classes from 9am-4pm. As tiring as it is, I think it’s a better format for me than the twice-a-week evening classes we tried last year. It also helps that I’m not working, so I can focus all of my attention on the class and the homework. (Except, of course, for small breaks like this…!)

I’ve written several times before about Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of my favorite writers, and his beautiful, true reflections on the difficulty of learning another language. He and I have been pursuing our adult study of French for about the same amount of time, and I have seen my own experiences mirrored in his. Progress, then setbacks. Mistakes, then breakthroughs. The joy of having a real conversation, and thus a deeper interaction, in another language. Never feeling quite at home, but getting more comfortable.

French, however, was easier in comparison, since I at least had some old, cob-webby memories of vocabulary and grammar from my high school days. But with Dutch, I have no frame of reference, nothing I can dust off. Everything is new, and much of it is difficult. Being in a level 2 class means that the other students have various experience with and exposure to the language. Those with Dutch partners or spouses have an extra advantage. Ditto the South African student who speaks some Afrikaans. Sometimes I feel like the slowest person in the class, struggling to remember a simple word or the correct sentence structure.

In those moments, I remind myself, again, of one of Ta-Nehisi’s many truths:

“There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.”

The class ends on Friday and then it’s back to work on Monday, ready or not, where I will be held to account by many Dutch coworkers who are anxious to judge my progress (and correct my mistakes). Here’s hoping I can show some improvement by then…!