What this is about.

This was going to be a post about how, after nearly four years living abroad, my husband and I made the decision to return to the United States. That was in October.

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Ok, so we got a little bit of sun…

Then, in November, this was going to be about our last European adventure: our holiday to Spain and our unsuccessful search for the sun on the famed Costa del Sol.

In December, this was going to be a post about the start of our transition, of spending the Christmas holidays in Boston and getting used to the idea of our return.

By January, this was going to be about farewells, and packing, and reflecting on what we would miss. Oh, and checking things off our Amsterdam Bucket List.

Come February, I could have written about unpacking, readjusting to our house and neighborhood, reconnecting with friends, and rediscovering Boston.

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First time at the Massachusetts State House

March would have brought some variety and excitement. In the middle of our job searches, we took a vacation from this “vacation” and made a quick trip to London and Amsterdam.

And here it is, suddenly, unbelievably, April, and I haven’t told you about any of those things, really.

In the throes of so much change, thinking about this transition–to say nothing of writing about it–has felt like a luxury. Or maybe it’s just hard to reflect on something while you’re still in it. I’ll just say that there is much that is good about being back in Boston. But there is also much I miss about Amsterdam and the life we built there. To borrow a metaphor, I’m in the hallway. We closed one door behind us (for now), and the next door hasn’t opened yet. So I’m hanging out in the hallway, looking for the door, turning knobs, and trying not to let the search distract me from whatever fun and beauty might be lurking in this liminal space.

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Time goes by…

I’m sitting on the couch, looking out on a foreboding, foggy horizon and listening to the wind swirl around our building.  It’s officially winter, the gloomy grey season in Amsterdam, and when you’re in it, it’s hard to call to mind any memories of sun and warmth. But, in my long absence from this blog, there have of course been some adventures, and some lovely moments in the sun. So let’s get caught up. And maybe in the retelling, I’ll recover the feeling of those lazy autumn days.

First stop: Munich, October

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Dressed for strolling, shopping, and sightseeing. Like normal people.

 

If someone tells you they’re going to Munich in October (or, for that matter, September), you can be confident it’s for one reason: Oktoberfest. This year, we made good on a long-standing promise to a friend and joined the six million others who attend the Wiesn every year. Oktoberfest is like no other event I have ever seen. First of all, everything about it is huge. I was totally unprepared for the size of the  Theresienwiese fairgrounds, the size of the tents, and the size of the beers. During the day, there are families enjoying the rides and food, but as the day goes on, the action picks up in the tents.  They call them “tents” but they are enormous buildings with bandstands, and benches and tables for thousands of people.

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Welcome to the tent.

For most of the night, the crowd is up on the benches, dancing and singing and drinking liter after liter of beer. And, as you may have noted in the photo above, there is a dress code for Oktoberfest. We’re always up for an authentic experience, so we dutifully bought and wore our lederhosen and dirndl. Leaving the hotel, I felt completely ridiculous. But honestly, once we were at the Wiesn, we blended right in. You’d stand out more if you weren’t dressed in some variation of the traditional trachten. My husband found his lederhosen pretty comfortable; I can’t really say the same for my dirndl.

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Dressed for Oktoberfest!

On the Saturday night we attended – the last weekend of Oktoberfest – the festival was incredibly crowded and entrance to the tents was being tightly managed. We eventually found a spot at a table outside, with a couple of German women who were enjoying a girls night out. We were later joined by two Italians in their 60s and a group of Argentinian agronomy students in their early 20s. The table became a mash-up conversation of German, English, Spanish, and a bit of Portuguese. We didn’t always understand each other, but the beer and the atmosphere made for a fun night.

 

Oktoberfest has become a destination for tourists, and especially for groups of young people looking to drink to excess while wearing leather shorts. But it still retains some authenticity, especially during the day, when it’s obvious that the Wiesn is a family event and a celebration of the Bavarian culture and heritage.

I’m glad I went. I don’t think I ever need to go back. But if I do, at least I’ve got the outfit.

 

 

 

 

Driving around (and around, and around…) Portugal

Portugal may be best known for its fado music, or its deliciously salty bacalhau, or perhaps for the above-average futbol players that it turns out on a regular basis. On a recent long weekend visit to this lovely country, I discovered another defining trait: roundabouts.

We don’t normally drive much on our travels around Europe; we prefer to stay in the city center and use public transportation. This time around, we wanted to see several inland villages and castles, so a car was the best way to go. Since I am the proud holder of an international driver’s license, I was the designated driver. (An aside: has anyone ever been asked to produce this document for anything? A rental car agency, a law enforcement officer, anything? Is an international driver’s license – valid for only six months – even necessary?) Once we were off the highway, we would encounter a roundabout every 800 meters or so. Some had only two or three exits and could have made do with an intersection. In Lisbon, I had to navigate two concentric roundabouts – an inner and an outer rotary, both with multiple exits. I’ll admit that was not my best bit of driving, but I managed. At least twice, I took the roundabout literally, and just kept driving in circles while my co-pilot did some on-the-fly navigation.

There was another unusual feature of this trip: my dear husband planned almost everything. In conversation with other couples, I have found that the responsibilities for planning a trip fall to one person or the other. In our relationship, I’m almost always the planner. In my husband’s mind, if we have a flight and a hotel, a trip is planned. In my mind, we need a rough idea of the transit system, knowledge of some of the major sites, and a dinner reservation for Saturday night. This time, however, he had places he wanted to visit and had mapped out our route for our four days. I got behind the wheel and went where he and the GPS told me.

Our first stop was the Batalha Monastery, which was breathtaking. The construction began in the late 1300s (!) and the architecture reflects the

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The unfinished chapel at the Batalha Monastery

changing styles used over the 150-year construction period. A portion of the church remains unfinished, with the walls opening up to welcome the sky and the weather and the local birds. The Monastery is also the home of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War; the tomb is watched over by guards and by the battered remains of Christ of the Trenches, a statue of Jesus that Portuguese soldiers carried into battle in Flanders. It was a somber and impressive memorial to the losses that Portugal suffered during the Great War.

We drove on to Coimbra, home of the oldest university in Portugal. We enjoyed a great meal at a local restaurant, and discovered that the owner spent more than 15 years living the Netherlands. We also enjoyed the Portuguese price point: a bottle of wine, two entrees, a shared starter and dessert only cost 42 Euro…a big difference from an average night out in Amsterdam. At the recommendation of our hotel concierge (who was also our bartender, although he preferred “mixologist”) we made time in the morning to visit the university. The student prison is no longer in use, but many of the buildings, including the former palace, are still used for formal university ceremonies.

From there, we went to Fatima, a Catholic pilgrimage site where the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in 1917. (For the non-Catholics or the public school kids, you can get up to speed here.)  In spite of my many years of Catholic education, I know Fatima best from the annual Easter airing of the 1952 film The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. Every Easter Sunday of my childhood, we’d visit family friends before we went to my grandparent’s house. Every year, we’d arrive at their home near the end of the movie, just in time for the scene when Mary appears in a great ball of light, causing the residents of Fatima to panic and assume that the sun was falling.

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The Basilica at Fatima

Fatima today includes a basilica, an enormous plaza, and a series of chapels where masses are held almost non-stop. There were also some odd elements, including beeswax candles in the shape of different organs or body parts. These were sold as offerings; you could purchase the candle that matched whatever illness you had, and then cast the candle (prayerfully) into a large fire. We also witnessed a number of women making the journey from the far end of the plaza to the Visitation Chapel, following a white marble path that they traversed on their knees. A penance of some kind, I assume, but it’s not my particular brand of Christianity. I don’t think that God is terribly interested in intentional suffering.

We moved on to the walled city of Obidos, not knowing that our interactions with the Virgin Mary were not quite behind us. As we sat in a plaza enjoying an afternoon drink,

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Obidos prepares for the procession of Mary

we noticed that the locals were busy with flowers and greenery and votive candles, decorating the town. We learned that in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the end of Mary’s visitations in Fatima, a statue of Mary had been traveling around Portugal since 2017. That night it was Obidos’ turn to host Our Lady. Again, processions and statues of saints in glass boxes are not really my thing, but the preparations were lovely. The small town was quiet. Every home and shop put out candles or statues of Mary, and flowers lined the road. A sense of reverence and anticipation settled over everyone as the sun set. Eventually, the procession moved silently through the streets and we went on our way.

In the morning we drove to Lisbon and had a relaxed day that mostly involved sitting in the Praça do Comércio, or wandering the very hilly streets. We dove into Portugal’s lesser-known culinary heritage and had dinner at a Goan restaurant, where we were told (in our case, reminded) that vindaloo is originally a Portuguese dish.

The other unusual feature of this trip was that my husband occasionally busted out his beginner Portuguese, which I found impressive and delightful. He ordered our lunch in Fatima with no hesitation, and while I know it can be stressful for him to speak Portuguese, the waiter didn’t notice a thing, and we got exactly what we ordered. Mission accomplished!

This was our third visit to Portugal. Years ago we spent time in Lisbon and the Azores, and more recently we went to Porto with some friends from the U.S. This time, we saw more of the inland villages and the landscape. On every visit, I’m amazed by the diverse beauty of the country and the relaxed and easy attitude of the people. Many travelers overlook Portugal, and that’s their loss. Each time we go, I discover more reasons to return.

Lovely Lille

When I told people that I was going to Lille, the most common response I received was something along the lines of, “I’ve passed through there a lot, but never stopped.” This penchant for pass throughs made me a bit skeptical about what I’d find in Lille. But IMG_3915I didn’t need to worry; Lille is a charming small city with lively energy and a rich history.

I was traveling with a girlfriend, so compared to my usual trips with my husband, this weekend featured a bit more shopping, a bit more wine, and a (failed) attempt at spa treatments.

Another change was the mode of transport. Since we booked our Lille adventure very last minute, the train was expensive, so we opted to take the bus. This was my first European bus trip, and it was…okay. More comfortable than I expected, but certainly not the fastest way to get around. Also, at our stop in Ghent, a large group of young men in full cycling kit boarded the bus. The fact that they were seated eight or ten rows apart did not stop them from continuing their conversations. Loudly.

Once we arrived in Lille, the weather and the charm of the city erased all memories of the bus ride. Our hotel was formerly a convent hospital. I’m not sure what the sisters would have thought of the soaring glass ceiling and the plush Tiffany-blue leather chairs in the hotel’s bar area, but I enjoyed them.

IMG_3927Over our two and a half days in Lille, we explored the park around the Citadel, browsed used book markets, discovered canal-side restaurants for relaxed lunches, ate some wonderful confections, visited every church and cathedral in town, and joined the throngs in la Grand Place for a beer in the sunshine.  And, after four attempts (yes, FOUR), we finally managed to gain entrance to the Belfry at Town Hall, the tower that was the one thing on my Lille to-do list. (Because you haven’t seen a city until you’ve seen it from above.) Oh, and as an additional bonus for me, I got to do all of those things in French. It’s always great to have the chance to use my French in the real world, and to see how my memory and my classroom language hold up in the face of actual French people. The verdict? Not too bad!

So, if you’re driving through Lille anytime soon, don’t pass through. Stop for a couple of days and enjoy the scenery and the relaxed pace of tourism. Eat some mussels and fries. Sample the great beers from neighboring Belgium. Learn about Lille’s history. While there may not be a lot to see, there’s much to like in Lille.

Bologna, or How Much Cured Meat Can One Person Eat?

Our usual habit of spending the winter months hiding out from the terrible Dutch weather was observed again this year. We survived darkness, hail, the “Beast from the East”, and code-red-level wind storms, but we emerged on the other side, at the end of March, into a tentative Spring. To celebrate, we made our first trip of the year over Easter weekend, and headed to Bologna, which promised sunshine and some great food. We were not disappointed.

IMG_3836Bologna was an eating trip. Other than me climbing the Asinelli Tower, we had no cultural or sight-seeing plans in place. (If you’re interested: the Tower is a good climb at about 490 steps. Admission is 5 Euro, and entrances are timed and ticketed, so if you’re visiting on a weekend I recommend buying your ticket in advance. I had purchased a ticket for 5pm Friday; by 3pm both Friday and Saturday were already sold out.)

Since our main activity was eating, we booked a food tour, of course. Not just any food tour: this was the mother of all food tours with Italian Days. We found it thanks to my memory of an epic blog post written by Josh and Renee, the fun world-travelers we met (yep, on a food tour) in Berlin, way back in 2016.  You can probably just read Josh’s post, since the tour remains much the same. If it ain’t broke, and all that. The only difference is the tour guide; by his account, Josh’s guide, Alessandro, was a short, bald, 40-something-year-old fellow with boundless energy and a great sense of humor. Our Alessandro – yep, same name – was 26, tall, and had a good head of hair, which he attributes to eating cheese. Same energy and a great sense of humor.

Raising the cheese

After 3 hours of work, the cheese is ready. The whole process is manual; no machines are used.

The tour is exceptional, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Literally EVERY review on Trip Advisor is 5-star. That may be because people write the reviews in a food-induced stupor in the hours after the tour, and they are so sated with pasta and meats and wine (so much wine!) that they write glowing reviews. Even accounting for that, it was a great experience. Fully eleven HOURS went by between the time we were picked up at our hotel and dropped off again. Hours filled by watching master craftsmen create huge wheels of parmigiano reggiano cheese, learning about real balsamic vinegar of Modena, and touring one of the largest prosciutto producers in northern Italy.

Oh, and did I mention the eating? Most of the hours were spent eating: sampling aged cheeses and drinking Lambruso (at 9:17am) with breakfast, enjoying the “prosciutto aperitivo” of at least seven different kinds of cured meats, or settling in for a “light lunch” of three pasta courses, a platter of grilled meat, and a lovely dessert. Throughout this food-fest, Alessandro shared information about the producers and their crafts, and converted us all to the religion of DOP: Denominazione d’Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin. The DOP certification ensures that what you’re buying is from a specific region, and produced in a specific, regulated way.

Our group consisted of thirteen people, including Brits, a Kiwi, and a number of Americans. Everyone was friendly and pleasant and we all ate ourselves silly, encouraged – and sometimes shamed – by Alessandro, who in spite of his age (and gender) perfectly plays the part of the fussing Italian grandmother. By the end of the day, we were stuffed, a little tipsy, taking group photos (“Smile and say “DOP”!) and exchanging hugs. We got back to the hotel and promptly fell asleep. Needless to say, we skipped dinner that night.

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The next day was Easter Sunday and like a good Catholic country, Italy made sure something things were closed. We wandered around the city, and walked up to the Church of San Michele for the views. When we returned to Bologna proper, we ran into some of our fellow food-tour participants and learned we weren’t the only ones who took a long nap and skipped dinner! The rest of the day was filled with strolls through the beautiful covered sidewalks, with lunch and gelato and a few more churches thrown in for good measure. We returned to Amsterdam on Monday morning with our bellies still full and with a huge chunk of 60-month aged DOP cheese in our suitcase. Next time we’ll bring some elastic-waist pants.

Finally, a few quick notes and suggestions:
Italian Days offers food tours in several cities, so check them out the next time you head to Italy!
On the nights we actually ate dinner, we had great meals (though very different) at Antica Trattoria Spiga and Parlor, and would recommend both.
We wandered off the beaten path for our afternoon sweet fix, and were rewarded by the friendly service and delicious gelato at Cremeria Santo Stefano.

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Overlooking Bologna from the Church of San Michele

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…

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…