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!

Copenhagen, or Who Goes North in April?

Looking at our long and ever-growing list of places to visit, Copenhagen seemed like an easy win: it’s close to Amsterdam, everyone speaks English, there’s a lot to see, and the dining scene boasts more than a few darlings of the foodie world. We kept with our habit of planning long weekend trips to coincide with U.S. holidays, and booked for Easter weekend.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect that Copenhagen would be warm and sunny, or that we’d be biking blissfully around the city in t-shirts and shorts. I know that northern European countries have weather patterns all their own. We were prepared for rain and 10 degree weather. We were NOT prepared for 2 degrees. But there’s nothing a few layers can’t solve.  So, wearing almost every item of clothing I had packed, we set out to explore Copenhagen from our base in Vestboro.

(I have to start with a note about the bike situation. In my mind, Copenhagen was second only to Amsterdam in its cycling culture. I was shocked to see that the number of cyclists was nowhere near what we have in Amsterdam. Yes, the city is big, and yes, it was really cold, so maybe that impacted the tally. But there were just a handful of people traveling by bike. The lanes and infrastructure were quite good, but it just reinforced that when it comes to bikes, there is no place on earth I’ve seen that rivals Amsterdam.)

IMG_2986 (2)

St. Alban’s Church, next to the Kastellet

We arrived around lunchtime, so after checking in to our hotel, the first stop was Torvehallerne, a great food market with over 60 vendors offering everything from meats and cheeses to Danish smorrebrod and Spanish tapas. We found Ma Poule, a lovely little piece of France in the middle of Copenhagen, and had a good glass of wine and an amazing duck sandwich. It can be a challenge to find a seat inside the market, but we managed to grab a little table. On warmer days, (or for heartier people) there are picnic tables outside. It’s a great place to shop and graze and assemble your perfect lunch.

After walking around the Kastellet (and, yes, seeing the Little Mermaid, which, frankly, is over-rated), Friday afternoon brought the first of three attempts to get to the Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior’s Church) in the Christianshavn neighborhood. I’ve mentioned before that I like to climb. Finding towers or churches that I can ascend is a standard part of my pre-travel research. When I read about this church and its helix spire with an external staircase, it jumped to the top of my must-do list. Unfortunately, the church hours and the tower hours are not the same. By the time we arrived, the tower was closed.

We woke up to a rainy and windy Saturday and headed to the cisterns in Frederiksberg. Until recently, the cisterns were a museum of modern glass art. Now it is an exhibit and event space; the current exhibit is by Japanese architect Hiroshi Sambuichi. Although the cisterns are a bit out of the way, they are a unique and lovely place to visit, and the park and Frederiksberg neighborhood would be good for a wander.

That afternoon we made another go at the church tower, with hours to spare before closing time, only to find that it was closed due to rain. Sigh.

IMG_3030

The view from the gallery

Easter Sunday dawned clear and dry, but cold. I was worried about the tower being open on Easter, but the helpful hotel staff called to confirm, and we were on our way, hoping the third time was the charm. We arrived to find that I was not the only person in Copenhagen waiting to climb this tower. A long line – one that didn’t seem to be moving much – stretched from the entrance door. I hesitated, but my dear husband insisted. It took about 40 minutes to get inside, but once I started climbing I was surprised by how un-crowded the stairs and the tower were.

The first 300 or so steps are inside the tower, and were a nice, easy climb (although I did hit my head on the way up. And again on the way down.) There is a viewing gallery at the base of the spire, and then a broad staircase that narrows as it winds its way, counter-clockwise, four times around the spire to the top. It was awesome. There is an

IMG_3032

On my way down…

iron guardrail at about shoulder height, and I thankfully do not suffer from any fear of heights. The views were incredible, and being able to climb outside just made me giddy.

The whole trip up and down took about 90 minutes, and (apart from bumping my head) it was easy and painless. And, of course, totally worth the climb.

You can’t go to Copenhagen without seeing or learning something about Danish design, so we set off to the Danish Design Museum and arrived in time for the daily free tour of the current exhibit, The Danish Chair. This 30-minute tour was given by an enthusiastic young woman who spoke near-perfect English. The tour gave a brief introduction to the principles of Danish design, and also helped me understand why and how something as simple as a chair could be so revolutionary. The exhibit itself is beautifully designed (of course), and displays more than 100 chairs in what they called the “chair tunnel”.

IMG_3039

Inside the chair tunnel.

It was also interesting to wander through the museum and see just how many everyday items, from lunchboxes to routers, are influenced by Danish design.

Add in some good meals, another stop at Ma Poule, a self-guided city walk, and a stroll along the harbor in Nyhavn, and you’ve got a weekend getaway in Copenhagen. I imagine that in the summer months the cyclists rule the city and the waterfront restaurants are filled with sun-basking tourists. We may have missed that Copenhagen, but even in the cold of April, we saw some lovely views.

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.

IMG_2942

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…

Looking back on Sicily

IMG_2876

The view from Erice’s medieval fortress.

It’s been about a month since our long weekend trip to Sicily. I’ve started to post about it a few times, never with much enthusiasm. We didn’t love Sicily, to be honest, and it’s been hard to write about it without feeling like I’m being too hard on it, somehow. It’s not as if anything went wrong. We survived our first experience of renting a car (driving in Italy is serious business), had nice weather and some good meals. From Palermo, we drove to Trapani and made our way to Erice, where we toured a medieval fortress and savored the views earned by the sometimes-harrowing route up the mountain.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve been spoiled by the travel experiences we’ve had since we’ve been in Amsterdam. We’ve eaten meals in Tuscany that we’re still talking about two years later, had conversations with 7th-generation winemakers in the Beaujolais region of France, and made friends in Berlin over beer and curry wurst. So when we travel, the bar is a bit high…we’re expecting a magical moment or two, or a great story to look back on.

IMG_2923

The Cathedral in Palermo

 

On the surface, Sicily didn’t provide those moments. Everything was…fine. But “fine”  doesn’t, at first glance, make for much to write about. In the weeks since our trip, I’ve been thinking more about our experience, trying to be more balanced about my impressions. But the truth is that not every place is going to “wow” you, right? Maybe due to weather or language or food or expectations, you connect with some places more than others. It’s not entirely fair, but that’s the reality of travel. I shouldn’t be too hard on Sicily, or on myself.

IMG_2907

Trapani’s coastline

Looking back, we did, actually, have one memorable moment. (Most of the other good memories involve cannoli.) Mid-February is not high season for tourists in Erice, and at times we seemed to have the little town to ourselves. Walking down a side street, we stopped and stood still for a moment and just listened.  Complete silence. Not a dog barking, or a car horn, or a human voice. Just silence, and a little wind. Magic.

 

 

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.

img_2832

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.

img_2793

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?)

img_2839

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…

 

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.