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…

 

Happy Thanksgiving, America

It is a clear, crisp November morning. Sunny, for now, though it’s early and clouds are inevitable. In a few hours most of the east coast of America will wake up and, groggy, pop a turkey in the oven and start preparing that most American of meals, Thanksgiving Dinner.

In Amsterdam, it is an ordinary Thursday morning. The minds of the Dutch – children especially – are focused on Sinterklaas and December 5th.

And so we make our own holiday this year. No attempts to find or buy a turkey, no “orphan dinner” with other expats, no pumpkin pie, no Macy’s parade. Instead, we’ll be heading to the airport and hopping a flight to Malta. No real reason to go to Malta, except that it’s there, it’s close, and it’s warmer than Amsterdam. We’ll spend Thanksgiving wandering around a place we’ve never been, together. We’ll have dinner at a brasserie. Or maybe Italian. Tomorrow we will be more adventurous and spend a day at the Maltese Falconry Center. Black Friday indeed.

Wherever you are today, wherever this finds you, and whatever you’re celebrating, may it be a wonderful day. If you can read this, if you are somewhere warm and dry, if there’s food in the fridge and some money in the bank, if friends or family are within reach, then there is reason for gratitude and thanksgiving.  Today. Every day.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Few words, less wisdom

Once again, I’ve been absent for a bit…nearly 3 weeks, according to the helpful stats provided by this site. The time seems to pass more quickly now, as it always does this time of year. Maybe it’s the shorter days and the lack of daylight.

That’s not to say the time hasn’t been full. We had a wonderful and long-awaited visit from my sister and brother in law last week. Although, as I’ve done with other guests, I struggled with my desire to give them a “perfect” visit. I want people to have fun, to see the city as I do, to experience some off-the-beaten-path secrets of Amsterdam. I don’t want anyone to leave with regrets, things unseen. And so I probably err on the side of over-scheduling, and end up running my guests ragged, when they would be just as happy to sit in a cozy café with a beer or two. Lesson learned.

The weeks between my posts have also brought some sadness, on both a global and personal level. Along with the rest of the world, we watched events unfold in Paris last Friday night, and saw a much-loved city under siege. I generally steer clear of politics here, and I have no particular wisdom to offer up. I have only the hope that we (and our leaders) have learned from the mistakes of the past when it comes to our response to terror; that we choose to turn away from fear and allow the more generous parts of ourselves to direct our actions.

On that same awful Friday, I learned that a colleague – a young, vibrant, and warm woman – had gone into premature labor. Her baby was delivered safely but she had a health crisis and fell into a coma. She passed away on Monday evening. Only a week earlier, I had commuted home with her, as I often did. It was her last day of work and she was excited about starting maternity leave. She and her husband were scheduled to move to a new home and were ready to welcome their child.

It is unbelievable to me that she is gone. To die in childbirth is something from another time, at least in the developed world. I know too well that maternal mortality globally is a critical issue, and that giving birth is, in some places, a very dangerous undertaking. But here? In Amsterdam? In 2015?

These losses – a colleague, safety (real or perceived), time, balance – accumulate. Sometimes it seems that there is little we can say to lighten the burden. Maybe it is enough to be present – with ourselves and with others – and let our presence speak.

 

La grève, Dutch style

Earlier this week it was announced that there would be a public transportation strike in Amsterdam and Utrecht. It would involve the GVB, the Gemeentelijk Vervoerbedrijf, a private corporation owned by the City of Amsterdam, and the provider of municipal public transport. The strike would affect the metro, trams and buses but not – critically – the free GVB ferries that run across the IJ River.

I use any number of these modes of public transport daily, so I was interested in the details of the strike. It was planned for a Thursday morning, from 5AM until 8:30. As in, 8:30AM. That’s right, it was a 3 1/2 hour strike. Mon Dieu. This struck me as a particularly Dutch way to go on strike. Just long enough to cause some minor disruptions, but not enough to really screw up anyone’s day. A rather polite strike.

Last weekend, friends traveling by train from Paris to Amsterdam were delayed a day when the Belgian train workers declared a 24-hour strike. And if you’ve spent any time in France, you’re well acquainted with la grève. I don’t know the success rate of these actions. I don’t pretend to know enough about the history or the politics that lead workers to strike, or the economics that dictate if or how strikes are resolved. I know that for a full day, a lot of people who don’t give much thought to the salaries or employment conditions of Belgian train workers were thinking of just that.

Expecting that the regional buses that take me to work would not be running on Thursday morning (they were), I opted to cycle to the office, even though the evening commute promised to be a rainy one. The ride home was unpleasant, but I kept hearing echoes of our Scottish tour guide from a few weeks back: you can only get wet once.

Even with the inconveniences that a strike causes, I suspect that most of the general public can sympathize with the workers. For a day or a few hours, we consider those often-invisible people who keep the world working. We remember, as the Book of Common Prayer so beautifully reminds us, “…that our common life depends upon each other’s toil”.

My first Dutch birthday

Yes, that’s right: vandaag is het mijn verjaardag.  (I’m not sure about that “het” and if it’s necessary…my Dutch is elementary, at best.)  But this is my first birthday here in the Netherlands! Today I have an all-day off-site meeting with a large group of colleagues, and then an evening event that involves dinner and glow-golf. All of this was planned independently from my birthday, but I have to admit it will be nice to have something fun to do, and I like my coworkers very much. So maybe not how I would have chosen to spend the day, but I’m looking forward to it just the same.

Yesterday I met my obligation to bring sweets for my colleagues. I finally figured out the right baking setting on my weird combi-oven and managed to make a delicious chocolate bundt cake and a couple of batches of chocolate chip cookies. Several people asked me for the recipe for the cookies, which I found funny, since every American knows exactly where to find the recipe for Nestle Toll-House cookies. (Birthday confession: I am eating the leftover cookies for breakfast as I type this. But hey, it’s my birthday, and I get to do what I want. Just for today.)

One of the many opportunities that birthdays give us is the chance to look around at the life we’ve built (and are building) and, more importantly, at the relationships that sustain and enrich that life. I woke up this morning to birthday greetings from Australia, Pakistan and Malaysia. It’s a wonder to me that my circle could ever have spread that far, and I am amazed and grateful for the people that I count among my friends.

Soon I’ll head off to the day’s meeting, and I’ll be greeted with the traditional Dutch birthday congratulations and the sometimes-awkward three kisses. I will do my best to pay attention and make sure that I remember this birthday, my first in my adopted home town. As far as I may be from home, I am never far from friends.

Cross-cultural baking

After an unbroken string of 5 gorgeous, sunny days, today we get our comeuppance. It is 13 degrees. It is raining. And not just normal rain – this is the wind-swept, sideways, blow-your-umbrella-inside-out sort of rain.

We have friends in town and we did our best to brave the elements and do some exploring this afternoon, but the weather got the best of us. We were soaked through in just a few minutes, and there wasn’t a table to be found at any of the warm and cozy-looking cafés. So we surrendered. Returning to the apartment, I decided it would be a great day to do some baking. Chocolate chip cookies would make everything better. We took a quick inventory, made a list, and headed back out into the wild rain for provisions.

Well. I suppose I should have expected this, but my local grocery store does not have even half of the things you need for Toll House cookies. No chocolate chips. No vanilla extract. No baking soda. No brown sugar. So, Mission: Cookie was a failure. As a back up plan we grabbed some instant brownie mix. The box actually has an American flag on it and says “1-2-3 pakket voor Americans”, so it’s obviously made for expats like me, in search of a little taste of home, who can’t be bothered to do more than add water to dry brownie powder. It even comes with its own little paper baking pan, so you don’t need to dirty a dish.

The brownies have just come out of the oven. The tops were starting to burn, although I suspect they are still undercooked. The rain continues, and from my seat at the kitchen table I can see that it’s falling sideways again. We are warm and dry and relaxed, if a little restless. The brownies will make everything better.

India!

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Mumbai skyline as seen from my (very fancy) hotel.

Greetings from Mumbai – my first visit to India! It’s always amazing to me where life takes me. I never expected to find myself here. In truth, I was always somewhat ambivalent about India. I’ve read a higher-than-average amount of Indian literature, so my impressions were colored by stories of family, struggle, striving, and the thread of magic that runs through so many Indian narratives. Though fictional, these books gave me a view into a rich and fascinating culture that made me very curious.  At the same time, I assumed that the magnitude of India – the sheer numbers of people, and of cars; the noise and the poverty –  would be overwhelming. For some reason, I failed to see that both of my impressions could be correct.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I do not think I’m really “experiencing” India. Today is the last day of a 5 day trip, and I’ve spent most of that time at a work-related conference at a 5-star hotel. I’ve spent 2 days in my company’s office, and the care and hospitality I’ve received from these colleagues is exceptional. It shames me to think that in the US we rarely bother to offer a glass of water to a visitor to our workplace. In contrast, I’ve had everyone from the Managing Director on down fussing over me and making sure I am comfortable.

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Gateway of India.

In spite of the fact that I’m not feeling great, I insisted on getting out of the hotel last night. I’m lucky to be traveling with a coworker who lived in Mumbai for about a year. We took a black and yellow taxi to the Gateway of India, where I went through the least secure security line the world has ever known. We walked to a famous kebab shop and had some snacks, including goat brain. I passed on the brain and stuck to the chicken.

What you can’t help but notice is that Mumbai is on the move. There are people everywhere, out at every hour of the day. Things don’t seem to stop. There are high-rise apartments being constructed amid shacks. The gap between the rich and poor is not surprising, but the proximity of one to the other is. Perhaps there’s just no space for gated communities and walled-off compounds for the wealthy.

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Gateway of India.

I also feel totally unprepared for India, in terms of my understanding of both the history and the current situation here. I feel like I’m missing a lot, and not really absorbing what I am seeing. Without context, it’s a hard place to make sense of. Still, I can see how it is a place that gets inside of people. I suspect that the warmth of the Indians and the strange beauty of the city will linger in my memory.

Tonight, after a full day in the office and a party to celebrate the 10th anniversary of my company’s presence here, I’ll board a 12:50am flight back to Amsterdam, via Zurich. I will be glad to get home and rest. But I am also thankful for this opportunity that my life and my work offered me: to experience a place that had loomed in my imagination for so long, and to experience it with and through those who love it.