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.

The Capital of Christmas

Last December, just before heading back to the US for the holidays, we took a quick weekend trip to Paris. Somehow we had spent the whole year in Amsterdam without ever jumping on the Thalys, and I was determined that we would get to France before 2015 ended. It was unseasonably warm, making what is already a great strolling city even more irresistible. We told ourselves we were going for the Christmas market, but to be honest, the setup along the Champs Elysee was disappointing: tacky, touristy, over-lit stalls hawking cheap ornaments and barbe a papa. We enjoyed Paris (because, after all, it’s Paris), but we didn’t feel like we had the traditional European Christmas experience we were looking for.

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Well, we more than made up for that error this year, when we chose to go to Strasbourg, the “Capital of Christmas”.  Strasbourg claims the oldest Christmas market in Europe – theirs began, they say, in 1570. I don’t know what it was like back then, but today it is a well-organized event that consumes Strasbourg’s Grande Ile, bringing in about 2 million visitors over a 4-week period. And, as we were told by the charming 4th generation wine maker we met, 1 million of those visitors will be carrying a cup of gluhwein.

imageGluhwein is a mulled and spiced wine, which we first encountered here in Amsterdam last winter. On a cold winter afternoon or evening, it is just what you want to warm you up. The selling of gluhwein in Strasbourg is so organized that there are standardized plastic cups used by every vendor. You pay a 1 euro deposit for the first one, and then every time you buy another glass, you swap your old cup for a new one. The used cups are picked up every night, washed and redistributed the next day.

We learned this and lots of other fun facts during our almost-2-hour adventure with Food and City Tours. We’ve gotten a bit hooked on food tours, and they’ve become our preferred way to get to know a city. Our culinary tour of the Christmas market was led by Virginie, who was friendly and charming and very knowledgeable. At 4pm on a Saturday, the market is wall-to-wall people, and Virginie did a great job navigating our group of 10 through the very crowded lanes. We enjoyed gingerbread, kuglehopf cake, butter cookies, and, of course, gluhwein (this time, made with white wine). Virginie introduced us to the merchants, bakers, and winemakers, and shared some of their history and expertise. This kind of personal interaction is usually a highlight of any food tour. Why travel if not to meet and talk with other people?

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As beautiful and festive as the city is, the crowds can be overwhelming.  We enjoyed Strasbourg the most when we wandered away from the crush and found some quiet corners. My favorite discovery was the Church of St. Pierre le Jeune. Compared to the long entrance line and marked visitor paths at the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, this church was peaceful and let us wander at our own pace.

The Cathedrale, of course, has its own beauty, especially the exterior.  We learned that there are building ordinances in Strasbourg to limit the height of any new buildings; nothing can be taller than the Cathedrale. Its spire can be seen from any point in the city and from miles away.

We left Strasbourg with the expected souvenirs: Christmas ornaments, decorations, cookies, and gingerbread. We also had a few surprises sneak into our bags: new French books for me (hooray for FNAC!) and a Portuguese chorizo. Portugal was the featured guest country at this year’s Christmas market, and we took advantage of this little piece of Portugal in the middle of France. (The chorizo caused some trouble at airport security, but the French know how to deal with a saucisson.)

I left Strasbourg fully in the Christmas spirit – the city pulls out all the stops, so it would have felt ungracious not to go along. It takes its name and its primacy seriously: the Capital of Christmas does not disappoint. Go, enjoy, eat and drink, shop and stroll, and soak up Christmas in all its wonder.

 

We get cookin’ in Madrid

Is it fair to let the weather color your impression of a city? We’re just back from our three day getaway in Madrid, and we had almost non-stop rain. We were prepared with good rain gear – we DO live in Amsterdam, after all – but it definitely dampened our spirits and our desire to explore the city in our usual, wandering, “let’s see where this street takes us” way.

Still, we couldn’t spend the whole weekend in the hotel. Thankfully Madrid has plenty of charming corner cafes where you can stop in for a plate of jamon and a glass of wine. Or a cup of thick hot chocolate and some churros, when “sweet” wins out over “savory”. And while it’s probably a terrible thing to admit, we didn’t go to the Prado Museum, or any art museum. What did we do, other than eat churros?

We did a quick tour through the Palacio Real, and saw the table where King Juan Carlos I signed his abdication papers, elevating his son, the current King Felipe VI, to head of state.

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Take the stairs at the Palacio de Cibeles

We visited the gorgeous Palacio de Cibeles, a former post office, now a cultural center with art exhibits and public reading spaces. (Tip: skip the elevator and take the elaborately tiled winding stairs.) We escaped the rain for a few hours by ducking in to the Naval Museum, where we saw the Mappa Mundi, a beautifully drawn map of the known world, created in 1500. Since most of the museum’s interpretive information was in Spanish, we missed out on some of the juicier details, especially about the map’s creator and his tragic end.  And even though it kept on raining, we took a slightly muddy stroll around Retiro Park and visited the Palacio de Cristal.

(An aside: For reasons I cannot explain, the Park was overrun by Mormon missionaries. We saw no fewer than 4 pair of them, and I swore to talk to the next team of Elders we encountered, mostly to find out why there were so many of them. Both in the Park, specifically, and in Madrid, more generally. And why they didn’t seem to speak any Spanish. Unfortunately, no more crossed our path and I’m left to live with more unanswered Mormon questions. So it goes.)

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You can’t see the Mormons but trust me, they’re there…

But the highlight of the trip came near the very end, on Saturday evening. In the past year or so, we’ve started looking for food tours when we travel. Food tours are a great way to find some hidden gems, learn about a city’s history and gastronomic culture, and get recommendations from a local guide. Our beer and currywurst tour in Berlin was great, and introduced us not only to the wonders of currywurst, but to some lovely new people. We were looking for another tour in Madrid when my dear husband suggested, instead, a cooking class.

If you know me, you’ll know I’m not much of a cook. I am a baker. Give me recipes and measuring cups and clear instructions and I’ll give you a delicious chocolate cake or the best florentine cookies you’ve ever had. But cooking? Too much approximation. A “pinch” of this? “Season to taste”? Whose taste? Cut the onion how?

But vacations are opportunities for adventure, right? And so we found ourselves in a bright, well-equipped kitchen with one other couple, turning out 5 traditional Spanish tapas dishes. (Four are below; not pictured: the crema catalan for dessert. Oh, and the sangria.) The instructions were clear, the recipes were relatively simple (even for me!), and everything was delicious. Especially the tortilla espanola, which is NOTHING like what most Americans think of when they hear “tortilla”. We left with full bellies, a copy of all of the recipes, and the seed of an idea for a Spanish-themed party.

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We made this! (Ok, well, half of it.)

Did we give Madrid a fair shake? Or did we let the rain and wind and cold get to us, so we failed to see the best of the city? Is it like the stranger you meet who could have been your soul mate, if not for the fact that you met at the podiatrist’s office, or at a funeral? Circumstances matter, environment matters – there’s no escaping that. So we gave Madrid our best, under the circumstances, and we’ll extend some generosity to Madrid, knowing that she wasn’t at her best. Maybe we’ll go back, maybe we’ll move on to another part of Spain, in the spring, when we’re sure the sun will be shining. Until then, we’ll be making sangria and cookin’ up some tapas.

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.

Too much

That’s about the best I’ve got right now…it’s all just too much. Too much time has gone by since I’ve written anything here. Too much reading, discussing, worrying. Too much is happening in the world. Too much to process or to begin to understand. Too much distraction, though some of it welcome. Too much uncertainty, too much at stake. Here in Amsterdam, too much rain.

Everyone with an opinion and an internet connection has weighed in on the results of the US election, and what might happen next. Some of it has been honest, clear-headed, and helpful; some not. I don’t think adding my still-forming thoughts to the ever-growing body of commentary would benefit anyone. I will say that experiencing the election from overseas has been unexpectedly hard.

Weeks before the election, we planned to join friends at the Kurhaus Hotel in Den Haag for the traditional “Who’s the President?” Breakfast. Allowing for the time difference with the US, the party starts at 5am Wednesday with wall-to-wall CNN coverage and a buffet of bacon, eggs, and donuts. Lots of donuts. We had a lovely dinner the night before with our friends, complete with American flag table decorations. Total strangers approached us to express their concerns about the election and to ask who we voted for. We stayed overnight in the Kurhaus and I went to bed hopeful, but, (if I’m honest), worried.

The alarm woke us at 4:15 and we were in the ballroom by 5am, joining several hundred expats, military personnel, and some Dutch journalists. I took one look at the numbers on CNN and thought, “This is not good. It’s too close.” And the morning got worse from there. Over the course of the next few hours, it slowly dawned on everyone in the room (and most/many expats lean Democrat) that we were at the worst party ever. Inexplicably, there was a band at this event – five 20-somethings in suits playing standards and light jazz. I think we heard “The Girl from Ipanema” at least twice – a song I hate under the best of circumstances. I remarked to a friend that this must be what it felt like to listen to the orchestra play as the Titanic sunk.

Just after John Podesta told the Hillary supporters in New York to go home and go to bed, we called an end to our party, as well. Instead of going to bed, it was off to work (it was 8am, after all), where I had a day of commiserating with my 2 American colleagues, fighting with a Swedish coworker about vote rigging, and generally trying to make sense of America. Which I’ve been doing ever since.

Dutch people often ask us what we miss about America. Other than my family and friends, there’s really not much. It’s not like we live in rural China – most of what we want or need we can find here. (Although my dear husband does miss free refills on his Diet Coke.) But as we learn more about the plans of the President-Elect, I do miss being in the US, if for no other reason than to have something to DO, some collective action I can be part of. It is hard to know how to be effective from so far away. We are still homeowners and registered voters in Massachusetts, and we still have a voice. We can stay informed and be ready to act. We can make calls to our representatives – who are, thank God, progressive liberals like Elizabeth Warren, who are already doing what I’d want my reps to do.

But I can’t help feeling like I should be doing more. If I was in the US, my work or my friends or my church would offer opportunities for discussion, for protest, for action. Instead I feel a bit adrift, absorbing information and opinions, wanting to be useful but not sure how. (Suggestions welcome.)

In the end, I think we will need to get comfortable with “too much”.  In response to our worries we should offer each other too much support. In response to uncertainty there should be too much information, too much truth-telling. Threats to anyone’s civil rights or liberties should be met with too much protest. How I contribute to this from such a distance is unclear, but for now, may there be too much conversation, too much thinking, too much reading, too much solidarity.

Only Lyon

Many years ago, I spent my 30th birthday in Paris, the fulfillment of a dream / decision that I made in my early 20s. It was wonderful, of course. I mean, it was Paris. I was with my husband, my best friends, in a city I had loved from afar for years. It made entering my 30s feel like the start of a great adventure.

img_2579Since then, I’ve been back to Paris several times and have been able to explore other parts of France. But it’s a big country, and there’s always more to see! So for my birthday this year, we found ourselves in Lyon, widely known as the gastronomic capital of France. Around that same time, the World Travel Awards named Lyon as the “European City Break” winner. Great pick, World Travel Awards. Lyon is a beautiful city that is perfect for a long weekend getaway. What did we love about Lyon?

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Lyon Cathedral, dedicated to St. John

It’s easy. Easy to get to, and easy to get around, thanks to a robust public transportation system. Our Lyon City Card (bought online in advance, and picked up at the airport) gave us unlimited access to trams, buses, and the funicular. We also took advantage of a walking tour, a boat tour, and museum admission, all included in the price of the City Card. You can also try out the Vélo’v bike share system.

It’s relaxed. In early September, the weather was lovely – if a bit too warm – and other than Sunday, the streets were uncrowded. The pace of the city is leisurely. There’s no shortage of cafes to stop for a drink. There are shady quays on the banks of the Saone to sit and watch the world go by.

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Inside the Musee, looking up

It’s different. There’s so much history in Lyon, dating back to its founding in 43 B.C. There are Roman ruins to explore, if that’s your thing. Or you can seek out the traboules, the hard-to-find passageways that cut between buildings in the old city. You can spend a lovely afternoon at the new Musée des Confluences, a gorgeous building at the meeting points of the Saone and the Rhone Rivers.

It’s delicious. Lyon is all about the food. We didn’t eat at any Michelin-star restaurants, but believe me, we didn’t need to. Every bouchon, every small neighborhood cafe, every patisserie…they’re all amazing. The quality of the food and the care that goes into making (and eating!) it, is extraordinary. The best potato gratin I’ve ever had. The best ice cream I’ve ever had. Everything we ate was the most delicious version of that thing. Ever. On our last evening we ate at L’Ebauche Restaurant, which had been recommended by the owner of a wine bar we had enjoyed the night before. It was a local place, with tables spread over 2 floors, and a small menu. A prix fixe 3-course dinner was just €30, and included brilliant dishes with fresh ingredients, simply prepared. Inventive and creative without being fussy.

And then there’s the wine.

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The valley seen from the church in Oingt

On my birthday, we took a great 1/2 day wine tasting tour that got us out of the city and into the area known as the Yellow or Golden Beaujolais, so named for the golden stones used in most of the buildings. We of course hadn’t really considered that doing a 1/2 day tasting at the START of the day would mean that our first tasting was before 10am. 9:48am, to be exact, in a church yard overlooking a valley, where our guide had set out a picnic blanket and three bottles. Not a bad way to start a birthday.

Our guide then took us and the two other couples (all Americans) to the town of Oingt, before heading to meet Etienne, the owner of the Domaine des Averlys. Etienne and his wife Mireille run every element of the vineyard, from the cultivation to the harvest to the labeling of the bottles. They produce about 45,000 bottles annually on an estate that has been in the family for 8 generations. Etienne was funny and generous, and the wine tasting in his cave was accompanied by saucisson sec and local chevre. All before noon.

Once back in Lyon, we met up with my dear friend Jon (hi Jon!), who had detoured from Paris for a couple of days, mostly to eat and drink with us. Thanks to his research, we found some great wine bars, including the quirky but wonderful Chateauneuf du Peuple. The outgoing owner offers a taste of whatever bottles he has open (with others available if none of those suit you), and every glass was just €5.

Paris is Paris. For many of us, it occupies a significant place in our imagination – even after we have seen some of the less-dreamy realities of the city. Lyon isn’t Paris, and to its credit, it doesn’t try to be. It doesn’t need to be. Having spent time in Lyon, I feel like I’ve been let in on one of France’s greatest secrets.

Stop passing through Lyon on your way to somewhere else. Just stop. In Lyon. And enjoy.

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.