The end of the experiment

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Sunrise over the sailing school just outside our apartment.

My month-long Amsterdam Instagram project has come to an end. I’m happy to say that I successfully posted a photo every day for #thewholedammonth. To be honest, it was more of challenge than I expected, but I learned a few things along the way:

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Look up! Where the A’DAM Tower meets the EYE

  1. I am not a good photographer. Even though I’m armed with only my iPhone 5S, I can’t blame the quality of the camera. I’m just not good at translating what I see in my head to something worth sharing. I don’t see angles or better perspectives, my pictures are often blurry, and the finished product never looks the way it did inside my brain.
  2. I am not a good photographer, (Part B). In addition to being technically inept, I also noticed that I wasn’t always comfortable stopping and taking (seemingly) random photos. I felt a bit self-conscious, which is ridiculous, since everyone in Amsterdam is taking pictures all the time. Some with selfie sticks. Also, taking a photo is just about the least embarrassing or showy thing one can do in this anything-goes city. I can’t explain my discomfort, but I was aware of it.
  3. Paying attention is hard. In the everyday comings-and-goings of life, you get used to the scenery around you. You can get used to anything, even if you swore at first you’d never tire of it: a peaceful ferry ride, the bike path that passes a windmill, the flower boxes on the canal houses. It’s not easy to snap yourself out of auto-pilot, and try to be more aware of what’s around you. Still…

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    At the OBA, Amsterdam’s public library.

  4. It’s worth it to try. I found I approached my commute and my travels through the city with open eyes. Sometimes I felt like I was wandering around to get a photo of something – anything – to keep the month-long streak alive. (As my dear husband pointed out, by the middle of week two I had photographed every element of my daily commute – I really stretched my bike ride into a Instagram extravaganza.) But at other times, my photo project helped me to be more alert and aware of the small things.

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    Closed for repairs, but still an awesome bridge.

  5. I live in a pretty damn beautiful place. If nothing else, this month was a reminder that Amsterdam is gorgeous. It’s beauty isn’t always showy or grand (much like the Dutch themselves). Instead, there’s a philosophy about everyday objects and landmarks beautiful. Yes, we need a bridge here, and there’s no reason it can’t be a dramatic, swooping arc of red steel, conjuring up a roller coaster ride or the back of a dragon. And yes, of course we need a library, so let’s give it whole walls covered in furry, yellow-green textile, and let’s put a terrace on the 7th floor with a view over the city center. Why not? Everywhere I looked, I saw Amsterdam’s commitment to the idea that city life and civic space can and should be inspiring.

Now that I’m at the end of this effort, the challenge is to try to integrate these lessons into my everyday, even as the remainder of the year picks up speed and starts racing by. Thanks to those who cheered me on and helped me see what’s in front of me.

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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!

Dear Amsterdam summer,

Look, I’ll be honest: I didn’t move here for the weather. I knew about the endless rain, the wind, the short winter days when the sun never seems to rise. And this is not our first time through the cycle of Dutch seasons. We’ve learned to deal with the 5-minute hailstorms and dramatic swings in temperature. We bought rain suits at Hema for cycling in bad weather. I leave the house every day with my umbrella and my sunglasses. Just in case.

But c’mon…it’s July 2nd. Yesterday I was wearing boots and a fleece jacket under my raincoat. Today the sun is shining but the temperature is only supposed to rise to 16. (That’s about 61 for you Fahrenheit folks.) More rain is scheduled for tomorrow.We’ve got visitors in town, and we want to show our guests how lovely you can be, summer. We want to take a boat around the canals and sit and have a beer in the sun at a sidewalk cafe.

So apologies if this sounds rude, but in the spirit of Dutch directness, I have to ask: where the hell are you? Are you ever going to show up? We had some great days in early June, strolling around in skirts and sandals, eating ice cream in the park. Will we ever have that again? Or are you gone for good, leaving us with this mash-up of late-Spring-early-Fall, where we hold our breath and hope for just a light misty rain instead of a downpour?

Maybe all of my complaining and whining will come to nothing in the end, and I should learn to do as the Dutch do. They deal with the weather, put on a raincoat or a scarf, and get on with it. They enjoy the sunny, warm days as fully as they can, moving their couch out onto the street and soaking up every last bit of daylight. And when they want to see you, summer, they head to the south of France.

The #2 tram

No matter where you live, there are marvelous things around you that you don’t see.

It’s human nature, I guess, that what begins as a spectacular view, an unforgettable scene, eventually becomes ordinary, then mundane, and finally, invisible.  This is especially true for the sights we encounter on our commute. Our brains go into full-on autopilot during a daily commute (which can be a bit frightening if you drive to your job!).

I often bike to work – which requires a pretty high level of alertness and concentration – but if not, I take the #2 tram from my home to Centraal Station. This week, I’ve been on the tram more than usual. We had visitors staying with us, and other visitors at the nearby Marriott (conveniently, on the #2 line). I was looking for a restaurant near the #2 when I discovered that I live on one of the most beautiful tram lines in the world! Who knew? Well, National Geographic, apparently.

Our tram line passes the gorgeous residential architecture of the Koninginneweg, travels through Museumplein, and gives riders a quick glimpse of the gates of the Vondelpark before heading through the busy, tourist-packed Leidesplein. It cuts through the canal rings with a view of each before swinging through Spui and Dam square, ending at the imposing Centraal Station. It’s a tour through the prettiest parts of the city, but only if you look up and look around.

We’ve been fortunate to have many visitors this summer, with more still to come.  It’s great to share our favorite restaurants and introduce people to the secrets of Amsterdam, but we almost always end up learning something, too. Our guests find a hidden cafe, or tell us a little-known story about Amsterdam’s history. And we’re reminded to slow down, and look around, and not take our views for granted. Because how many people can say they have one of the most beautiful commutes in the world?

 

Family, flowers, and food

Not a bad way to spend a week, eh?

Family: We just hosted our first guests at our new apartment. After months of anticipation, I headed to the airport on Sunday morning to meet my dad and my 13-year-old niece Emily. The trip – her first abroad – was Emily’s birthday present from Grandpa, given to her back in October. My father had visited last summer at the end of a long river cruise, but we had all been looking forward to his return trip, and to sharing Amsterdam with Emily. They arrived sleepy from the overnight flight but (as is my way when it comes to fighting jet lag) I forced them to keep going as long as they could.

They had a few days on their own, though we always met up for dinner to hear the stories of their adventures and observations. We had two great days together, as I played hooky from work and enjoyed near-perfect Amsterdam spring weather. I loved hearing Emily’s impressions of what she saw and felt. She is a vibrant, curious, and very funny person. She noticed so many things that I now take for granted: the frustratingly tiny water glasses at restaurants, the full-sized doors on Dutch public bathrooms (great for us tall gals who end up looking over the door), the ease and efficiency of the tram system.image

Flowers: We spent most of one day at the Keukenhof Gardens, that seasonal wonder that draws millions of tourists and very few Dutch. (This is not a scientific study, but I estimate that 7 of 10 Dutch people I spoke to about the Keukenhof have never been.) We went last year as part of a marvelous, memorable birthday adventure for a dear friend, and it was lovely to go back with family and enjoy the gardens again. We took tons of photos, did a boat ride, ate and explored, until Emily announced that she was “all set” with flowers. Honestly, I think I was all set, too. The brain can only absorb so many facts about the tulip trade or the 7 million bulbs that are planted by hand
in the gardens each year. And maybe our eyes can only absorb so much color and manicured beauty.

Food:  Our usual approach with visitors is to simply eat our way through Amsterdam. Over the course of a few days, we introduced Dad and Emily to rijsttafel, stroopwaffels, the appeltarte at Winkel 43, bitterballen, and gevulde koeken. We convinced my chocolate-hating father to try a chocolate cookie from a store that only makes one kind of cookie. My dad, however, failed to convince Emily to try herring while on a food tour of the Jordaan.

More than the food we ate, I loved our meals together. In those moments, over a beer or the world’s smallest water glass, we were able to really connect, and really catch up. We laughed. We listened. We told the same old stories and a few new ones, too. We learned about each other. We had fun. Together. Not a bad way to spend a week.

Spinning in Bike Town

Why, in a city with more bikes than residents, where 63% of people use their bike(s) daily, where there are 500km of cycling paths and no less than 157 bike shops, why, WHY would anyone take a spinning class?

This was the question I was asking myself last night as I headed (by bike!) to my first exercise class in Amsterdam. A friend invited me to join him and his wife at RoCycle, a relatively new spin/cycling studio in Amsterdam. Billed as a “killer workout for badass people”, I was curious.

As I may have mentioned, I love to bike. I contribute to the imbalance of bikes and people in Amsterdam; I have two bikes. My daily commute is on my city bike, with its coaster breaks and single gear. It is practical and functional and I have come to love it.

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This is my city bike. My racing bike is too fast to be photographed.

My weekend rides are on my beautiful road bike, a black Specialized Roubaix that is light and responsive and has more gears than I need. I did not have to learn to love it.

The biking culture of the Netherlands was one of the things that made moving here so attractive. Even my husband, who does not enjoy cycling, has converted to biking for most of our errands and outings. It’s just the best, fastest way to get around.

 

Still, I wondered, will people who spend so much time cycling for transport and practicality want to cycle for exercise? It seems that the answer is yes, although there were definitely some Americans and other non-Dutch folk in my first RoCycle class. And of course, most of us came and went by bike. (But wow, was the ride home a challenge!)

I had taken spinning classes before, so I knew my daily bike commute would have about as much in common with RoCycle as watching “Top Chef” does with cooking a 5-course meal for 20 people. Still, I wasn’t worried. Faced with a little anxiety before this new class, I called up a memory from one of the first spinning classes I took in Boston. It would have been in late February or early March of 2010. It was just days after my grandmother passed away, and a few weeks after my mom shared her cancer diagnosis with us. At a challenging moment in the class, probably a climb, the instructor was encouraging us to stay with it, keep going. And a very clear sequence of thoughts came into my head: Your grandmother has died. Your mother is sick, and dying. But you. You are here. You are alive. You are strong. You. Are. Not. Giving. Up.

I come from a line of remarkable women, now gone. In that moment, years ago, my health and fitness offered one way that I could keep the story going, keep the line alive. And I felt that again last night, as the instructor told us to “give it all we had”.  I smiled to myself, knowing that I had a reserve to draw from, that I could handle more work and more sweat and a little more pain. And I did not give up.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work with any other sport. I’ll wimp out of running in a heartbeat. But on the bike, I am a badass.

 

“Even old New York was once New Amsterdam”

I’ve lost count of how many times someone has asked me, “So, why Amsterdam?” It normally comes as a puzzled follow-up to the standard expat question, “Did you move here for work or for love?”, to which I usually answer, “Neither. Or both.”

Most foreigners we’ve met have either been transferred to Amsterdam or they’ve followed a romantic partner here. In our case, I did move here for work, but I actively looked for a job, and found a company that would sponsor my visa. We didn’t have the benefit of a corporate office helping with our arrangements; we did most of it ourselves. It was not easy, and I am quite proud of us for managing it, even though we didn’t do it perfectly. So proud, in fact, that I want to be sure it’s clear to people that we weren’t just taken by the hand by a benevolent multi-national employer and given a sunny apartment, a bicycle, and a tax attorney. Which is why I don’t like to say that I moved here for work.

In my husband’s case, he did (technically) move here for love, as this move was mostly my idea and he was kind enough to agree and to come along. But again, our situation doesn’t fit with the standard answer. We’re not navigating a cross-cultural, cross-language relationship, or thinking about long term plans. So we don’t like to say that we moved here for love.

If my fellow expat is still in the conversation at this point, this is when he or she normally asks, “Ok, but…why Amsterdam?” IMG_1769

It’s not a question for which I have a good answer, other than that there’s just something about the Netherlands and its people that I feel connected to. Like we’re kindred spirits. Maybe it’s that they are all so tall, but I’d like to think I’m not quite so superficial. All I can say is that from the first time I came to Amsterdam, back in 2000 or 2001, I just felt at home here. Still, I couldn’t explain the feeling.

Enter Russell Shorto. Mr. Shorto is an American writer who has lived in the Netherlands. He writes about Dutch history in a way that is compelling and engaging and fun.  I read “Amsterdam” last year and now I’m almost through “The Island at the Center of the World’. It is the story of the “pirates and prostitutes” who were among the first to settle in what is now Manhattan – pioneers and adventurers setting out on behalf of the Dutch West India Company.

Shorto argues that the presence of this thriving, diverse colony – which predated the British presence in the New World – shaped not just New York City, but the whole of America. While some modern Americans would suggest that New York and its “New York City values” are an aberration from the rest of America, Shorto’s research tells us that New York City IS America, thanks to these early Dutch settlers. They weren’t all pirates; there were lawyers and merchants and many others who contributed to early understandings of free trade, religious freedom, and representative governance.

Now, I don’t claim to be a real New Yorker. I’m not from Manhattan. I am, however, from the Dutch half of Long Island (bearing the very Dutch name of Nassau County), based on the treaty that Peter Stuyvesant negotiated with the New Englanders. And then there’s this, buried in a footnote on page 183:

The colors of the Dutch flag of the seventeenth century were adopted in 1915 by the city of New York in recognition of its origins. There is thus a bizarrely direct connection between the colors flown by Dutch privateers cruising for booty on the Spanish Main three hundred and fifty year ago, and the jerseys worn today by the New York Mets…

Aha! Maybe that’s the explanation! Without knowing it, my childhood love of baseball and the Mets has connected me to the Netherlands. The pennant that hung in my bedroom, the black and white stuffed dog with the Mets cap, even the mini plastic helmet that spent years on my desk…these blue and orange trinkets were signposts! Arrows! Signals!  And all these years later, here I am, feeling very much at home in this very orange country.

So from now on, maybe that will be my answer. Why Amsterdam? Because I am a New Amsterdammer who was called to Old Amsterdam. Perhaps I am a descendant – spiritually, if not genetically – of those first adventurers. Perhaps some element of their temperament survives in the air and the soil of modern New York, and seeps into receptive New Amsterdammers however it can: through straight talk, live-and-let-live attitudes, support for individual freedom, and, when necessary, the Mets.