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…

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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…

 

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.

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.