Catching up

Some days go by in a blur, and before I know it, weeks have passed without my having marked them at all. And it’s not as if there haven’t been things worth noting. Just this month, we’ve welcomed family, said goodbye to friends, accomplished some goals and had one very unexpected victory.

I spent some time complaining recently about the Dutch weather, which is probably the least productive activity in all of the Netherlands. Happily, not long after my whining and moaning, the winds changed and the storms blew out.  And our visitors – my brother, sister in law, and a bunch of their friends – were rewarded with a lovely weekend, cool but sunny, perfect for boating. It was a great visit, my brother’s first to Europe, and filled with just the right balance of relaxation and activity. It’s always nice to host guests who just want to sit in the sun and drink a beer canal-side.

The day before my brother’s arrival, I said goodbye to my American friend and biking buddy, Kim. We met last summer, shortly after she arrived in Amsterdam. By chance, we sat next to each other on a warm night at a favorite Portuguese restaurant, and she introduced herself after overhearing us speak English. I later learned that she “never does stuff like that”. Even though she had spent almost every summer in Amsterdam with her Dutch husband and their kids, this was her summer to push herself, to try new things. Talking to us that night was the first in a long series of brave, bold things that she did for herself. With her husband’s sabbatical at an end, she and her family are heading back to their life in Ohio. I will miss our cycling adventures, exploring the back roads and the knooppuntenroute, stopping for tea and sweets along the way. I will miss our conversations, some of the most honest and open I’ve had.

Kim and I were good at cheering each other on, and she has been so encouraging as I  did my own brave, bold thing this spring, and returned to running. Over 2 years ago a painful injury ended my never-very-impressive running career, and I’ve been hesitant and fearful to start up again. But some months ago, I was challenged by my coworkers to sign up for a  race in Amsterdam in September. Sixteen kilometers. Ten English miles. No small thing for someone who has never run more than a 10k. But slowly, I’ve been getting back into it, building up my endurance. I’m running with a fun and supportive group every Saturday (hooray for House of Running!) and my weekend long runs are now in the 9-12k range. It’s been so surprising and rewarding to see my slow but steady work pay off, and to see my performance improve. I may even end up signing up for another race later this year…

And finally, those same influential coworkers convinced me to join in the Euro pool, even though I know nothing about European football. But I paid my entrance fee, set up my account (username: Clueless ‘Murican), made my picks, and selected 4 top scorers – even though I can only name 2 or 3 professional footballers. As luck and the sports gods would have it, halfway through the first round I climbed into first place. And there I stayed.  I didn’t predict the final winner,  but I earned enough points to hold onto the top spot. Tomorrow I’ll be presented with my prize and I will do my best to be a gracious and humble winner. But of course, as an American and a sports fan, in my head I’ll be running a victory lap, or doing an end-zone dance…a proper American celebration of a win.

 

 

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New views

So, here we are! Two weeks into our new living arrangement and we’re getting more settled. I generally know how to use most of the appliances in the apartment.

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The Westlandgracht, our new canal.

I know where the trash goes, where the nearest grocery store is, and I’ve tried out at least 2 routes for biking to work. Still to discover are a bakery for weekend treats and a good wine shop. We’ve bought some furniture and rearranged some other furniture, and we are slowly making the apartment feel more like home.

 

As we suspected, it has been fun to discover a different part of Amsterdam, and to come at the parts we already know, but now from a different angle. Our new neighborhood, which straddles the border of Oude Zuid and Nieuw West, is more residential than our previous area. Instead of tourists, my commute has me dodging school drop-off crowds. (For the record, kids on bikes are as unpredictable and stress-inducing as those Spanish tourists on their rented MacBikes.)

Our neighborhood exploration has been a bit delayed by recent travel – I was in Geneva last week – and the arrival of our first guests of 2016. Thankfully, they are not staying with us, as we’re not yet equipped to host. Plus, there are five of them, which is a little more than we’ll ever be able to handle. This is the first time we’ve entertained guests with kids, and – no surprise – I’m not at all in tune with the rhythms of children or teenagers. I think of kids as having so much energy, but I underestimate the effect of jet lag and general disorientation. Also, they seem to need to eat every few hours. I thought that was only babies, but I guess it applies to older kids, too. Which is fine with me…I’m more than happy to interrupt sight-seeing or shopping with a coffee and a little something sweet.

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The canal is in the shade but the balcony off the kitchen gets full afternoon sun.

Even without the change of moving, I’m still gaining new perspective and new views thanks to our visitors. Hosting guests always brings questions: about Dutch traditions or history, about how we live, about what is different or challenging. I usually end up learning or re-learning something, especially since I can never remember what the three Xs in the Amsterdam city crest represent. (And no, they’re not a reflection of the city’s more, ahem, permissive elements.)

Seeing Amsterdam through the eyes of visitors – especially when those visitors are young and curious – gives me a greater appreciation for the richness of the culture and the balance of our lifestyle. It reminds me of what we’ve gained through this experience of living abroad, and I hope it shows our visitors that there’s no one way – and no right way – to live a life.

Where to go? What to do?

When you live in a city that welcomes some 5 million tourists each year, you’re bound to be asked for recommendations. What to do, what to eat, where to stay – these are common questions put to anyone who is seen as a resident, and therefore, an expert, of a particular place.

I have a hard time with these questions. (For starters, we don’t generally stay in hotels in Amsterdam, which makes supplying a hotel recommendation near-impossible.) But practical considerations aside, recommendations – particularly for travel – are pretty personal. When I share a favorite quiet corner of Amsterdam, or tell you where to find a great selection of Dutch beer, or lead you to a museum that’s not the Van Gogh, I’m telling you something about me. About what I enjoy, and what I value. Which may not be the same things that you enjoy or value.

Sometimes I imagine that one day we will have a visitor who will take all of my recommendations. In this fantasy, this person not only has a terrible time but he/she also decides that I’m actually pretty boring, or nerdy, and by the time they leave they will be thinking to themselves, “Hey, why am friends with her anyway? She just sent me on the lamest tour ever of what is supposed to be a city of sin and drugs and excitement (or at least some decent shopping). This is the last time I do anything she recommends.”

Sometimes I stress out about this imaginary visitor. But more often, I think that if anything like this ever happens, it will be the visitor’s own damn fault. After all, isn’t part of the fun of travel doing some research in advance? Figuring out where to go and what to see, yourself? And isn’t another part of the fun in the random exploration? Following a hunch down a narrow street in Orvieto to find the best lunch of your life. Chatting with a glass artist in a small gallery in Eze. Ordering Chinese food in Czech (ok, just pointing at the pictures) in a tiny restaurant in a tourist-free town far from Prague.

This is not to say that I am not a good host, and that I won’t provide some recommendations. My Dutch coworkers often insist that I know more about events, sites, and restaurants in Amsterdam than they do. In truth, we’ve developed a short list of traditional-but-fun (and not too touristy) activities for visitors that are in regular rotation. And we’ve gotten pretty good at mixing up the short list to meet our guests’ interests: art, shopping, history, food.

The best guests are the ones who come with their own short list and an open mind. We had a friend visit last July (hi Peter!) who was a gung-ho independent traveler. He took us to places we hadn’t considered going to, and uncovered hidden local gems that we had overlooked. And truly, all of the friends and family who came to visit last year were great guests: relaxed, curious, interested, and just happy to spend time together.

To be able to explore a beautiful city with people you love – to share those great, random, memorable adventures together – is a gift. One which I’m looking forward to sharing with our 2016 visitors. (Still, 2016 visitors, this does not mean you’re off the hook. Do your homework!)


 

Others out there: do you like offering recommendations to visitors or planning their activities, or is it a source of stress? Do you still ask for recommendations (like I always do!) from longer-term expats or locals?