The Final Amsterdam Post

29 Jun

IMG_0487Everything is packed up and our belongings are on a container taking the slow route to Seattle. We are flying out this afternoon. It’s been a great run in Amsterdam.

I’ve been mulling over what we’ll miss, and here is my list:

The Bike Culture

This is a biggie because it encompasses so many things. It’s not just the fact that we (and everybody else) bike everywhere every day, but it’s all the things that make the bike culture “work.” It’s how safe it is to bike here with so many dedicated bike paths and bike lanes. It’s that bikes always have the right-of-way and drivers know that. It’s that the Dutch are so laid-back and non-pretentious that you bike in all sorts of weather because it doesn’t really matter if you arrive a little wet or a little sweaty. It’s the thrill of being part of the throng during bicycle rush hour and marveling at how well it works. It’s the beauty of your daily commute taking you past a windmill at a spot where Rembrandt used to sketch (Bryan) or making it all the way to school biking with no hands because all the traffic lights were in your favor (Sierra). Its biking on a sunny day in the canal zone and marveling at how lucky you are. Really going to miss this one.

The Unique Dutch Celebrations

One of the great things about living in another culture is experiencing and adopting some of their festivities. We have been humbled by the moving Remembrance and Liberation Day Celebrations; entertained by Kings Day; and slightly bewildered by Sint and his Piets; but we have enjoyed it all. We have also added the Dutch birthday song to our repertoire.

The Dutch Welfare State

I have to say that living in a country with amazing and inexpensive universal health care along with a wide social safety net has been a joy. We rarely see a homeless person, our health care costs for the entire family for a fantastic health plan (including dental and orthodontics) are about $350 a month with no deductible, and everything works here. I don’t know that you could make this function as well on a larger scale (there are only 17 million people in the whole country) and taxes are quite high at the upper end of the pay scale, but it’s been a pleasure.

Simplicity

My aunt and uncle were visiting here recently and said it seemed in some ways like a place out of the 50s. Shops are closed on Sundays and don’t stay open late at night, little kids bike by themselves to school, the stores only offer two versions of a product instead of 47, and families still spend a lot of time just hanging out together on the weekends. This slower pace is strange at first, but then easy to get used to. (Unless of course you need to buy something on Sunday evening for a homework project due Monday.)

Living in History

Amsterdam has been an important center of trade and culture for hundreds of years and that past is all around us all the time. You can visit the house that Rembrandt lived in when he produced many of his masterpieces, go to the “Old” Church consecrated in 1306 or the “New” Church that dates from the mid-1400s; take a boat down a canal that has been an exclusive address since the Dutch Golden Age in the 1600s; or have a pint in a brown café that has been around for centuries.

Art and Culture

IMG_0464One of my favorite activities here has been a series of art history classes that have given me so much appreciation for the city’s easily accessible art. I have been awed by what I have seen and learned in Amsterdam’s treasure trove of museums like the Rijks, the Van Gogh, the Stedelijk and the AMS Hermitage. Other gems like the Six Collection, the Mauritius (in The Hague, but that’s close enough), and the Van Loon have been icing on the cake. I have popped into the Rijks at least 30 times while we have lived here and find it special every single occasion.

While we knew the museums here were amazing, we didn’t know that Amsterdam attracted so many great touring acts. The venues are generally much smaller than they would be for the same act in the US, making the shows feel intimate. We had a ball at the shows of some bigger names (Macklemore was a fave) and discovered some fun newer artists in venues about the size of our living room.

European Travel

It has been such a privilege to be able to bop all over Europe for the past 18 months. It’s so cool to catch a train, jump in the car, or hop on a short flight and be in a completely different culture.

The Challenges of Not Knowing the Ropes

I know this might sound like a negative, and there are certainly times when I have wished for an Easy Button, but the challenge of day-to-day living in a foreign culture really invigorates me. There is newness and discovery at every turn. Add in being able to (somewhat) learn another language and I’m a happy girl.

Our Friends

IMG_0440As I have mentioned in other posts, your friends become your family as well when you are living abroad. We will miss a great group of people, but know that we will see them again somewhere in the world.

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Making it Last

15 Jun

IMG_0572Bryan and I are back from a fascinating trip to Russia, Finland, and the Baltic countries. As soon as we landed however (actually, as soon as I got in the cab in Latvia to head to the airport), my thoughts and focus turned to Amsterdam and our final two weeks as Nederlanders.

The thing about having only a short time left here is that there are so many “lasts.” Last art history class, last Dutch class, last time to be at Sierra’s school, last lunch with this friend, last walk with that one. Then, once you start noticing the “lasts”, they get ridiculous. Last time to ride my bike past a certain park, last jug of laundry detergent I will buy here, last visit to the doctor’s office (knock on wood), last time to bring in the recycling can, etc.

After having done two international moves in the previous three and a half years, I am very aware of this cycle. What’s interesting is how I can sometimes breeze through a seemingly big “last” with no problem, yet a little one will have me in tears. It’s very random which “lasts” punch through the protective armor you tend to put up when you are leaving a place you’ve loved living. I was fine biking out of Sierra’s school for the last time today, but was completely verklempt at my last physical therapy appointment (the funny thing is that she’s not even that good at pt, but she does speak Dutch with me).

My aunt asked me the other day if there were any new things that I wanted to do with our dwindling days here. There are always more places to discover (although I did manage to go to almost all 41 museums on the Amsterdam Museum Card), but my focus now is on spending time with friends and revisiting favorite haunts. Every “last” will turn into part of the lasting memories that I will have of this wonderful period living in Europe.

GO! SEE! DO! (Second Round)

19 May
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Beer drinking in Germany

I wrote a blog post a few years ago when we were living in Chile called GO! SEE! DO! We were moving back to the US and wanted to cram in as much South American fun and adventure as we could before we left the continent. Well, now it’s time for the European version of that post.

After 18 great months in Europe we are moving back to Seattle this summer. In the meantime, we have been traveling fiends trying to take advantage of all the wonderful opportunities around us. By the time we leave in July, I can safely say that we will have covered more ground than most people would in a three-to five-year stint here. Sierra — who says she would be happy to never visit another European city with her parents again — can vouch for that. (The bloom is definitely off that rose.)

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Dining with German family

One of the wonderful things about living in Amsterdam is the proximity to so many unique cultures – we can hop in the car and be in a number of different countries in just a few hours. In the last few weeks we have driven to Luxembourg (new country to cross off the list); Dusseldorf, Germany (fun visit with German cousins); and Belgium. Each place offers the chance to experience different foods, languages, and customs in just a short drive. So cool.

Then there are the cheap flights all around Europe. We spent a fabulous week in Portugal with my parents in April and the flights cost a whopping $175 round trip. (I would highly recommend the Douro Valley as a wine country destination.) Or how about the $116 flights to Ireland we just took? I think the flights were cheaper than the rental car we used to traverse the western part of the country. (Yes, we kissed the Blarney Stone.)

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Exploring with Tita and Pop

In a final push over the next few weeks we will adventure back to Italy (Bryan to Sicily on a sailing trip with a group of guys from work and me to Turin with my art history class friends) and then head north to the Baltic Sea to Russia, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia. Then my friends, will have have officially Gone, Seen, and Done.

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Archery in Ireland

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Thank goodness for the skateboard to provide the teenager with some entertainment.

Living with the Threat of ISIS

12 Apr
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Makeshift memorial we saw at Place de la Republique

People have recently asked if life has changed for us since the ISIS attacks in Paris and Brussels. Other than being incredibly saddened over the incidents (and at a loss over viable solutions to this problem that aren’t both extremely long term and systemic), we – like many in Europe – refuse to let fear dictate our actions.

Although both places feel very close by (Brussels is just under two hours away by train and Paris a little over three), I’m sure the impact of the bombings has been felt much more strongly by our neighbors in Belgium and France. We in Amsterdam still go about our daily lives without much thought of suicide bombings and nobody I know has changed travel plans due to fears of terrorism. (We went to Paris on the train – via Brussels – the day after the Brussels attacks.)

Unfortunately, refusing to let fear dictate our actions does not mean that it has left us untouched. There are mental repercussions that are sad but natural. Any time you are in a crowded place a flash of “what if…” comes into your head. On our recent trip to France I was slightly spooked by a man carrying a big heavy duffel bag on the Paris metro. Sierra was nervous about the fact that we were stopping at the Brussels train station. Things you would have never noticed before become much more fraught when you are wearing your “scary stuff antennae”.

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Jardin du Luxembourg being enjoyed by many

The signs that things are not quite the same in Paris as they used to be are everywhere. Big bouncer types check your purse when you walk into fancy stores; every museum (as opposed to just the biggies) has an x-ray machine you have to pass through; and there is now security at the train station for some trains. Happily however, we also experienced both Parisians and tourists out and about in droves enjoying the city.

The odds of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are just so low that we will continue to live freely and embrace our time here. As I read recently in this article about the true risk of terrorism, more Americans die from being crushed by falling furniture than at the hands of ISIS. I’ll take those odds and steer clear of my armoire.

Why Dubai?

22 Mar

IMG_9431If you had asked us last year if Dubai was on our travel list, the answer would have been “Why, what’s in Dubai?” However, while spending much of Sierra’s 2015 February vacation cold and wet in Malta, we were taunted by Facebook photos of friends from Amsterdam lounging on the beach in the United Arab Emirates. Because we set our sights purely on sunshine for this year’s Crocus Break (so named because the crocuses are blooming when the break is over), Dubai quickly moved to the top of the list.

Turns out that when you live in Northern Europe you have to fly quite a distance to get warmth and sunshine in February. The six-hour-and-forty-minute flight to Dubai was the closest place we could go to ensure some much needed vitamin D. We got much more than just sun time though. It was a surreal kind of trip that will stick with us for a while. Here is why:

The Weather

IMG_0535Okay, first things first…I admit that I would never go to Dubai if it had the same weather as Amsterdam. But it doesn’t. That’s the point. That’s why our flights were completely full of translucent northern Europeans ready to peel their clothes off at the first hint of warmth. Average daytime temps were a perfect 78 degrees and precipitation was zero on this stretch of the Persian Gulf.

The Architecture

dubaiI’m surprised we didn’t strain our necks with the gawking we did at the various architectural wonders that have risen out of the desert in the last ten years. There are more skyscrapers in Dubai than anywhere else in the world and many are especially fascinating because they are designed with a nod to traditional Islamic architecture. Other superlatives include the tallest building in the world and the largest shopping mall in the world, both of which we visited. Everything is so over-the-top it’s crazy. Our hotel was on the Palm, a man-made beach-rimmed island that was engineered by the Dutch (of course), that now houses the city’s top luxury hotels.

The Culture

IMG_9299What a weird mash-up of cultures. It appears no Emiratis actually work in Dubai besides as customs officials at the airport. All service personnel in the hotels, cabs, shops, and restaurants are from a variety of countries including Bangladesh, the Philippines, India, and Pakistan. Yet you see local Emiratis at the malls and shops – the women wearing full black head-to-toe coverings (sometimes everything but their eyes are covered) and men wearing traditional white robes and headscarves. At the same mall there will be tourists in skirts and shorts. So strange. (Even stranger were the girls and ladies in burka-bathing suits at the Atlantis Waterpark.)

The Malls

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That’s a ski slope behind Sierra’s head

I have to admit that although we went to the malls for Sierra, we all enjoyed the familiarity of some of the American brands not available in Amsterdam. (Hello Baskin Robbins.) The whole over-the-top scene continued there too — ski slopes, hockey rinks, and major aquariums barely even make a dent in the space.

The Desert

Although the trips into the desert are pretty touristy, it allowed us to get away from the contrived fakery of the city for a few hours. It was so gorgeous on the dunes as the sun set. We enjoyed a camel ride straight out of central casting, as well as getting henna tattoos, sand boarding, and a feast in a desert camp. By the time we got back to Amsterdam it all seemed like a strange dream…

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January Musings

11 Feb

We now have entered our second year living in the Netherlands. It has been such a great experience. Landing here last year in the cold, dark, wetness of winter, we weren’t quite sure of the soundness of our decision to move here. One year on and we are all much happier. Here are some of the reasons why…

A Gezellig House

To understand this, you first need a definition of the word gezellig:

“Gezellig” is a Dutch word which, depending on context, can be translated as a convivial, cozy, or happy atmosphere, but can also connote a sense of belonging, time spent with loved ones, or the warm feeling of general togetherness. The common trait to all descriptions of “gezellig” is an abstract sensation of individual well-being that one typically shares with others.

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Chai makes things more gezellig

Living in a hotel for the first two months we were here was not very gezellig. What a difference it makes in the dark of winter to have a cozy, right-size house instead of a cramped and sterile hotel room. Big Dutch windows that let in all random rays of sunshine are another huge plus. So is a ridiculous-looking dog to welcome you home.

Expat Friendships

I am reading The Greater Journey by Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough. It’s about the intrepid Americans who moved to Paris in the mid-1800s and how their experiences in The City of Light led to ideas and actions that impacted American history. One thing that has struck me while reading it is how many of the emotions and stages one goes through when living in a foreign culture have not changed since then (although happily it did not take us six weeks on a boat to get here).

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Lunch with friends

This line about Fenimore Cooper and Samuel Morse especially rang true:

As often happens to sojourners far from home in foreign lands, their time together had led to a fast friendship.

That has certainly happened to us whenever we have lived abroad and this time is no exception. Cold and rain don’t matter as much when you are meeting friends at a museum and then going to lunch (me), heading with friends to the city’s main shopping district (Sierra), or grabbing friends to play squash and have a few beers after work (Bryan).

Figuring Out the”Thing”

One hard aspect of moving is that often something you enjoyed where you lived previously is not available or as fun in the new place. This impacted all of us when we moved here, but now we have hit our strides.

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Sierra skating in front of the Rijksmuseum

In Seattle Sierra loved being in the band and playing on her middle school Ultimate Frisbee team. Unfortunately her school here doesn’t have band and the one Frisbee club in Amsterdam practices on the other side of town. Ice skating has become her new “thing.” She takes lessons with a friend from school and enjoys getting out on the ice whenever she can.

For me, in both Chile and Seattle, I was excited about hiking. Given that there are neither mountains nor wilderness here, I obviously needed to find something new. What we do have here in spades is art and history. I have dived into both and am enjoying them thoroughly. I have taken a Dutch history class (which is really also European history) and a couple of art history classes. It’s so cool to learn about something in a lecture and then pop into the Rijksmuseum to check it out in person.

Bryan too had to find alternatives to mountain biking and hiking. He still bikes like crazy, but it’s on the streets and back roads instead of the trails. He’ll pick a far-away spot on the map and just head there.

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The Lone Bellow put on a great show

Another thing we have enjoyed here is the music scene, which is happily not dependent upon the weather. We had no idea how many great bands come through Amsterdam. The concert venues are small, the shows are cheap, and the headliners start around 8pm — perfect for old fogies like us!

So, in a nutshell, winter ain’t got nothin’ on us this year.

 

 

 

Christmas in the Netherlands

3 Jan

While cultural differences are notable on a daily basis when living in Holland, you can really see the distinctions from your own traditions when it comes to the holidays. Here is a rundown of our observations and activities over the last six weeks.

Thanksgiving

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One of our Thanksgiving dinners

Or as they say here in the Netherlands — donderdag. Thanksgiving of course is not celebrated here, so it’s just a regular Thursday. That being the case, American expats tend to overcompensate. We had more Thanksgiving meals and I cooked more homemade dishes here than I ever have in the US.

On the day before Thanksgiving the American Community at Sierra’s school hosted a full turkey dinner with all the fixings — at 9am. (That was the only time we had access to the school kitchen.) You might think that turkey and green beans wouldn’t sound appealing at that hour…until you smell them. Then your Thanksgiving taste buds go into overdrive. (The foreign parents appreciate the meal as much as the Americans — they have been watching movies their whole lives that show Thanksgiving dinners and for the first time they get to eat one.) It was a fun and delicious community event.

We were lucky enough to attend TWO more complete Thanksgiving dinners after that. One on Thursday evening after work with one set of friends, and another on Saturday afternoon with a different group. (I will be just fine if I don’t cook green beans, sprouts, stuffing, or sweet potatoes again for a year.) Your friends certainly become family when you live overseas and we are fortunate to have made such good ones in the last year.

Christmas Markets

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Just one of the many ornament stands

Thanksgiving may not be celebrated here, but there is something big that starts at the end of November and that is the Christmas Markets. They are really popular in Germany, but the Netherlands also has its share.

In many places in Germany the town squares become lively centers of activity for the five weeks leading up to Christmas. Booths sell all sorts of unique ornaments and other Christmas decor. Interspersed among these are food stalls selling hot gluhwein (mulled wine), roasted chestnuts, grilled sausages, and baked apples. Yum.

We road-tripped south to Aachen, Germay for our first Christmas market. We had a great time exploring the booths in the shadow of the Aachen Cathedral, a world heritage site built by Charlemagne in the middle ages. It definitely got us in the holiday spirit.

Sinterklaas

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Sinterklaas arriving to Sierra’s school

A tradition unique to the Netherlands is Sinterklaas. This Dutch St. Nicolas takes over the country from mid-November to December 5. He arrives (from Spain according to legend) on a giant steamship that carries all the presents. This entrance into Amsterdam takes place on a Sunday and draws about 400,000 people. It starts with a boat parade and then continues through the streets of town (on his impressive white horse named Amerigo) for the entire day.

After his arrival kids leave shoes out at night with notes for Sint. A couple of mornings each week they find little goodies in the shoes. Chocolate initials are popular, as is a kind of gingerbread cookie called pepernoten, plus little stocking-stuffer type gifts. All around town you will see Sint and his helpers (controversial figures known as Zwarte Petes) getting people in the spirit.

Sinterklaas fever builds until the night of December 5, which is called pakjesavond (present evening.) Some time that evening — never know when — you will hear a banging on your door. You run to the door and there is a big burlap sack filled with gifts. It even happened at our house!

Christmas

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Skating in Amsterdam

For most Dutch families, pakjesavond is it as far as gift-giving goes. Some people buy trees, and some people put up lights, but the big excitement of the season is over after Sint returns back to Spain on December 6.

That worked out just fine for us, because Sierra’s school got out on December 11. We headed down (way down) to South Africa for a couple of amazing weeks of safari and Cape Town and wine country. We got back here right before Christmas.

Christmas in Holland is more like our Thanksgiving, as it is focused around meals with family rather than gifts. The Christmas Circus, however, is a big deal. (Yes, a regular circus, although heavy on acrobatics and light on animals.) We went to one on Christmas Day held in a fancy theater downtown. Everybody was dressed up, there were multiple generations together, and you could tell that this was something they had done every year for their entire lives.

Another unique thing they do is set up outdoor skating rinks around the city. There are food and drink stalls at the rinks, which makes it fun for young and old alike. After our skating is done, we can sit and watch Si glide across the ice while toasting to our great year in the Netherlands.