Monday, December 10, 2007

Tribute to my Dutch friends

One of the complaints of expats in Holland is that they don't know any Dutch people. The Dutch, while friendly, have a reputation of being aloof. My father even taught me a little ditty from his childhood in Iowa to warn me off. "The Irish and the Dutch, they don't amount to much, but I'd rather be an Irish than a Goddamned Dutch". All signs pointed to an unsatisfying cultural experience where I only hung out with fellow expats.

That hasn't been my experience, however. In general, I've been extremely lucky during this eight months (!!) and have met some great Dutch people. This post is a shoutout to all my Dutch friends who have made this transition better. While I've had my struggles, in general, I'm not sad that I moved here. I love this city and Dutch people and can't wait to spend another year exploring it.

First up are my Dutch friends from my time back in DC at "Melrose Place" - Saskia, Vinz, and Remco. They have all been extremely warm and welcoming to me - Corinne and Remco even put me up in their house for a few weeks when I moved here! They all repeatedly reminded me during my darkest moments that things were not lost - they were there and they would help me. I learned how to eat bitterballen, was instructed on the proper way to celebrate a baby's birth with muisjes, why Swarte Piet is not a colonialist racist tradition (I'm still not convinced), and fortitude in bicycling. My rear end is still bruised from learning how to ride on the back of a bicycle behind Saskia in Antwerp. Carolyn and Corinne (while not Dutch) both count as honorary dutch friends due to the fact that they can order food in Dutch and help me understand Dutch men. (and they are the support that keeps me going on despite their own trying years, thank you ladies!)

Through my Dutch friend Margo in DC, I met Sandra and Luuk and Clara - all of whom were responsible for helping me through "the Great Housing Crisis of 2007". They've taken me to cool restaurants and bars and taught me Dutch beach culture (fries on the beach! yea!). I even managed to make friends with Fabien, Sandra and Luuk's little son despite the language barriers.

Another wonderful Dutch friend is Esther - who makes me laugh and stimulates my intellect with great discussions on gender. I don't see her and her new husband enough but that's a new year's resolution.

At work, my friend Willy has served as a sounding board for my frustration, a translator for my health insurance and online shopping needs, and a much needed happy hour partner. She's encouraged me to learn rowing, join a gym, and dress nicer. Other dutch colleagues like my friend Akke and Monique have reassured me that my frustrations are not specific to the Dutch culture but shared - therefore allowing me to focus my frustrations where they belong - on the individuals- rather than hiding behind lame cultural complaints. I am hoping Akke comes back soon so we can spend more time watching Bollywood films together and I look forward to more cups of tea in the lovely waterlands with Monique.

I may have left a few out but as 2007 draws to a close, I just wanted to say "Dank u wel" and I'm looking forward to seeing you all in 2008 and getting onto your agendas early so I can see you more!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Swarte Piet and Dutch Christmas

In the US, we complain every year that Christmas starts earlier and earlier - sometimes even pre-empting Halloween! Christmas started this weekend in Amsterdam when Sinterklaas and Swarte Piets all came to town on a boat from Spain to hang out in Amsterdam.



The most disturbing thing for this American girl is Swarte Piet - Santa's little helper who is a White man dressed in black face who is traditionally a Moor from Spain who helps Sinterklaas. Watching hundreds of men running around in blackface and small children dressed up in blackface this weekend was quite interesting.




At one point, I was about to cross the big street near my apartment and there was a huge police escort and a city bus covered in balloons flying down the street. When I looked inside, it was filled with tens of Swarte Piets!



Anyway, for your amusement, some photos of Sinterclause coming to Amsterdam and then after this, a small story by David Sedaris about Christmas in Amsterdam.



Six To Eight Black Men
By David Sedaris

A heartwarming tale of Christmas in a foreign land where, if you've been naughty, Saint Nick and his friends give you an ass-whuppin'.

I've never been much for guidebooks, so when trying to get my bearings in a strange American city, I normally start by asking the cabdriver or hotel clerk some silly question regarding the latest census figures. I say silly because I don't really care how many people live in Olympia, Washington, or Columbus, Ohio. They're nice enough places, but the numbers mean nothing to me. My second question might have to do with average annual rainfall, which, again, doesn't tell me anything about the people who have chosen to call this place home.

What really interests me are the local gun laws. Can I carry a concealed weapon, and if so, under what circumstances? What's the waiting period for a tommy gun? Could I buy a Glock 17 if I were recently divorced or fired from my job? I've learned from experience that it's best to lead into this subject as delicately as possible, especially if you and the local citizen are alone and enclosed in a relatively small space. Bide your time, though, and you can walk away with some excellent stories. I've heard, for example, that the blind can legally hunt in both Texas and Michigan. They must be accompanied by a sighted companion, but still, it seems a bit risky. You wouldn't want a blind person driving a car or piloting a plane, so why hand him a rifle? What sense does that make? I ask about guns not because I want one of my own but because the answers vary so widely from state to state. In a country that's become so homogenous, I'm reassured by these last touches of regionalism.

Guns aren't really an issue in Europe, so when I'm traveling abroad, my first question usually relates to barnyard animals. "What do your roosters say?" is a good icebreaker, as every country has its own unique interpretation. In Germany, where dogs bark "vow vow" and both the frog and the duck say "quack," the rooster greets the dawn with a hearty "kik-a-ricki." Greek roosters crow "kiri-a- kee," and in France they scream "coco-rico," which sounds like one of those horrible premixed cocktails with a pirate on the label. When told that an American rooster says "cock-a-doodle-doo," my hosts look at me with disbelief and pity.

"When do you open your Christmas presents?" is another good conversation starter as it explains a lot about national character.People who traditionally open gifts on Christmas Eve seem a bit more pious and family oriented than those who wait until Christmas morning. They go to mass, open presents, eat a late meal, return to church the following morning, and devote the rest of the day to eating another big meal. Gifts are generally reserved for children, and the parents tend not to go overboard. It's nothing I'd want for myself, but I suppose it's fine for those who prefer food and family to things of real value.

In France and Germany, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while in Holland the children receive presents on December 5, in celebration of Saint Nicholas Day. It sounded sort of quaint until I spoke to a man named Oscar, who filled me in on a few of the details as we walked from my hotel to the Amsterdam train station. Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as a bishop in Turkey.

One doesn't want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this seemed completely wrong to me. For starters, Santa didn't use to do anything. He's not retired, and, more important, he has nothing to do with Turkey. The climate's all wrong, and people wouldn't appreciate him. When asked how he got from Turkey to the North Pole, Oscar told me with complete conviction that Saint Nicholas currently resides in Spain, which again is simply not true. While he could probably live wherever he wanted, Santa chose the North Pole specifically because it is harsh and isolated. No one can spy on him, and he doesn't have to worry about people coming to the door. Anyone can come to the door in Spain, and in that outfit, he'd most certainly be recognized. On top of that, aside from a few pleasantries, Santa doesn't speak Spanish. He knows enough to get by, but he's not fluent, and he certainly
doesn't eat tapas.

While our Santa flies on a sled, Saint Nicholas arrives by boat and then transfers to a white horse. The event is televised, and great crowds gather at the waterfront to greet him. I'm not sure if there's a set date, but he generally docks in late November and spends a few weeks hanging out and asking people what they want. "Is it just him alone?" I asked. "Or does he come with backup?" Oscar's English was close to perfect, but he seemed thrown by a term normally reserved for police reinforcement. "Helpers," I said. "Does he have any elves?" Maybe I'm just overly sensitive, but I couldn't help but feel personally insulted when Oscar denounced the very idea as grotesque and unrealistic. "Elves," he said. "They're just so silly."

The words silly and unrealistic were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicholas travels with what was consistently described as "six to eight black men." I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always "six to eight," which seems strange, seeing as they've had hundreds of years to get a decent count. The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as "the small branch of a tree."

"A switch?"

"Yes," he said. "That's it. They'd kick him and beat him with a switch. Then, if the youngster was really bad, they'd put him in a sack and take him back to Spain."

"Saint Nicholas would kick you?"

"Well, not anymore," Oscar said. "Now he just pretends to kick you."

"And the six to eight black men?"

"Them, too."

He considered this to be progressive, but in a way I think it's almost more perverse than the original punishment. "I'm going to hurt you, but not really." How many times have we fallen for that line? The fake slap invariably makes contact, adding the elements of shock and betrayal to what had previously been plain, old- fashioned fear. What kind of Santa spends his time pretending to kick people before stuffing them into a canvas sack? Then, of course, you've got the six to eight former slaves who could potentially go off at any moment. This, I think, is the greatest difference between us and the Dutch. While a certain segment of our population might be perfectly happy with the arrangement, if you told the average white American that six to eight nameless black men would be sneaking into his house in the middle of the night, he would barricade the doors and arm himself with whatever he could get his hands on.

"Six to eight, did you say?"

In the years before central heating, Dutch children would leave their shoes by the fireplace, the promise being that unless they planned to beat you, kick you, or stuff you into a sack, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would fill your clogs with presents. Aside from the threats of violence and kidnapping, it's not much different from hanging your stockings from the mantel. Now that so few people have a working fireplace, Dutch children are instructed to leave their shoes beside the radiator, furnace, or space heater. Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men arrive on horses, which jump from the yard onto the roof. At this point, I guess, they either jump back down and use the door, or they stay put and vaporize through the pipes and electrical wires. Oscar wasn't too clear about the particulars, but, really, who can blame him? We have the same problem with our Santa. He's supposed to use the chimney, but if you don't have one, he still manages to come through. It's best not to think about it too hard.

While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively simple. Santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year traveling around the world. If you're bad, he leaves you coal. If you're good and live in America, he'll give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, "Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before you go to bed. The former bishop from Turkey will be coming along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you in a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don't know for sure, but we want you to be prepared."

This is the reward for living in Holland. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution-so what's not to love about being Dutch?

Oscar finished his story just as we arrived at the station. He was a polite and interesting guy-very good company-but when he offered to wait until my train arrived, I begged off, saying I had some calls to make. Sitting alone in the vast terminal, surrounded by other polite, seemingly interesting Dutch people, I couldn't help but feel second-rate. Yes, it was a small country, but it had six to eight black men and a really good bedtime story. Being a fairly competitive person, I felt jealous, then bitter, and was edging toward hostile when I remembered the blind hunter tramping off into the Michigan forest. He might bag a deer, or he might happily shoot his sighted companion in the stomach. He may find his way back to the car, or he may wander around for a week or two before stumbling through your front door. We don't know for sure, but in pinning that license to his chest, he inspires the sort of narrative that ultimately makes me proud to be an American.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Continuing Misadventures in Holland

Just when you thought it was all settling down and you could relax - two new things in Holland happen:

1. I received an email from my former landlady/colleague - the one I had originally rented my first ill-fated apartment from - it turns out that the one utility bill that was in my name, the internet bill, was never completely turned off. Even though I sent a letter to them and tried to cancel it through their Dutch internet site - it's been on since August when I moved. And since they didn't hear from me, they just kept debiting it out of her bank account. She signed a years contract for the internet access starting in March, I will now have to pay for August - March internet access at an apartment I don't live in costing me about 200€. No way around it. Doesn't matter that I don't live there according to the sales company/accounting department at said internet company.

2. I got the light on my bike fixed about three weeks ago - its the type that has a little generator that rubs against your front tire and it powers the front and back light. I hit a big bump coming home one night and it just stopped working. Until I can get it fixed (when I have money and time to go to a bicycle shop in the middle of the day since they all close at 6pm), I wear my backpack with a little red light on the back and carry a detachable light inside it that I can stick on the handlebars. But sometimes, I don't bother snce most of the Amsterdammers are going light free and the streets are pretty brightly lit. Yesterday, I decided not to bring my heavy backpack since I was going out to dinner and just carry my purse.

Sure enough, I got caught in a traffic stop. The very cute Blonde police woman and men were standing near the Weteringschans traffic circle and pulling over bicyclists without lights on their bike. They listened politely as I apologized and tried to explain that the bike light had just stopped working and since all the bike shops close at 6pm, I hadn't been able to fix it. They smiled and said "Well, I just gave that man a ticket so it wouldn't really be fair to him if I let you go." and gave me a 20€ ticket and made me walk my bike to the restaurant.

Sigh...they have to be the nicest traffic cops I've ever met but I wonder when my "Foolish Foreigners Tax" will end?

Monday, October 22, 2007

The ant and the grasshopper

Are you familiar with the story of the ant and the grasshopper? How the ant spent all summer working to prepare for the winter and the grasshopper did nothing and eventually had to depend on the ant for help?

My best friend from college and I were always known as two grasshoppers - jumping around all summer singing and playing the fiddle thinking "fiddle dee dee - tomorrow is another day". (we were the Scarlett O'Hara of grasshoppers). I spent much of my life like that - not paying bills on time, jumping from job to job, house to house, boyfriend to boyfriend and pursuing happiness.

I got serious after my mother died. I decided to get a job with health insurance and develop a career. So I've spent the last ten years in love with the idea of the ant within me. I focused hard on my work and I spent a lot of time sacrificing things for my career. Now a grasshopper's habits die hard so I still struggled with my bills, I still struggled with committing, but not with my job. To my job I was faithful and true.

I saw my fellow grasshopper this week. She's married with two kids and happy and full of energy. She's not the grasshopper she was in the past either. But we drank our way around Amsterdam and laughed and gossiped like the good ole days. I went back to work reluctantly but still in love with the idea of trying to make it happen.

On Friday, I received news that a new colleague had died. I had met him several times. I'm new to this organization but it didn't take long to know about K. He was a loud, funny, smart Greek man who had gone from shipping engineer to Greenpeace organizer to Operational manager at MSF. He always had a cigarette in his hand, a big smile, and hug for everyone, and was always the life of the party. I saw him about two weeks ago in Berlin where I went for the annual planning session. He seemed tired, the sparkle faded. He seemed anxious, his hands were shaking, and he didn't look well. He confided to my colleague and I that he just wasn't himself. Another colleague told me that he though K needed to take a vacation - a long vacation to go home and see his wife and child.

On Friday, we heard that he died alone in the apartment he was living in Berlin. He had stayed home sick and when no one could get in touch with him, they had the police break the door down and found him. When the news was delivered on Friday afternoon, the entire office was shocked. Some of the most macho people there wept openly. No one could believe it was true. All I could think of was how stressed out he looked in Berlin and how sad it was that he died alone in a strange city far away from his loved ones.

I moved to Amsterdam, in a way, to get away from the very "Ant" friendly city of Washington DC. I had hoped that a move away would make it easier to go home early, pursue hobbies, meet a boyfriend, maybe start a family. But old habits die hard. The past six months have been amongst the most stressful months of my life. Rather than using that time to really break all the old modes, I've replicated them here. I don't want to die alone in five years (for K. was only five years older than me) in my apartment from work-induced stress. I think I need to make a change - retain some of the good of the ant but find some of the grasshopper from my twenties.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Broek in Waterland

I just found this post from my trip in October up to broek in Waterland - a lovely little village about a 40 minute cycle north of Holland... enjoy!



Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Another side of Holland

Because I live in Amsterdam, famed licentious city of prostitutes and marijuana, its easy to forget as an outsider that there is a whole other side of Holland... one where strictly religious people frown on "sinning" and where Calvinism reigns supreme. I was just looking at the International Herald Tribune and there was an interesting article there called Small Town of Urk exemplifies pious heart of the Dutch Christian Right. It was quite enlightening to see that there was also a Christian right here.

I was talking to two new friends of mine, she's American and he's Dutch. He's from the South and we were talking about visiting family. He mentioned that where he grew up, you could never see your friends or hang out with them on Sundays. "Sunday is the day for family"he said - "in Holland, your house is your church and you keep it clean like a religion. The man cleans the garden and the car and the woman cleans the house. On Sundays you visit your parents and you all sit together and talk - no tv, no fooling around." This would explain why most of the shops, except around Centraal Station are closed on Sundays.

I've also heard that the Dutch take their mealtimes VERY SERIOUSLY. Most of the people in my office take off at 5pm. From what I have been told, dinner is at 6pm with the whole family around the table. Now, not everyone is like this - I do live in Amsterdam after all. But I'm also an expat so I tend to hang out more with either expats or Dutch people who have had an expat experience. But because the country is so small, we have people commuting in from Utrecht, the Hague, and other countries. A lovely woman that I work closely with commutes 2 hours each way on the train through the countryside to come to work and she has four children!

I've slowly been acclimatizing to the Dutch life but I still feel like there will be a side that I will never know. While friendly, open, and fun - the Dutch are also extremely close with their friends from university and childhood - the hierarchy is family, those friends, work events, and if there is any time left over - perhaps some strange expats. But maybe its not so different from the US after all... I remember thinking how difficult it was to assimilate to North Carolina when I moved there - trying to find someone who wasn't married with kids to befriend me and in the end, my close friends became other transplants looking for the same.



Saturday, September 22, 2007

Just bring your beret and some perfume!

I'm heading off to Paris next weekend with my friends Carolyn and Corinne. Carolyn and I have both just turned 40 and have writer-ly aspirations. We were both a bit bummed about our 40th birthdays- mostly because we had envisioned creating some huge extravaganza and I couldn't because I was broke and depressed (see housing woes) and she couldn't because her daughter has a birthday at the same time as her and, well, you know, kids steal the show. Plus, neither of us were able to get it together to plan a big event.

We decided to treat ourselves to a weekend away. So where do two American expat women with writerly ambitions go for a weekend away? Paris of course!

Her sweet husband (and my friend) Vinz agreed to watch after the kids for a weekend. (He also made some half hearted remark about booking us a suite at the Ritz but I'm still waiting for the reservation!) Corinne has had a trying summer as well, so we decided to make it a girls weekend away. Corinne's a photographer so she can follow her muse as well...

Here's the itinerary for next weekend:
Arrive in Paris. Drink wine, drink coffee, sit in cafes, write in journals, walk around and look at beautiful paris. Eat in fabulous restaurants. Drink wine. Shop for cheese and pate. Listen to jazz in nightclubs. Drink wine. Eat in fabulous restaurants. Hang out in cafes and write. Reluctantly return to Amsterdam.

We are entertaining suggestions for restaurants and cafes that we must see! Please feel free to send advice!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Funky music scene in Amsterdam

Thursday night, I was invited by my friend Celeste's husband, Eoghan, to go to Paradiso and see "The Ex" and Getachew, a Dutch punk rock band playing with an Ethiopian saxophonist from the 60s. Paradiso is an amazing club set in an old church. There are stained glass windows behind the stage and balconies lining the theatre. They have excellent acoustics and beer is 2 euro 20 cents (much cheaper than a similar US venue, I think).

It was a great evening but the band ended at 10:30pm. After the show, Eoghan took off with his friends and my friend Jen and I decided to hang out see what the next band was like.
The dj was spinning some very cool Indian lounge music and mixing it up with some really great Arabic music. We had heard that the next band was Shantel and his Bucovar Orkestar. I really like Balkan beat music and we had already paid to see The Ex and enjoyed it so why the hell not?

As Shantel hit the stage in his trackie suit and knit hop hop hat, he started noodling around on the keyborad. Then the Drummer took the stage with slicked back long thin hair, a red sateen vest reminiscent of the ones I wore in "Show choir" and a cheesy goatee. The trombone player, accordionist, and the rest of the horns took the stage and suddenly BAM! the party started... and what a party it was. At one point as Shantel poured vodka over us and we jumped up and down in the air chanting "Disco Disco something something" "Hup Hup Hup!" - Jen screamed in my ear - "THIS IS LIKE BEING AT THE FUNKIEST FUNNEST WEDDING EVER!"

For your enjoyment, I paste the review of his latest album and I encourage you to get out there and see this band if you ever get a chance!

Crazy eclectic mix of mutant funk, Romanian ballads, Balkan brass and freestyle electronica: Shanelt and the Bucovina Orkestar.

Follow up to the hugely successfull "Bucovina Club" - curated and hosted by Frankfurter Shantel - who's forsaken his old downtempo weedhop stylings for the manic music of the Balkans. The record's a sort of imaginary soundtrack to a defunct but amazing, vodka-fuelled, gypsy-rave all-nighter club, the Bucovina, that used to take place under the portals of an elegant old Frankfurt theatre.The album transports the mood of the Bucovina Club nights, which gives the audience the right feeling for a sweatdriven dancenight. These featured 15 tracks are the ultimate drenching floorfillers in the small hours when hundreds of dance-hungry people are still going strong.

On Bucovina Club 2, 5 of the 15 tracks are exclusive original recordings and 5 are exclusive mixes. SHANTEL’s own tracks featuring stars of the Gypsy and Balkan music scene: BOBAN MARKOVIC and his son MARKO, JONY ILIEV, VESNA PETKOVIC, the all-star line-up BUCOVINA CLUB ORKESTAR, the exclusive remixes feature MAHALA RAI BANDA, FANFARE CIOCARLIA, SANDY LOPICIC ORKESTAR & French-Romanian actress RONA HARTNER (of TONY GATLIF’s movie Gadjo Dilo) while the other tracks present a host of famous artists and some newcomers such as: DR. NELLE KARAJLIC, BALKAN BEAT BOX, SLONOVSKI BAL and GORAN BREGOVIC. SHANTEL’s crazily eclectic mix of Clubsounds, Future Funk, Roma Ballads, Balkan Brass and Freestyle Electronica is already legendary across the dancefloors of Europe. Digital teams up with analogue, beat embraces melody, tango goes lyrical – and it ain’t over til even the samovar sings. There’s no denying SHANTEL’s former life as a producer of Downtempo and Electronica – it’s an experience that has taught him to fly in the face of convention by treating local Eastern European and Balkan music in the same way as HipHop or all kinds of club music and making them just as much an integral part of today’s youth and pop culture.

There’s nothing clichéd about this new wave of music – and not a bobble-hatted world music purist in sight. Bucovina Club is pure, naked euphoria and brings together all ages and nationalities. Not in a politically correct, happy-clappy multiculturalists way – but by placing a direct and visceral punch that really gets people moving. The parties take up where the ecstatic raves of the House and Techno generation left off. This atmosphere is transferred into the second BUCOVINA CLUB CD. SHANTEL and his Bucovina Club is in great demand, not only at European festivals and Clubs. The big names of the Gypsy music scene jamed with him or have had their recordings produced by him or remixed by him: TARAF DE HAIDOUKS, MAHALA RAI BANDA, KOCANI ORKESTAR, ZDOB SI ZDUB, BOBAN MARKOVIC ORKESTAR, FRANK LONDON’S KLEZMER BRASS ALLSTARS, SANDY LOPICIC ORKESTAR, just to name a few.

On the Electric Gypsyland tour he played 30 festivals from France to Morocco and La Reunion, and he has taken his Bucovina Club to such in-clubs as the Nouveau Casino and Favela Chic (Paris), Futuro Flamenco/Nottinghill Arts Club (London), P.P.C. (Graz), the MTV Festival in Bucharest's biggest disco, the legendary Transmusicales in Rennes, to Tel-Aviv, the Balkan Fever Festival (Vienna) and even to such temples of high culture as the State Theatres of Vienna, Hamburg and Stuttgart, the Hebbel Theater in Berlin and the Vienna Festival. A large number of cities have now regular Club evenings like Zurich (Xtra), Nuremberg (K 4) and, of course, hometown Frankfurt (Schauspiel). Even vast crowds have been drawn into the world of the Bucovina Club: as the closing act of the Station-to-Station-Festivals in Florence, on the biggest square in Czernowitz (Bucovina) and at the summer open air events in Frankfurt. SHANTEL’s Bucovina Club has put the Balkans firmly on the map of contemporary pop culture, throwing overboard the stereotypes and clichés, putting a whole new slant on the way we think about the “wild east” and Gypsy culture. Bucovina Club is a heady mix of electronic club music and vibrant Roma music.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The show!

The show last night was wonderful! It was an interesting experience going to a Dutch rock concert... people openly smoke marijuana and get wasted on beer and noone cares. I haven't smelled so much pot since my last grateful dead show! Anyway, I had to sit alone but I still had a fabulous time. I splurged and bought tickets as close to the stage as I could find. They had some fabulous video screens so you could see closeups and Sting was as beautiful as ever.

Sadly, after the show was over, I went to the bar in the arena to get a drink and they were playing their final concert in 1984 and you could tell how much they had aged. But they sounded good if not as tight and falsetto-y as the 80s.

Here's the play list:

Message in a bottle
Synchronicity 2
Walking on the moon
Voices/World is Running Down
Don't stand so close to me
Driven to Tears
Hole in my life
Truth hits everybody
Every little thing she does is magic
De Doo Doo Doo
Invisible sun
Walking in their footsteps
One World
Can't Stand Losing You
Roxanne
Encore: King of Pain
So Lonely
Every Breath You take
Next To You

Thursday, September 13, 2007

My 40th birthday with Sting and the Police

My 40th birthday happened in August. Unfortunately for me, it occurred simultaneously with my giant housing disaster. I was panicked and anxiety ridden about trying to find a new place to live and the fact that I had to come up with more than a months salary to put down a deposit to live and was losing my deposit from the apartment I was currently in. Instead of renting the beer bike with my good Dutch friends here and having a riotous day of drunken debauchery, I had a small gathering with a few people in my apartment where I drank a bit too much wine on an empty stomach and tried to keep the anxiety at bay. My dream party - flying to New York City, partying with Brian and Kevin, Bernice, Alec, my sister, and other assorted friends and then going to see the Police on their reunion tour was not to happen.

So tonight, I'm going to do what I really really wanted to do - I'm going to go see the Police in concert. Unfortunately, I'm basically going alone because noone I knew wanted to go with me and another friend bought tickets to the event and never called to see if I was interested. But I don't mind. It'll be me and Sting singing to each other, making eye contact, and falling in love all over again like we did when I was 15.

Yes, I'm still bitter that my parents never let me go to the Police's final concert tour in Greensboro, NC because I was too young! I've seen Sting in concert a number of times but Sting's solo persona is a bit too blandly romantic for me. I prefer the sunbleached punk rock bassist with the sexy mouth from Zenyatta Mondatta, Outlandos d'Amour, and Regatta de Blanc. Synchronicity and Ghosts in the Machine are not my favorite albums but my favorite song comes from Ghosts in the Machine --"Every Little Thing She does is Magic" - coincidentally, those lyrics were presented to me by Gene Matthews my freshman year in high school when he attempted to tell me that he was in love with me.

I still remember listening to the first album of their's I ever bought - "Regatta de Blanc". I had to do a poetry project for my Junior year's advanced English class. I chose the song "Message in a bottle"and I attempted to paste photos that reflected my lonely outcast teenage angst feelings onto a wine bottle. In particular, I clearly remember photos from Iceland of a man that looked like Sting sitting in a lonely thermal pool in the mountains.

I sang "So Lonely" into my college boyfriend, Nick Leoncavallo's answering machine when he was away on a trip. I have consoled myself with "Can't Stand Losing" when life hasn't gone my way and cried to "the Bed's too big without you" when I have been heart broken. I analyzed "Wrapped around your finger" and told everyone it was written in Iambic Pentameter like the pretentious English major to be I was. I listened to "King of Pain" late at night in my bedroom. I danced riotously to "De doo doo doo, de daa daa daa" and wanted to be the subject of "Don't stand so close to me" with my English professor in college.

I can't imagine my life without the Police so here's to my 40th and here's to tonight.

Monday, September 03, 2007

My horoscope today

You are riding the career train to success. You have sufficient energy and determination, but today something can muck it all up. A coworker, perhaps, has unwittingly interfered by tampering with the tracks causing you to derail. Don't worry if you are thrown off course; it's not permanent. But then again, nothing is.

For those of you who know my current difficulties with my job... this is ironic.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sunday Lovely Sunday

Now that the “Housing Drama” is over, my life in Amsterdam has changed for the better! I love my new apartment – its big, airy, sunny, and beautiful. Simon is happy although he misses the little balcony we had off the kitchen where he could stare at the pigeons and lie in the sun. He’ll find something new, I think – he seems to be enjoying the large sunny windowsills. I also bought him some cute turquoise cat food bowls with little fish on them to cheer him up.

Most places in Amsterdam are closed on Sundays but down on Kalverstraat in the tourist district, most of the stores are open. Since I actually have an apartment now and don’t have to worry, I can settle into normality and run errands! Saturdays are when I go to the market so Sunday, I headed down there this morning to pick up some rain pants. Winter is coming and although I have moved closer to the office – I will still have to cycle through several months of cold rain to get to work. Someone recommended the Hema to me so I stopped in. I discovered the Dutch version of Target – the HEMA!

I walked out of the store with the aforementioned rain pants, but also a photo frame, a tank top, some hair clips, some lights for my bike, a few organizer shelves for my new home office, and a bottle of wine! All for about 20 euros! I am hooked! There are some super cute duvet covers for sale there and I can pick up a feather duvet and they have an excellent bath goods section! Anyway, I think I’ve found a new favorite store to make errands running more exciting!

And even more exciting – there is a pretty decent thai takeaway one block from my new apartment! Sundays have never seemed so normal.

Monday, August 13, 2007

New Apartment Pics!

The Bedroom (love that Orange)


The Study off the living room:


View from the Kitchen into the living room and out into the balcony:


The Kitchen:




Other amenities - a lovely bathroom with a large tub that looks out onto a garden. No waterheater above the bed to disturb my sleep! A small balcony that looks out onto the street (not ideal) but big enough for flower boxes and maybe a tree! A much larger toilet than the 'marble tomb' from my current place. A small sunroom off the bedroom that looks out onto the garden.
Home sweet home.






Housing Woes

Oh the housing woes I've had.
  • May 15: Found an apartment through a woman who was moving away from Amsterdam. Took the apartment.
  • May 25: Cable tv that is included in rent is turned off for lack of payment.
  • May 26: Called Housing Agency, they said call Housing Management Service, Called them. "We'll take care of it."
  • For the next five weeks, call housing agencies periodically to find out why cable tv not working - told that its taken care of, not their responsibility, can't turn it back on, not their responsibility, taken care of, etc. Every call gets a different answer. Finally, it turns out that the cable company won't turn it back on because the owner has been delinquent in paying the bill before.
  • July 1: Get notice from owner of apartment that the "makelaar"needs to come look at it.
  • July 9: Makelaar informs me that the apartment is going up for auction in October because owner hasn't paid the mortgage.
  • July 10: Contact owner who tells me not to worry. I worry.
  • July 17: Get notice that the bank/tax man is coming to seize all the goods inside the apartment. Really start to freak out.
  • July 18: Seek legal advice. Told that I can't stay there because he wasn't allowed to rent it in the first place.
  • August 1: Contact owner who says - don't pay August rent and I'll reimburse September rent as the deposit.
  • August 7: My current housing agency tries to tell me that there are NO apartments in my price range and that it is illegal for them to try to show me any because I make TOO MUCH MONEY (!!)
  • August 7: Find a new apartment in my price range, thanks to networking with friends. Its cute, bigger than my current place, and with a MUCH nicer toilet but not a balcony on the back - balcony faces street.
  • August 9: I try to put down the deposit - although I can't get the keys until August 14, if I want the apartment, I have to pay the rent from August 10 on.
  • August 9: Realize I didn't inform them that I have a cat.
  • August 9 - 12 worry that they will withdraw apartment, decide to be honest and tell them.
  • August 13: All is well! I pick up the keys tomorrow and move in on the 15th.
I just thank my lucky stars and my fabulous friends and family who supported me through all this. If it weren't for you guys, I would have just shriveled up, moved back to Sumter, and got a job at the CVS next to my father's house. With the notable exception of one so-called friend who decided to kick me when I was down, I've been so amazed and thankful at the kindness I've received. Thank you all! Next up - photos of the new place.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Taking a Break

I've got the week off in Amsterdam which is nice because the weather has been spectacular. A few people have commented that i seem to be having a lot of ups and downs. That's definately true. In the relief world, we talk about the five lifesaving needs: food, water, shelter, hygiene, and healthcare. Some of those have been threatened in the past month making me extremely anxious. The coping mechanisms don't seem to be working like they used to. But having Alec, my bestest buddy and concrete wall of support, visit me for three days makes me feel renewed and in love with this city again.

While i don't want to bore with the particulars, here's the goods and the bads of three months in Amsterdam.

Goods:
  • Exploring the city on my bike - remembering what it felt like in the pre-car days of zipping through the streets at night with the wind in your hair.
  • Cool restaurants, bars, cafes, parks, museums, and galleries - definately a wonderful city
  • Meeting new people - meeting my new Dutch friends and other expats
  • Renewing friendships with old friends and their kids.
  • Being challenged at work - meeting really dedicated people who are working under hard conditions to help others. feeling proud whenever I tell someone where I work and they react positively - I'm learning new things almost every day which is good.
  • Losing some weight from exercising and feeling healthy
  • Long summer evenings
  • Riding small boats around on the canals drinking wine with friends
  • Very good inexpensive wine in the grocery stores
  • Great cheese everywhere
  • Fabulous breads
  • The option of taking a boat ferry for a commute!

Bads:
  • Mosquitos - the Dutch mosquitos are the only ones in the world that have ever bitten me.
  • Being awakened at 3am by my neighbors fighting, a mosquito buzzing in my ear, the water heater over my bed cycling on and off constantly, and simon chasing the mosquito - falling asleep at 5am and having to awaken at 5:3oam to ride to the train station in the pouring rain.
  • 50 degrees and July.
  • Learning that I will probably be evicted from my apartment in October so having to do the apartment hunt all over again but in August when everyone is on vacataion - fear of being tossed out on the street with my cat.
  • The office politics of where I work - lots of french male egos and obscure regulations
  • Dealing with new systems for the daily life (bank, travel, health care, shopping)
  • Being in a whole different timezone from my family and friends
  • Feeling like noone here really understands me yet - still constantly in small talk mode.
  • Feeling anxious to prove myself at work and do something worthwhile but afraid of running afoul of all the egos and the obscure work regulations and inadvertently causing a negative reputation.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

A bookworm's lament in a foreign country

So I'm living in a foreign country where English language books are extremely expensive, which means I am spending the summer with someone else's books - books bought on the cheap from the used bookstores and markets.

Whenever I enter a bookstore or stay at someone's house with an entirely new collection of books, I make a vow that I will branch out and read the kinds of things I don't usually read - intellectual books, memoirs, non-fiction. But I crave fiction - vast sweeping plot lines. My book club would describe these as "bawdy thrillers". But I love narrative - I get totally lost in a different world and I love it. As a child, I read memoirs written for young girls - my specialty was famous women. Amelia Earhadt, Florence Nightengale, Catherine the Great, Little House on the Prairie, Jane Addams, Clara Barton, Molly Pitcher, Dorothy Day, and Joan of Arc. They did inspire me and probably shaped me into what I am today but memoirs don't interest me that much anymore - I don't know why because I've loved "Don't lets go to the dogs tonight" and "The Liar's Club" and other memoirs that I've stumbled upon.


I read about an essay by a neurobiologist where he describes the phenomenon of going to a favorite restaurant and wanting to branch out from ordering the same dish on the menu each time--but, at the last minute, finding oneself unable to do so. The favorite dish always wins in the end--and this, he says, may be a kind of low-level epilepsy taking place in the brain. That seizing-up at the last minute is perhaps pathological, though very, very mildly so... Is the same thing true of books?


I try to read Stendahl's The Red and the Black, but wind up with Ian MacEwan and Graham Greene all over again, just the way I would do if I were at home. Maybe the point is that we use books to create model-homes for ourselves wherever we go. I remember traveling through Sri Lanka in 2005 by myself for a week before starting a mission. No matter how alien the environment, or how faraway I felt, my assortment of English novels in my backpack gave me a sense of being grounded, and of being home. This is when I grabbed Evelyn Waugh and the Forsyte Saga.


So what do I have on my bookshelf culled from the cheap used bookstores of Amsterdam? Check out the link on the left of this blog that leads you to a website called Good Reads... I met a woman who turned me onto it last night and its a great site. If you guys sign up for it and put your books up there, it'll be like book club never ended for me....

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Dutch continue to suck at customer service

I have to go to London today for a meeting. My colleague in Brussels thought it would be productive if we both took the train and did some work on the way there. So I blithely go to book my tickets through our travel agency.

  • It takes longer to take the train from Amsterdam to Brussels than from Brussels to London because there is no real high speed train service here.
  • There is only 20 minutes to switch trains in Brussels and the Amsterdam train is "Usually late" according to the travel agent so she recommended I take the 4:42 am train (!!)
  • The website would not allow me to use my credit card.
  • I cycled in the rain at 8pm to pick up my tickets that had been purchased and ordered on line by the travel agency.
  • Upon arriving at the overcrowded train ticket office, I was informed I would have to wait for 1 and 1/2 hours to pick up my tickets. No - you cannot pick them up directly. No it doesn't matter that I ordered them on line. No - there is no machine I can pick them up at. I have to arrive at 6am to hope to god that there is no line so I don't miss my 6:26am train to make my 1pm meeting in London
  • I came back an hour later and there were still about 40 people ahead of me. The surly bitch who I asked if it was truly necessary to wait another hour JUST TO PICK UP SOME TICKETS told me she had no idea of how long the wait would be because that was not her job.

Once again - Dutch - famous for tolerance; Continue to suck at Customer service.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Lake Woebegon ie Amsterdam on a rainy day

It's a rainy Sunday afternoon in Amsterdam. Because of the way my apartment is designed, I get a lot of light even if it is raining. And I love having the windows open to smell the rain and the garden so I just bundle up in sweatshirts and socks and try to keep the house fresh smelling. Although I HATE riding into a headwind in this windy, seablown country - I am grateful that I am not hermetically sealed inside my apartment in Adams Morgan where if I opened the window, a blast of hot city air that smelled like Popeye's fried chicken or the thai restaurant downstairs would get me.

Yesterday, I went with some friends from work to the Hague. I'd never been there before and it was a cute little town. We rode a barge around the small canal that they have and received a historical lecture about the differences between the "people of the mud" vs "the people of the sand" - the two types of people in the Hague. I wonder what they call all the many expats who live there? The people of the sea? the air? Anyway, it was a sunny day which was nice and we spent from 10am to 3pm cruising the canal, eating a leisurely lunch in the Hague's historical center which is much more on the European "grand plaza" design than Amsterdam with its thousands of canals. It felt more open and the Palace there was lovely. While Amsterdam does have "the Dam" - the big central square, its my least favorite place in town. IT always seems grimy and the tacky strip of tourist shops that lead up from Central Station plus all the construction that is underway for the metro line make it not a nice place to leisurely linger. I much prefer the narrow canal streets with their sidewalk cafes and barges.

I got back around 4pm and made it to the last hour of the Noordmarkt, my favorite market near my house. I hit the Moroccan olive merchant for some juicy black kalamatas, the herb lady who makes her own pesto sauce and sells pre-bundled fresh bouquet garni, the fruit stand where I bought some cherries, and three of the flower stands where I bought gentian, freesia, and lilies for a grand total of 13 euros (the flowers that is). After gathering up my goodies, I had a beer in one of the many outdoor cafes and watched a very fluffy persian cat sleep in the broad window sill of a beautiful little narrow house in the Jordaan. I must get Simon a pillow to sleep in the window. Its the coziest sweetest sight and makes me feel content when I see it. After cycling home, I put on some music and sat on the balcony to read for a while before making dinner. The few people I know here were out of town or had plans for Saturday night so I concocted a dish while downloading French 60s pop on my computer.

I cooked fresh ginger, garlic, hot thai peppers in coconut milk and chicken broth and then add tons of cilantro and lemongrass to it. I used it to poach some monkfish with sweet red peppers and green onions and then used the remaining sauce to cook up with basmati rice. Delicious! I had a strong desire to go out dancing last night but I'm just not bold enough to go to a disco alone. I wish I were. Instead, I chatted via skype with a friend and watched a movie.

Today - it's rainy altough I see a small patch of blue sky on the horizon. I dont' have any plans (which is the ideal way to spend a Sunday, I think). So I'm going to read, relax, try not to worry about all the things I have to do this weeks (deal with the foreclosure of my apartment by the bank, get my residency permit, write a paper on Ethiopia, go to London to design a study, fly to berlin for a confrontation with my operational managers who are ignoring me, find a way to go shopping, and not think about my upcoming 40th birthday). I wish the markets were open on Sundays like they are in DC because the cupboard is bare. I have some left over rice from last night and a zucchini in there along with a can of tuna and some pasta in the pantry. And that's all the news there is to report in Amsterdam today. --

Things to do in Amsterdam when it rains

  • Toast a baguette and eat it with butter and cherry jam purchased at the Noordmarket
  • Do a load of laundry in the amazingly efficient European washing machines.
  • Read the New York Times on line.
  • Listen to John Coltrane and Django Reinhardt
  • Make an omelet with zucchini and basil and eat it while watching the rain.
  • Pet the cat and keep him from climbing on your computer as you try to blog.
  • Wash the dishes from last nights Monkfish in cilantro-coconut sauce that you made on a whim.
  • Rearrange the lilies that you bought at Noordmarkt yesterday
  • Finish reading "Eat Pray Love" and hope you won't get jealous at the descriptions of falling in love in Bali.
  • Iron linen skirts
  • Read US weekly to make sure you don't lose your American edge.
  • Listen to "This American Life" on the Ipod podcast.
  • Wonder why you didn't buy rain paints for cycling in the rain on Saturday when the store was open.
  • Take a nap.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Working for the Weekend

I had forgotten how hard it is to start a new job. And it becomes doubly hard when you're starting over a new life too. But for some reason, I suspect that starting a new job at my new organization is harder than most, for a number of reasons

1. The cliquishness: Everyone has to go through a 10day orientation session when they join and go to the field. They spend the days together and the nights together and get drunk and argue and share their fears about heading into the conflict zones. It's like boot camp for humanitarian workers. But headquarters staff do not need to do this. Add that missing experience to the fact that while you've been in the field - you haven't been in the field with them. There is an automatic forged bond that most have that I'm missing with them.

2. the Machisom: Everyone who works there is macho. From the women operational managers who stomp down the halls in their heavy boots, tight jeans, chunky jewelry, and wizened cigarette stained faces to the men in their casual "REI" fleece jackets, jeans, long sleeve tees, tevas, and their unshaven, rumpled style. All the women complain that noone cares about gender-based violence and the men parade their knowledge of the different armed groups. Hard drinking, hard smoking types. An emergency "bombardment" box of supplies contains a box of Marlboro lights and a bottle of Jack Daniels because noone under siege would want to have to deal with the others undergoing nicotine and alcohol withdrawal. And I work in the 'soft' girly section so I have strike two for being not macho.

3. the Dutch attitude: Very blunt. Outspokenness. argumentative even. Yet not really appreciative if you don't agree with them. Friendly enough but not outgoing. Curious but a bit aloof. Content to allow strangers to sit alone. Probably allowing them to have their own space in this overcrowded country where privacy is at a premium. So, if you are feeling tired or shy or intimidated by the macho cliquishness, don't expect any sympathy from them.

4. the Weather: overcast. a bit cool. Tendency to burst into thunderstorms at a moments notice. Yet when the sun comes out - everyone is transformed. But in general, you keep your head down. you do your work. And you dream of your warm cozy home where you can get away from work. So no need to linger for chats with new people. No long DC happy hours every week. the weather conspires to make you long for home.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

One Perfect Weekend

It's amazing how having the sun peek out and banish the clouds from Amsterdam turns a bad mood into a fantastic mood. One of the joys, I guess, of this cloudy rainy country is to really be able to enjoy the sun when it decides to shine. The entire country turns out onto the streets, parks, and canals to bask in the warmth. And because its so green here, thanks to the rain, the contrast of the "carolina blue" sky, the pink, purple, red, and yellow flowers that are everywhere, and the green grass and canal water is stunning.

Yesterday, the sun made its first appearance in about 2 months (I think). I opened up the balcony and Simon the cat and I ate breakfast outside, read books, and listened to music until it was time to go over to a friend's house for a birthday party. My dutch friend from DC who is in town let me know that the 'non family' members were appearing around 5pm. The other joy of a sunny day in the summer in Holland is that it lasts until 11pm! So I cycled to Central Station and locked up my bike in the floating bike parking garage next to the station. I hopped on the tram and rode down South to the party. As I walked down the street, eveyrone was sitting on their stoops, riding their bikes, or just sitting on a patch of grass with a cold beer and a glass of wine. The party had moved out front of the house and I joined about 15 Dutch people and their kids in a glass of white wine and some birthday cake. I was the only 'expat' which was nice. It was so relaxed and fun that my only regret was that I didn't speak Dutch so I couldn't quite join in on all the laughing and joking. Soon, Ihope. I got home around midnight.

This morning, Simon got me up around 6:30am as he raced around the house playing with his little stuffed mouse. That's the down side of sunny weather, the sun comes up EARLY (around 4:30am) and Simon - like me- has not yet adjusted his internal clock to this fact. I woke up at 9 finally and dressed quickly and hopped on my bike to meet a new friend for coffee. Cycling through the streets of Amsterdam at 9:30am on a Sunday morning was lovely. The sun was out, the city was quiet, not many people on the streets. (This is a late night kind of place). I rode through the Jordaan - my favorite neighborhood and up the Prinsengracht over to Leidesplein where she met me at Cafe Americain. Fitting, I suppose since we are both Americains...

We sat in the sun and drank cappuccinos and sparkling water until the sun became too hot and then moved into the shade. After chatting and laughing for a few hours, we went to this expat food shop I had heard about where I bought some proper British tea. The dutch tea sucks! I got some Twinings and some PG Tips. I noted that they sell oreos, mountain dew, salt and vinegar potato chips, and Milky way bars for future needs. She invited me to join her and another friend for a concert in Vondelpark.

Vondelpark is the "Central Park" of Amsterdam. It's a long green leafy park filled with Chestnut trees, weeping willows, and lakes. It has great biking paths running throughout it and several tea houses and cafes where you can drink a beer, get a bite to eat, or just laze around in the sun. It also has a concert hall right in the middle where they have a summer series of free concerts. We went over to the concert hall and got some sorbet. I had Strawberry and Habanero chili sorbet which while odd sounding, was delicious. And probably the spiciest thing I've eaten in this land of non-spicy food. The music was interesting. The first guy played african/country/blues sounding music on guitars/banjos that he had made. it reminded me of Haitian music that they play on the gourd banjo precursor. Then a jazz combo with a woman singer came on... but her music was a little too "10,000 Maniacs" and she looked a little too "Edie Brickell" for me. Te songs were monotonous and I fell into a reverie about an old boyfriend, Dave Doerring, from South Carolina while listeing to the music. Not necessarily the most pleasant memories but interesting how things can transport you back to 1991 just because the lead singer is wearing a baby doll dress with black tights and doc martens!

We left the show and then went to the tea house for a drink where we met up with her German friend. We had a pleasant conversation about skiing and snowboarding. Does anyone but me ever remember that American Express commercial where the snooty French snowbunny in the Alps says "Snowboarding will never be as popular as skiing" ? Anyway, my first skiing story where I became a human snowball got a good laugh. We agreed to meet up the next week to see another free show. Everyone else was going to see Bjork tonight at the park y my house (not free - 40 Euros) so I left. I can hear the concert from my balcony so I guess I'll drink a glass of wine and listen tonight for free.

I jumped on my bike and rode around in the park for a while - looking at the lovers, the groups of friends, and the families all lounging about in the sun - a country united with pasty skin and a desire to break down our vitamin D! I have progressed to the point now where I can bike while listening to my iPod so I put on my "Sunday in the Vondelpark" mix which consists of Crowded House, Kate Bush, The Clientele, Belle and Sebastian, and Stereolab and weaved my way through the crowds. I was biking in a skirt which is fun - I felt like I was a girl in a french movie about World War II.

I rode down to the East (Oost) part of town to return my dvd and then rode back across town through the canals and the quaint part of town - proud at my ability to make it through crowds of tourists without running them over, losing my balance, or my temper. I have also found a favorite way through the jordaan that avoids the long lines near the Anne Frank museum but allows me to see the small canals, the houseboats, and the church steeples and goes past the Noord square with all the locals out drinking beer at the cafes. The Jordaan is my favorite neighborhood in Amsterdam. I love seeing the old Dutch women with their glasses of wine and the old Dutch men on their bicycles. Young beautiful families with their gorgeous blonde children bask in the sun and tourists stop to take photos. Every house seems slanted and narrow and filled with flower boxes.

I returned home and sat down on the balcony to eat a late lunch and plan my dinner. It's 6pm - five more hours of sunlight available. Thank god for the sunshine!

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Dutch: Good at Tolerance, Crappy at Customer Service

The latest battle in my war to integrate into the Netherlands was waged today at a site called ABN-AMRO, otherwise known as my bank.

I arrived in Holland on April 28th.
I registered with the Municipality to get a residency permit on May 2nd.
I went to the Dutch Social Security Org to get a tax id number on May 12th.

Everything went pretty easily in all of these interactions – things that in the US might take months and months and mind deadening interactions with public servants were handled gracefully and quickly and efficiently by the Dutch government agencies.

I chose ABN-AMRO to be my bank here in Holland because it’s the bank MSF uses (which usually makes payroll swifter) and because ABN-AMRO trumpets its “Expat service” and bilingual website and expertise in helping expats handle their money. I thought if anything would go smoothly in Holland, it would be my banking account since the Dutch are famously tight with their money and take it quite seriously. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that these people would allow their major bank to be anything less than customer oriented when it came to money.

I opened a bank account with ABN-AMRO on May 15th. The initial interview appointment went quite well. An affable, handsome man walked me through all the steps and filled out all the paper work with me. I applied for internet banking, a debit card, a credit card, and a savings account. We discussed how I could transfer money to the US via my internet banking so as to pay off my bills there.

The only problem was I had to present proof of residency. MSF had thought of that and provided me a letter as my landlord using a residency that they maintain in the center of Amsterdam for travelers. They assured me that they regularly passed by and picked up the mail so it shouldn’t be a problem.

On May 26th , I still had not received my debit card (which I had to use to access the internet banking or the ATM machines). I called the telephone service center. I was told “I’m sorry ma’am – we have run out of plastic cards. Sorry.” I went to the branch office to find out what was going on. “I have no idea why they told you that, we mailed it May 22nd!” I asked them to change my address to my current residency and send me new ones. I returned to the office, and there sitting in my mail box were the now canceled debit card and pin numbers.

In the meantime, I have to access my money by going by the branch office and withdrawing it. I needed to pay my rent. Here in Holland, they don’t use paper checks like we do in the US. They expect everyone to do everything over the internet and of course, since I don’t have my debit card, I can’t access the internet. A short note about the internet banking – when you get your debit card, they also give you a device that looks like a calculator. You insert your card into it and it reads your chip. You enter your pin number, it gives you a code to enter into the internet site. Then the internet site gives you another code that you have to enter into your calculator who gives you yet another number to enter. A bit frustrating when you’ve only got 100€ that you are trying to access…

Finally, I get my debit card. I’m happily paying my bills and withdrawing money. I still haven’t received my credit card yet. You can’t use the debit cards here in place of a credit card – but you can use them in most places that accept pin cards. My student loan officer has been calling me to scream at me about my June payment. I have no money left in my US accounts. I attempted to transfer money from my Dutch account into my US account so he could use my debit card number. In order to transfer money from my bank account in the Netherlands to the bank account in the US requires a swift code. My Credit Union in the US does not have a swift code.

I called the telephone services yesterday to find out what happened to my credit card so I could just give the raving lunatic at the Credit Union my credit card number. “Sorry madam, we have no record of you even applying for a credit card.” So, today, I stopped by the bank today to find out what happened with all my letters and papers written in Dutch. After undergoing a grilling about why I was using the bank branch close to my home rather than the initial branch since they didn’t make the error they don’t want to have to fix it, I finally discovered that indeed the credit card had been approved and mailed. To the old mailing address. I asked her (since its now July 6) if she could send me a new one since I obviously hadn’t received it. She said, “I’m sorry madam, you’ll have to call the telephone credit center in a few hours and have them fill out a new application.” “Why can’t I do that with you?” “I don’t work for the credit card section.”

So then I asked about transferring money to my bank account without a SWIFT code. “I’m sorry madam, I don’t know about that. I don’t work in overseas transfers.” I gritted my teeth and left. As I got on the bike to ride to work, it began to rain. I cycled through the cold rain on July 6 and listened to Sex Pistols over and over again until my rage warmed me up and I arrived at work where I found waiting in my mailbox, my original credit card and pin number which had been delivered sometime around June 21st and placed in our company mailbox which our useless assistant never bothered to tell me had mail in it for me.

On my way home from work, I’m going to listen to Gloria Gaynor “I will survive” over and over again.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Blind Dates in Amsterdam

Busy week this week...

Went to Geneva for two days for a meeting and saw Kavita, my colleague from RI. And.... SIMON arrived on Friday! My friend Margo brought him with her on her way here and thanks to an amazing effort by April, Laurie, and Alec....my fat needy Siamese is sitting here next to me on the couch purring up a storm. Since I had to buy a new litter box, cat food, and all the othr things that cats need when he got here, I ended up collapsed and exhausted on the sofa after he arrived and slept all day. While I was worried that he would be traumatized, he was fine. Within five minutes, he was out of the crate, running around the apartment adn gobbling up the "Welcome to Amsterdam" tuna I had set out for him.

As part of my efforts to meet folks, I agreed to go on a blind date with a guy I met on line. The blind date... well.. how to begin. It was an interesting exercise. He is American and IT guy, scifi reader, divorce from the midwest. Now, I tend to like guys who read scifi and are from the midwest, I'm not so sure about IT folks but if they can make me laugh....

On Tuesday night, he was supposed to call me and we were going to go out. He never called and sent me an email after I was already asleep. I agreed to forgive him and go out with him on Thursday since my goal was not to date him but to gather people around that I could go to events with...

On Thursday night, I emailed him to tell him I'd be at this bar called Bloemers at 8pm and I gave him the address and my phone number. At 8:30 he finally called me (the only reason I was waiting around was because I was drinking a beer and reading the International Herald Tribune). I gave him directions and he said he was on his way. I thought to myself that I would wait until 9pm. Nothing is more than 30 minutes walk away in Amsterdam and he was in Leidesplein which is not that far away. At 9:10, I was just about to pay my bill and leave when he showed up. It was raining, he just moved here (he told me) and he had gotten off the tram too early. Since that shit happens to me all the time, I understood.

within five minutes he told me a story about falling in love with a woman who he worked with and writing her love poetry while married to his pregnant wife. He left his wife for woman who turned out not to be as wonderful as he had expected since she smoked pot all the day as an artist. Now he's single...

Then when I was telling him a story, he leaned in and tried to kiss me! It was about 15 minutes into the meeting! I was not turned on by him and did not want to be kissed by this stranger. I told him it was my 'local pub' and I didn't believe in PDA so to chill out.

When the bill came, he didn't even offer to pick up my beers since I had been waiting for him for an hour and 10 mintues. In fact, he said - I only have a 5 or a 50. and put down the five. So I ended up buying one of his beers. Then I tried to shake him off by showing him where the tram stop was and telling I had to ride my bike home and he asked me to walk with him for a while. On every bridge, he tried to kiss me. Ugh. I was REALLY not interested in him. He was nice enough but not kiss worthy.

Finally, I got rid of him in Leideplein and he told me that he wasn't actually living in Amsterdam, he was visiting there for work every six weeks. So now I know he won't even be someone I can go to bars with when I don't feel like going alone. When i got home, there were three messages from him about how much he was going to miss me. How great we got along and how lonely his bed was. Yikes!

So - I'm not going to see him again but its nice to know that I'm still desirable to American IT guys. At least I'm not invisible.

Life is getting better with little Simon here - makes hanging out alone not so terrible. And I'm meeting people slowly and surely. My pilates class starts in July and the Tango starts up soon too.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Some photos of my apartment!

Here's my apartment from the outside... I'm on the third floor with the bay window.


This is my kitchen looking out onto the balcony and the back of the apartment






From the backdoor looking out...


The balcony!

The bedroom (note the boxes)- and the little cupboard hides the water heater which cycles on and off all night long. Not super restful.



The bathtub/sink combo in my bedroom... There are curtains to provide privacy when guests are here, I guess.



The living room with the all to the kitchen on the left...None of those African decorations will be here after tomorrow though ):


Living Room looking out the bay window.


The "Reading Nook"/Guest Room/Dressing Room part of the living room.


View from the bay window...

View from the "Reading Nook" and FINALLY....



My bike... the trusty steed that gets me around.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Airports from Hell

I just read a great article by the "Ask the Pilot" section of salon.com where he invited readers to submit their favorite and least favorite airports in. I wish I had known about it before. It made me think about my own fine experiences hopping around airports throughout the world.

The worst: IAD, Dulles in DC - my former home airport for foreign travel. No internet connection unless you sit on the filthy floor outside the airline clubs, unhealthy, disgusting food (unless you get to the very new terminal which must be situated in Maryland because it takes hours to walk there) and god help you if you take the USAIR regional jet terminal - you walk forever to find the gate, get on a bus, drive around across runways for 40 minutes, arrive in a prefab building attached to nothing with a million people packed in, not enough seats for them all, no signs, and a truly expensive 'deli'. It was more like a bus station than an airport.

Charles De Gaulle, Paris France - spent all their space on long walkways to the plane and then put customs, transit, baggage claim, info and all those long runways emptying into a 6 foot area. Rude employees who smoke in front of you.

But the best has to be my third world experiences:

Monrovia, Liberia - Chaos, bullet holes, outrageous humidity, go through customs and the door doesn't fit into the frame, its leaning next to it. Sells Massengil douche in the 'gift shop'

Lungi in Freetown Sierra Leone - located on an island - you can take the drunken Bulgarian piloted helicopter to the mainland or the decrepit Greek 1940s era ferry that dodges wrecks of ferries that didn't make it before.

Conakry in Guinea- crowds of touts, threatening, heavily armed guards pushing past you and yelling at you, if you don't know your weight in kilos, they make you sit on a scale used to weigh luggage.

Cairo, Egypt - I was herded into a room filled with angry Yemeni youth about to be deported from Egypt and being kept under armed guard. Everytime they rose up as one to demand better treatment, the Egyptian police laughed and slapped a few of them. Frightened US tourists huddled by the metal detector. People take your passports for hours on end. The shuttle bus driver tries to shake you down for money. the gift shops sell the most appalling gaudy faux Egyptian crap I've ever seen.

Let me think - I'll send some more. Add some comments with your faves and least faves!

Fighting the Tyranny of the Morning People

Late risers unite in Denmark
By Chris Morris BBC News, Denmark

If you find it hard to get up in the morning, don't despair - you're not lazy, you're just genetically programmed that way, says the B-Society in Denmark.

I have still got a rather nasty bruise on my shin at the moment after the flawed execution of my latest elaborate plan - to make sure I did not miss the dreaded early morning flight. I was sleeping rather fitfully in the spare room downstairs, trying to avoid waking up the rest of the house, when the time ticked around to 4.30. First the phone alarm on the bedside table chirruped. I soon dealt with that. But then one minute later the alarm clock cunningly hidden on the other side of the room burst into life. The trick is to place an obstacle - in this case my son's rickety wooden rocking horse - in your path, making immediate access difficult. Now I know it is not my fault. I am a B-person

The idea, obviously, is that by the time you find the blasted clock you are awake.
The trouble was, in this case, in my bleary-eyed trance, I forgot about the horse altogether and crashed into it at some speed. Searing pain, followed by muffled obscenities, left me lying in a heap on the floor, the alarm clock still beeping impatiently. I made the flight, the sunrise looked lovely, but boy do I hate mornings. But it is OK. Now I know it is not my fault. I am a B-person.

A B-person - as opposed to an A-person - genetically pre-disposed to operate better and to be more alert later in the day. Denmark it seems is full of B-people. So where better to form the B-society? Six months after it was set up, it already boasts several thousand members. Now it is campaigning hard for businesses to sign up to its B-certification list. The glazed looks on the faces of grumpy commuters are disturbingly familiar "We're calling," the society proclaims in its manifesto, "for an uprising against the tyranny of early rising." Mmm, sounds good.

But how does it work in practice? Rush-hour in Copenhagen seems relatively sedate to me - it is certainly not central London on a wet Monday morning. But the glazed looks on the faces of grumpy commuters are disturbingly familiar. So, time to find some B-pioneers.

Flexible working
One strong cup of coffee later and I was on my way to meet Stephen Alstrup who runs his own B-certified company. By the time he gets to his train station the platform is empty and so are most of the seats on his commuter train. "I'm useless early in the morning," he says cheerfully. "All I can do is drink coffee, and stare into space." "People used to get up early because they had to feed the animals. But I haven't got any cows or chickens, so I can sleep late." And when we get to Stephen's office, that is empty too - apart from one member of staff who has been there most of the night and is just leaving, and the company's only A-person who actually enjoys the early start.

The rest of them arrive when they choose - any time up to 3.30pm or so - each to their own rhythm.

Business benefits
It is a small hi-tech company and Stephen needs brains which are working at full speed.
It used to be called disorganised but not any more "Everybody gains," he says, "they're here when they're fully awake, and the business benefits." More confusing for me is the guy who works to a 25 hour clock. If he is in at 10 today, it will be 11 tomorrow, then 12 - you can get the general idea. I do not know where his cycle had got to when we called at the office but there was certainly no sign of him by midday. It used to be called disorganised, but not any more, not in Denmark. His body clock is just different.

And it is not just businesses which are getting in on the act. Are you a teenager who cannot get out of bed in the morning? Or a parent who never quite gets the kids to school on time? Fear not - the Danes may have the solution: B-classes.

Work-life balance
From next year a school in Copenhagen will offer classes which start later in the day - at 10 instead of eight. It is likely to prove popular. Some people might think you're lazy - but there's more to it than that Danish Minister Carina Christensen Even the government seems to like the idea. Work-life balance is a big political issue in Denmark, Families Minister Carina Christensen tells me. And B-philosophy fits right in with the need for a flexible labour force. When I confess that I think I am a B-person, she gives me a comforting smile. "Don't worry," she says, "some people might think you're lazy - but there's more to it than that."

Well, I hope so. The B-society and its founder Camilla Kring are certainly convinced that they are on to a winner. "It's a 24/7 society," she says, as we sit in a park and watch some swans... swanning around. "Our institutions have got to move with the times." Quite so. Which means the choice should be yours. As one famous Dane once said: "To B or not to B?" In modern life, that really is the question.

Normality?

Things are getting more normal here in Amsterdam. Sorry for the blah blah blah post - it wasn't a comment on how I felt about Jeopardy but was supposed to be a placeholder until I had the inclination to write more. I guess last week was a pretty tough week for me.

I had forgotten how hard it can be to be new in an area. While I have friends here from before, they, of course, have their own lives. Everyone here is super scheduled like in DC or are married with kids so it changes the dynamics. And - after spending 8 hours a day at work talking to strangers, trying to figure out what it is I'm supposed to do and learn all the crazy acronyms that come along with this particular organization, I'm often quite tired, fed up, and cranky when I get home. I want the easy comfort of my DC friendships where we can go to the 'local' and bitch and moan and laugh or I can just say -come on over and lets order Chinese and watch crap tv. I don't really have anyone to do that with here.

But I talked it out with my fellow expat - Mike D (yo! Wat up?)- and realized that I can't just sit on my ass and expect the world to come to me, as nice as that might be. So after a week of feeling like I might be invisible, feeling like I was destined to die alone in this apartment and noone would notice until the smell got too bad and they would break in by my back balcony to find me dead in the tiny closet of the bathroom, I had that day where I cried a bit. Cursed a bit. Had a good pout. Made nasty comments out loud on my balcony hoping that the loving couple that kiss each other on the balcony all the time could hear me. Then I got a grip.

I went online and joined a group - something called Meetin.org that organizes events for a mostly expat crowd. I went onto an online dating site and set up a blind date. I signed up for a pilates class and found a tango class. I got on my bike and explored the city on Saturday afternoon. Shopped in the street market- bought peonies, strawberries, toyed with the idea of buying an antique linen nightie. Sat in a cafe called "The Cat in the Vineyard" reading my latest New Yorker with a bunch of jolly old Dutch women who kept laughing, ordering more drinks, inviting in more jolly old Dutch women and finally just took over my table and sat with me. They didn't speak English but included me in their conversation, nonetheless. after about twenty minutes, I decided to give up my seat for the latest old fat jolly Dutch Woman who was arriving and move on. I rode for a while down to Prinzengracht and as it started to rain, chained up my bike and went into a cafe for a cappucino. Lovely!

Rode around and explored for a while. Almost got pushed into a canal by a guy in a Range Rover (these streets are narrow!). I went into the Blues Record Shop that I've been walking by for the past three years that's never been open. Chatted up the owner who told me of a good concert coming up. Found a CD that I will buy when I get over the shock of paying 20 Euros for a CD. I made the mistake of going down Spui street and almost ran into some tourists and almost fell off my bike. Went to a photo exhibit outside the church near where Anne Frank's house is - amazing photos by Stephen Bloom.

I met three new people at the Botanical Gardens the next day and have events to go to this weekend. Friends are coming to visit in the next few weeks. And work is getting better. I may be headed to Papua New Guinea or Nepal in the next month to look at the issue of gender-based violence. Or to Central African Republic although the recent death of a MSF employee there makes that very doubtful.

So - normality approaches. I keep riding that bike to work every day, getting a little more fit and a little more confident each day.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Morphing slowly into a Dutchwoman?

After a long 4 day weekend in Berlin with my high school friend, Mike, I returned to Amsterdam. I was feeling a little apprehensive... things hadn't been completely hunky dory here - while I had met some people, I had an apartment, and my work was now starting to make sense - the easy laughs and enjoyment one feels when one is with a good friend was going to be hard to forget. To make matters worse, as Mike and his neighbor Kimmo (a very funny Finnish journalist) dropped me at the airport, I found myself with a rowdy drunk group of Dutch people returning home after a party weekend in Berlin. They all laughed uproariously and joked and jostled about as I opened up my book to read - solitary again. As we started our descent into Amsterdam, the atmosphere was oppressively dark and damp. The flat, neat, squares of Dutch farms looked green but the rolling hills, forests, and cityscape of Berlin seemed livelier somehow. When I arrived in my apartment filled with another person's art and belongings, my sense of not belonging increased.

The next day, I went off to work, determined to really try to understand my new job and organization and at least find some satisfaction through my job. I had a long meeting with my soon to be boss about her vision of what I should do. Rather than finding juicy new issues to sink my teeth in, I was shocked to hear that she was particularly interested in my ability to look at health data collection systems and analyze them. In other words, back to the world of MEASURE Evaluation! Now, rather than feeling challenged to do this in a way that includes my interest in gender and gender-based violence, instead I remembered how bored and unappreciated I felt that whole time with my terrible bosses Anne and Erin. How they constantly put me down and held me back from doing anything fulfilling.

I left work that day and headed home on the tram, spying my bus waiting for me at Central Station as the tram pulled in. I ran for the bus and missed it as it pulled off. Since I live in the North West of the town, the buses only run every 30 minutes. Deciding whether or not it would be better to wait for 30 minutes or walk home which would take about 25 minutes (and yes, it was starting to rain), I started to step off a curb, jumped back from a bicycle, twisted my ankle and fell off my Dansko clogs into the path of a tram. Luckily, it was stopped at the light and I picked myself up. Scraped up knee, twisted ankle, and damaged pride seemed to be my only injuries but I cursed the entire city of Amsterdam for my bad luck. DAMN YOU AMSTERDAM!!!!!! I spent the rest of the evening listening to the radio because my cable TV was out and reading the MSF policy on abortion and thinking about the women of Darfur. Not very uplifting. I was inspired that night to look harder for the missing bicycle keys that were stashed in my apartment somewhere. The next day, I got the bicycle out and decided to ride to work. I hadn't ridden a bicycle in at least a year and rush hour bicycling in Amsterdam is not for the faint hearted. I followed an older woman who seemed to know what she was doing and cruised along the highways. Amsterdam has separate bike lanes on the highways and traffic lights just for bikers. A very sane approach. Everything was going pretty well until I got right behind Centraal Station where the ferries from the islands in the North dock. People WHIP off those ferries on their bikes and stream out onto the lanes. I wobbled through them - and made it out alive. I finally arrived at work about 20 minutes later - a little sweaty, a little anxious, but alive!!! I was very proud of myself.

Wednesday was also the first day of our CO-days (which I don't know what it means but I think means Country Officers Days). All of the medical directors from our programs out in the field gather in Holland for a series of presentations on issues and stimulating discussion about solutions. I attended a session on Reproductive Health and watched as our medical directors from Sudan, Ivory Coast, Somalia, and Colombia presented tangible examples of the things I've always studied. It was thrilling. I rode my bike home that night, feeling a little steadier, a little more confident, and a little less unsure of myself. Slowly, I'm morphing into a Dutch woman; I suppose - on my bicycle, by the canals, and over the bridges - not just a lonely expat.

Monday, May 21, 2007

My New Commute Home!

Today was my first day commuting to work from my new apartment. although the woman I'm renting the apartment from has given me her bicycle, she doesn't know where the keys are so I'm still looking for them and don't have a bike to ride to work yet. So - on the way to work, I took the bus and then transferred to the tram. Whipping along on the way to work with all the other commuters, I didn't really get a good feel for my commute so I decided to walk home and explore a little bit more.

I work near the zoo in the East (Oost) part of town. It’s a nice area with the zoo, the Botanical Gardens, and the Jewish Historical museum. Right as I was about to walk across the bridge over a canal, the bells started ringing – the bridge was opening. The great thing about the canals here are that they are mostly working canals! Two big flat boats (ships? Tankers?) came slowly through the canals – with big Dutch guys at the helm and lacy curtains and flowers in the windows of the boats. As the crowd started to gather at the edges of the bridge, we watched the ‘gatemaster’ wave to the boats and prepare to close the bridge. There is only one gatemaster, I think. He rides a small moped and wears a uniform. He zooms from bridge to bridge opening them and closing them as the boats slowly cruise along the canals.

I joined the throngs of people crossing over the canal on their bikes, on foot, and with two trams waiting. The weather was nice but a bit overcast. I decided to walk the whole way home, finding my way along rather than using a map. I crossed through Waterlooplein, where there is a big daily market, and continued down past the Chinese dimsum place that Corinne and I found the other weekend. As I walked along, I was behind a woman with EXTREMELY tight jeans on walking a small Yorkshire terrier. She had the handle for the leash tucked in her back pocket as she smoked a joint and sashayed along on high heels. She waved at all the bars as we walked by – me right behind her. Finally she turned around to hug a woman walking by and I realized she was a transsexual (or Transgendered person)! She had an extremely deep voice and was Asian. A HERMASIAN!

At that point, I was making my way through the Red Light District. Although it was only 6pm, the prostitutes were working and unlike Friday night when I showed around my friend Rick’s coworker, there were actually men going in to the little rooms. I was wondering if anyone actually went in there or if it was just drunk English bachelor parties harassing them. I continued to walk along through some of the allies and side streets filled with coffee shops and bars. I passed the sex shops and the fast-food shops and slowly moved into the reggae clothes/porno DVDs/marijuana paraphernalia/ postcards/Amsterdam hoodies section of town. I kept walking and eventually hit the West part of town and a street called Haarlemerstraat – a very cute boutique filled shop where there seemed to be less tourists and more Dutch people. There are some lovely cafes there and suddenly (!!) I came upon the West India House – the site of Corinne and Remco’s wedding reception. I remember some hysterical times there laughing with Alec and Carolyn out by the canal. I passed Portuguese delis, olive oil emporiums, trendy dress shops, scuba diving shops, bakeries, and shoe shops.

As I walked down the street and headed north, I crossed canals until I got to my neighborhood. I’m not sure of the name of the neighborhood but Tasmanstraat – parallels the Ij (river? Lake? Pond? ). I’m on the third floor (sorry – I thought it was the second!) with a nice view of the river (lake? Pond? Sea? ) and some trees… It’s 9:30 at night and the sun is still shining. I’m off to Berlin on Thursday to see my friend Mike Dumiak and learn more about Chad and the Central African Republic where my next trip might be…