My Experience on a Paris-bound Train from Amsterdam

When I started this blog, I didn’t have a clear vision of what it should be.  Part travel log, part documentary capturing what I’ve learned living abroad, I guess I can’t help that my emotional experiences have been playing a larger role.  I’m been thinking about writing this post for some time, but haven’t really “felt” enough about it until last week to be able to do so.

Since last week, I’ve been overwhelmingly affected by the goings-on regarding ISIS in the news.   I’ve had nauseating levels of high anxiety about the close proximity of what is happening around me, just a few hours down the road in Belgium, on a quick high speed train to France, and just a mile from one of my best friends in northern Paris.  I keep thinking about the political climate in the Netherlands, about how I wouldn’t understand the language if an emergency situation broke out around me, about how likely it is that terrorist cells are hiding here waiting to activate, or how fleeing terrorists could easily drive up the road and cross into the Netherlands or take a train to Centraal in Amsterdam.

It feels like everything I’ve experienced in the last year is tumbling over me.  The death of my father and aunt from the same disease, a stressful apartment move not by choice, getting married quickly and planning it from across the ocean, planning another more traditional wedding for next year, and riding the train from Amsterdam to Paris where American soldiers foiled a terrorist attack.

For the first time I am feeling a residual trauma from being on that train.  With the recent news that the mastermind behind the Paris attacks was killed, and the revelation that he was also the brains behind the foiled attack on the train that could have killed me, I finally want to come to terms with my experience.

I am not writing this to take or hear a political side.  I am saddened and further stressed everyday watching things unfold in social media, wondering if I “like” one article, I’ll have a barrage of people agreeing and disagreeing with me.  I’ve learned that conflict in my personal life is something that gives me a lot of anxiety.   I feel disgusted by seeing the reactions of some of my connections, and guilt for not feeling confident enough to post my opinions to avoid conflict.  I know you can’t have it both ways by posting in a public forum, but I think I therapeutically need to write this to begin to heal.

On Friday, August 21, 2015, Uri and I boarded the Thalys train at Amsterdam’s Schiphol station.  Before boarding, we looked at the sign that showed where to stand on the tracks in order to be in the right location for your assigned train car, and I mentioned how nice it was that it could be that efficient.  We settled in for the journey, and I spent most of the time listening to an audiobook, playing a game on my iPhone.  Uri did some work on his laptop.  We had the type of train ticket that allowed us to have a free but very dysfunctional wifi while we were not in our home country and thus not able to use cellular data.  Apparently if you get the cheapest train ticket option you are not able to have wifi.  I was WhatApp’ing with my friend that we were traveling to visit. She is French, living in Paris with her boyfriend, and one of my closest friends.

“Ugh, I think something is wrong with the train. It’s been moving slowly for a half hour.  We are only just south of Arras,” I said to her at 6:08pm.  “Keep me posted. Don’t worry,” she said.  Little did I know that my near-death experience had already unfolded, and I had no idea.  We heard a soft sounding alarm keep going off, and I complained to Uri that someone must have propped a door open or something.  I complained that the sound was quite annoying.  Only a few train cars away, a terrorist had gone into the bathroom and prepped his Kalashnikov, with enough ammo and misguided intention to take out most of the train. His attack was foiled by American soldiers and other travelers who by dumb luck or fate or whatever, were in the right place at the right time with the right amount of bravery or just sheer brazenness to save the entire train from a massacre.

Meanwhile, I’m still texting with my friend, “They are making announcements but they are in French and I can only understand ‘police’  … now we have to change trains.”  I asked the conductor why we were disembarking, and in broken French he said to me, “Because there is a terrorist on our train.”  “Perhaps he meant a bad guy with a gun, but surely that’s all it could be,” I said to Uri.

We exited the train, and there I saw a bloodied man in a stretcher.  We were escorted further down the tracks and stood for a bit in a state of confusion with our fellow passengers. I asked an officer in French if I could quickly use the bathroom, although they were still searching the train for what I did not know.  He led me in quickly, I did my business, and when exiting, another officer looked at me, and the original officer told him I was just using the bathroom.  We exchanged a smirk as he shook his head at me, slightly bemused.

After some confusion on the platform in Arras, they loaded us onto another train that was now stuck and waiting.  Passengers grumbled since seats were assigned and we were filling their train, seemingly cheating the system without assigned seats.  I was separated from Uri and grabbed a seat next to a young French man, while Uri sat closer to the door.  There, I searched the internet using the terms, “Arras + Thalys” and with my low-level French I could only understand in the article that I found, “ouvert le feu.”  I asked the man next to me if that meant, “opened fire” as I expected, and he read the article and said to me, “There was a terrorist on your train.”  The train sat mostly in silence with a few whispers wondering if they were looking for an accomplice or if the shooter was subdued, or if we were ever going to get to our destination. It seemed to us all like it  was all maybe all rumor, or we were still just hoping it was so.

After about another hour, now 8:30pm, still in Arras, everyone was removed from the train and told to go to a gymnasium down the street.  People were still milling outside the station and rumors were circulating about a possible bomb at the station.  I was starving, scared, and it was getting dark.  Uri and I knew we were not getting to Paris that night, so we left the scene to the hotel we saw just across the street.  We checked in, and got back onto our phones with wifi to check the news.  It was there that we realized what fate we had nearly escaped.  By this time, it had hit the news that there really was a terrorist on the train.  That he had an automatic rifle and a barrage of ammunition.  I had to look up the word “Kalashnikov” because I thought maybe what I thought it meant couldn’t have possibly been true. But, it was.

I’d like to say at this point that I felt a sheer state of panic, or relief, or fear, or anything. But I felt nothing.  I felt a bit outside of my body like it was happening to someone else. I asked Uri what he felt, and he also said nothing.  We felt like we were late for Paris and annoyed at the logistics of that.  We felt like what we read in the news didn’t actually happen on our train.  We said we felt really lucky that we didn’t see anything and we were clueless to the entire experience until it was over.  I don’t think I felt much of anything else about being on that train until last week, to be honest.

We had a nice dinner at a randomly chosen restaurant in Arras, with our eye on the news and on our phone feeds.  The next day, we headed to the station to get our complimentary tickets to Paris, and were grateful we made the decision not to wait around until the middle of the night for the first trains to travel to Gare du Nord.

Following that day, we tried to have a normal weekend in Paris with our friends. We basically went back to our lives with the exception of a few moments of relief and feeling lucky things didn’t turn out differently.  I spent a few weeks going back and forth with Thalys about my jacket that I left on the train and they ended up recovering it and getting it back to me. I recounted my experience that day dozens of times, and exchanged shared looks of relief with friends, and disdain for the happenings in the world around us, but again, I wasn’t really feeling it.  I wondered if I would and was relieved that I didn’t.

Last week, when Paris was attacked, my mortality and vulnerability hit me in the face.  My heart has been fluttering with anxiety for hours on end ever since.  What if those soldiers weren’t on that train?  What if I bought my ticket 5 minutes earlier or later and sat in a train car where I would have seen more?  What if Uri had requested first class tickets in the same train car it happened, since he had to work on the train that day and it would have been more comfortable? What if I go outside today and someone sprays me with bullets?  What if someone implodes himself at the convention center across the street? Or at the school?  Or in Dam Square? “Don’t be ridiculous,” I’ve been told. “It is very unlikely that you would be involved in something like that.”  Why, because it hasn’t happened before?

I wrote this account immediately after I learned that the ringleader in the attacks was killed in a police raid.  The news said that he was, in fact, responsible for the foiled attack on the train I was on, along with many others.  And I am sure we will learn more and more, and things will continue to change and evolve. For now, I have a small sense of relief because justice for myself and everyone on that train has somewhat been served. Or maybe not.  I am still feeling high levels of anxiety about my own personal vulnerability and mortality.

But mind over matter, right? Life goes on, and should go on, otherwise, what is there to live for?

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33 Birthday Cakes, First Time Solo

33 Birthday Cakes, First Time Solo

It’s my birthday today, but it’s also my dad’s. It’s also been just about 6 months since he died. I don’t know what to do with myself today, since it’s the first of the rest of my birthdays I don’t get to share with him. I’m not ready to celebrate. Instead, here’s what I had to say about my dad 6 months ago, and here’s the last shared birthday cake photo we took together when I turned 30 and he turned 56.

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My dad had a few last requests when he was diagnosed with cancer only 10 days ago: to have a living wake where he could see his family and friends, to eat a 16 oz steak and a lobster tail, and to get out of the hospital and home to see his birds. These requests pretty much outline the person that he was: his family and friends were near and dear to his heart even when far away, happiness for him was a good steak and the correctly chosen seafood, and he took pleasure in the little things like his garden and watching the birds.

His strength and personality in the last week of his life represented who he was as well. Despite the adversity of sickness he experienced, he was still my dad in his last days. He was still able to make people laugh and tell them he was going to need to negotiate with Peter to let him through the gates. He also said he was happy that he did not have to “watch the Phillies lose another season this year”. He commanded with clear cut precision how he wanted his pot roast sliced when I fed him, he knew how to explain where his pains were and how to request Doris to move that pillow to the left, or a little more to the right. He made funny faces at me and told inappropriate jokes. The nurses in the oncology ward were smitten him. He was full of passionate stories. The last story he told me was about how my mom and he used to drive around and pick up scrap metal to sell back to the junk yards.
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Here are some things I’d like everyone to know about my dad, especially in his recent years:

I was born on my dad’s birthday. We have had a shared birthday cake for 32 years. I used to complain that I never had my own birthday cake, and my dad teased me that it was worse for him, since his name got downgraded on his cake from “Paul” to “Dad”. It was a running joke between us, and the reality is that our shared birthday was just another way that showed how special and unique the bond was between us. I will always celebrate his birthday in the future when I celebrate my own.

He loved his garden and tending to his flowers. He would meticulously tend to his garden every spring and summer. At each of my visits, he would walk me around the garden and show me each and every flower that was growing. He and Doris spent so much of their free time in the garden and caring for their house. We tried today to represent the flowers that he loved so much, and I’m sure he would complain that we got some of them wrong.

For years, we have completed a crossword puzzle together every time I have seen him. The smell of a pencil and newspaper remind me of him. Only a few days ago, I sat in his bed and read him out clues. The last one he solved for me was “Orange and black flier, 6 letters.” He told me the answer was “Oriole.”

My dad was memorably super intelligent to a lot of people. He is the smartest person I know and I am proud to say that. You can never play Jeopardy with him because he will know the answer before you finish hearing the question. When I started traveling and eventually moved to Europe, we would be on Skype weekly and he would tell me facts and history about any city in the world that I would be visiting. It never ceased to amazed me how much he knew about everything. He told me in his last days that he was so proud of me for living abroad and traveling, and i am forever grateful that he left me with that.

He called me names like “Wabbit” and “Duckyface” and “Sweetiepie”. I see him in my nose, my hands, and my toes.

One of my best memories of him was driving to Boston in his rented Seabring convertible. We listened over and over again to Led Zeppelin and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Because my dad loves reminiscing and he always wanted a good time, I’d like to spend the last minutes together listening to one of his favorite songs. Please think about your favorite memories of him and please help me and Doris to ensure that he is not forgotten.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aae_RHRptRg

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “I’ve Become My Parents.”

Finding New Life Currencies

It’s been almost a year and a half since I started this blog, and things have changed quite a lot.  

Since moving to Amsterdam, I’ve seen over 30 places across 14 countries, some multiple times.  95% of these places I’ve visited have been first time visits to new countries or new cities for me.

What happens when you go from seeing 1-2 new places a year to 30+?  You get used to it.  Just like a fish that grows bigger in a bigger fish bowl that it is given, or people whose “needs” become inflated when their income rises, everything in life normalizes around your new level.  I find myself having to watch for how I present travels to my friends and family at home. I have to remember what it was like before I moved here, to hear what people that had these opportunities or this access sounded like to that version of me.  I have to put myself back in my old shoes.

You learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, because it is your new normal.   I bounce greetings and thanks across different languages without being ashamed at my poor accent. I meet new people from countries around the world regularly, and I learn new cultural nuances, witty phrases, political stances, and social sensitivities. On a more practical level, I don’t think twice that I will not understand emergency announcements or delayed train explanations on a platform. I am comfortable that my iPhone may very well not work, and that I’ll need to find my way without the blue dot of Google Maps.

This concept of normalizing to new levels, spun negatively, feels like you are never satisfied.  Spun positively, you can always handle what you are given.  Other things that happened this year that are pretty major: I got engaged, I’m planning two weddings (thanks to my marriage to an Australian, I get a legal we-need-to-apply-for-a- green-card-stat ceremony with family, as well as our dream wedding in France), my father died unexpectedly when I lived across the world away from family and friends, and as a result of the overwhelmedness, lack of motivation, and severe lack of focus, I’ve decided to reevaluate the career I’ve been had for the last 10 years.  

So I’m in a place I never saw myself in even 3 years ago:  in a loving and committed lifelong relationship, fatherless, and questioning my career.  Re-defining who I am now is quite a feat; I call it, “finding my new life currency”. What is that thing that now defines my value?  I thought that once I “made it” in my New York career, that I had everything figured out.  I figured out how to define my value in life, and anyone doing it differently was not as smart, not as motivated, not as strong-willed.  Having my job and excelling in my career defined me. Working hard and late, having many projects running at the same time, spending my hard earned money on rent, eating out, and drinking defined me. Being a New Yorker defined me.  

I wasn’t unhappy, but there was a time limit to this way of living for me.  Once I hit a certain age or time of my life, I suddenly realized that I didn’t actually care about the job I was doing; I was just really motivated that I was really good at doing it.  I realized that this was not enough for me – being really good at something I really didn’t care about.  It was time to move to a different place and change my perspective.  

Throughout this process I am finding a way to learn and believe that parallel or sideways growth is just as much a movement upward as moving upward in your job or your income level. My first mentor once told me that a great and fulfilled life does not look like a ladder that only climbed up in the end, but instead is a mosaic of different points, skills, jobs, and experiences.  And when you stand back to look, it has actually resulted in a beautiful piece of art.

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip: Part 1- Abruzzo

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip: Part 1- Abruzzo

It’s been 6 months since I’ve posted, and it’s time to get started again, I think.  We’ve been in the Netherlands now for a year and 3 months. I’ll come back and reflect on that later.  But for my coming back party, I decided to take a different angle on my travel posts.  You’ll read a documentation of my travels, and I’ve also sprinkled in more pragmatic facts about the trips and some tips. First up is what I’ve been calling, “Little Italy’s Heritage Trip.”  It’s one of the two major trips Uri and I have planned for this year.

Inspired by my father, who passed away suddenly just 2 months ago (a reason for my blogging absence), I dedicate this blog posting to him.  He was passionate about knowledge: knowing where we came from, the history of the world, and many other things.  Some of my fondest memories span back to my childhood, when he would show me how he knew everything about everything I studied in history classes in school.  In recent memory, we studied my ancestry together right before I moved to Europe. We traced our family back to the boats they arrived on from Italy a few generations back, and were able to come up with one town name of my mother’s father’s parents: Bisenti, in Abruzzo, Italy.  And then this trip was born.

Friday-Saturday, May 15-16, 2015

We arrived at Rome FCO after a 3 hour flight delay, exhausted at 1:30am. Given the Italian reputation for early or erratic closures, we were ecstatic the car rental place stayed open for us. We drove the 20 minutes to our airport hotel/motel, and settled in for the evening.

On our first full day of our trip, we awoke and hit the road to Abruzzo, stopping off on the way in a town called Tivoli at the grand Villa d’Este. A mini Italian Versailles with palatial gardens and fountains, Villa d’Este is full of Italian marble and stone, statues, and gorgeously sculpted trees. It was a beautiful find, with Italian and other tourist visitors, but definitely “off the beaten track” as it was at least 45 minutes outside of Rome.

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2 hours drive later, including a drive through a 10.176 kilometer long tunnel (6.32 miles) under the Gran Sasso mountains, we arrived in the Abruzzo region, in the area of Teramo. (Side note:  There is a nuclear physics laboratory inside the mountains accessed by this tunnel!) Our B&B for the next two nights, La Grande Quercia, was located on a mountain road full of switchbacks, tucked on the side of a mountain next to a farm, in the area of Teramo.

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Owned by Russ & Sergio, I already felt like I knew them when we arrived, given that I’d been trading emails with Russ for a week or more prior to arriving. Visiting Abruzzo to see the village of Bisenti, I was on the search to find anything of my grandfather’s parents on my mother’s side. Russ & Sergio had already found birth certificates and marriage certificates for my great grandparents, and were hunting to solve the mystery of the place of my grandfathers birth. After a series of searches and visits to registrar and archive offices, they were able to uncover that my third cousin works at the post office in Bisenti. They called him and soon it was arranged for me to meet him and his mom (my cousin through marriage). His brother also lived in the area and spoke English but unfortunately wouldn’t be able to make the visit.

But back to La Grande Quercia. On our first half day, we went into Teramo for a late afternoon aperitif. One glass of wine each got us an incredible amount of food while we sat and people watched in the town. That week, the area was full of “alpinos” or elite mountain warfare soldiers of the Italian Army, according to Wikipedia. They wore funny hats with feather sticking out, like Robin Hood. We’ll meet them again later.

After we arrived home a bit later, we went to La Grande Quercia’s main house and ended up chatting and drinking with Russ & Sergio, including a bottle (maybe more?) of prosecco. I also got to call my English-speaking cousin, Luca and speak to him. What an experience. I can’t explain the feeling… I had this idea to visit this town when my father and I did some ancestry research as a way to spend a day together before I left to live in Europe. A year later, my father unexpectedly passed away from undiscovered and metastasized lung cancer. A few weeks later, this trip was set and at best I thought we’d go to the town of Bisenti, maybe visit the church where I would guess my great-grandparents were married. But here, I ended up uncovering my real, live cousins. Although this is the family of my mother’s father (no relation to my father) the experience connects me to my dad and his wishes in a way I could never explain. It’s one of the saddest experiences of my life not to be able to share this with him, but one of the most fulfilling experiences and proudest moments at the same time, to be able to carry on this passion for where I came from — a passion I inherited from him.

After this chat with Luca, we eventually remembered our dinner reservations and found ourselves at a restaurant called La Fortina for dinner. It was a wedding venue at the top of a hill and here we realized how off the beaten track we truly were… There was no translation of the menu in sight. We relied on instinct and a few rough translations of a few words by our waitress. I ended up with a delicious walnut and cheese ravioli primi and a shared veal scallopini limone for a secondi. After dinner, I rushed home to call my mom and Aunt, to tell them of the day’s discoveries.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday morning, we ate a quaint but gorgeous breakfast of Italian quiche, coffee, and juices provided by Russ & Sergio, and took some photos with the Alpini (in the funny Robin Hood hats) before they set off.

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At this point we were the only people staying at the B&B. This freed up Russ & Sergio to drive us 40 minutes down and around winding switchback mountain hills into the little village town of Bisenti. There in the parking lot, my cousin and his mom were waiting for us (as well as a few members of the town, who were milling about curiously and watching us). Immediately we were on to hugs and kisses and Italian chattering and exclamations of “Bella Bella!” My cousin reminded me as an intro that Bisenti’s claim to fame was that it is the birthplace of Pontius Pilate.

We were escorted into their home, stepping back in time to the 50’s or earlier. It is a  house that looks just like the homes of my own grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Religious paraphernalia is all over the walls, along with doilies, plastic couches, and black and white photos of family everywhere. We were immediately handed tiramisu and an Italian soda and when the tiramisu was gone we were handed another slice. After an hour or so of intense translating, Italian speaking to me I couldn’t understand, excitement, tears, and reviewing photocopied paperwork documents, we took a ride to two cemeteries to see grave sites of my extended family. This included the husband and father of the family I just met, and gravestone’s with my mom’s family’s names dating back to the early 1800s. In order to get us all to the cemetery, Russ rode in the trunk of the car. It was hilarious and also touching to see what these people I just met were doing for me. It adjusts your perspective about the goodness and generosity of people in this world.  I had a good cry in the cemetery with my newfound cousin (the mom).  The irony was not lost on me, that we stood and cried a few tears at her husband’s grave, and I fondly thought of my dad.

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After the cemeteries our family hosts treated us to “ just a few snacks” for lunch, which included bread from the neighbors, three types of cheeses, bolognese pasta, the most amazing spreadable pork sausage, and red table wine. Then desserts of panettone bread, chocolate, coffee and ice cream were forced lovingly upon us despite our insistence of being full – just like home!  After more time chatting and translating, it was finally time to set off back to the B&B. My cousin’s mom hugged me and cried, asked us not to forget them, and told me she never had a daughter and wished she had one like me. It was emotional and surreal and one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

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After a twisty and turny ride back to the B&B, Uri and I rested up a bit, chatted with Sergio about the pros and cons of owning a B&B, then were dressing for a dinner we were invited to by our lovely hosts. They had 4 friends visiting (a couple that were previous guests and now locally-living friends, and the wife’s parents). We were invited into this intimate dinner and truly touched we were. It was full of wine and prosecco, funny stories, the freshest and tastiest tomatoes I’ve ever had (ever!), beans, and fresh baked bread. The meal centered around the sheep (not lamb!) skewers known in Abruzzo called Arrosticini, as well as spicy, plain, and liver sausages. We drank and laughed with our new friends and their friends, and truly forgot we just met these people the day before. It was then another late night to sleep in our little gorgeous little guesthouse room.  The next morning we would be off to Rome.

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Abruzzo (Teramo) Travel Tips:

— First off, the Abruzzo region was a highlight of our trip. Although we didn’t get to see outside of Teramo, there are beaches and wineries close by, and of course the mountains. The food is spectacular, and it is unmarred by tourists.  It is an easy two-hour drive east of Rome, on essentially one road.

— Consider staying in Teramo for a visit to the Abruzzo region. It’s central, close to the mountains and the beach, and it’s positively gorgeous. I’d recommend renting a car. There are buses from the airports but I am not familiar with their ease or extent.

— Visit Villa D’Este either while in a longer trip to Rome, or on your way to Abruzzo.  It was also a trip highlight for me, and there were again other little nooks and crannies in that region still that we didn’t get the chance to see.

Like what you’re reading?  You can continue on to Part 2 of this trip here!

Dedicated to the loving memories of my dad, Paul Albergo, 1956-2015

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‘Tis the Season

It’s holiday season, so it’s a good time to reflect on foreign holidays, and celebrating holidays as an expat abroad.  

If you are an outsider looking in, it’s amazing the weird and interesting things you see people to do in the name of religious tradition or secular holiday tradition, or “because it’s the way it has always been done.” Co-habitating with someone with a differing religious background to my own and from a different country as well, is already cause for interesting revelations like this for me every day.  Fun fact: Uri and I only share one holiday all year on the same day (New Year’s). I try to explain why coloring eggs and then searching for them around the house for Easter is normal.  Or why kids leave carrots out for reindeer on Christmas Eve.  Or how bread and wine get turned into the body and blood of Jesus at Mass…every Sunday.  Or why you must barbeque on Independence Day, or drink your face off the night before Thanksgiving with your high school friends.  Admittedly for myself as well, much that we do or believe is “because we always have.”

King’s Day

I’ve had my fair share of outside-looking-in holiday experiences here in Amsterdam.  First there was Konigsdag, or King’s Day, in April, which can only be described as Mardi Gras-meets-Independence Day multiplied by 100.  A celebration of the current monarch’s birthday, the Netherlands celebrated it’s first King’s Day this year, changing over from what used to be Queen’s Day since 1890 to the most recent Queen’s abdication in 2013. The entire city of Amsterdam was out on the streets for two days celebrating their country and the King. Everyone wore orange (the national color) from head to toe, and anyone who owned a boat was on it, partying with house music blasting from concert-sized amps on their little floating vessels.  The canals were so packed with boats that they appeared to be floating as one continuous barge. You could pick up orange Holland or Amsterdam or Netherlands paraphernalia at almost any store.  Then there is the concept of the vrijmarkt (“free market”) where the Dutch sell items from their house on the streets.

Konigsdag revelers floating on a canal

Konigsdag revelers floating on a canal

By the way, the current King, Willem-Alexander, bears a striking resemblance to a very famous figure in New York:

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Sinterklaas

Ah, Sinterklaas. The Dutch celebrate the holiday season with a few days dedicated to this character.  There is the celebration of his arrival from Spain in mid-November, his various visits to children over the next few weeks, and then the Saint Nicholas Eve / Saint Nicholas holiday which feels pretty similar to Christmas Eve/ Christmas Day gift giving and family celebrations.  However, there is also a celebration for Christmas Eve/ Christmas Day here as well.

The most interesting part of the whole Sinterklaas experience is his companion, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete.  Yes, that’s right. Black Pete.)  The stories about this character’s existence and role to Sinterklaas (companion, helper, slave) span the gamut, and there seems to be an exponential growth in division in the country on the appropriateness of Piet.  This year there were even several riots in Gouda on the day celebrating the arrival from Spain, in protest to the character. I’ll let Wikipedia summarize Piet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas#Zwarte_Piet

Regardless of appropriateness, it is still highly accepted to use the Zwarte Piet character as festive decoration here in the Netherlands.  I just can’t get used to or comfortable with seeing it. Try googling it and checking out some of the imagery.  Oy.

Thanksgiving

As an American celebrating my first Thanksgiving away from home, I felt more compelled this year to actually stick to the tradition of cooking a Thanksgiving meal.  Having only cooked a turkey once in my life 10 years ago, I decided to take the challenge. Thanksgiving arrives this Thursday, and here are some things I learned through the process:

1) Dutch people order poultry from poeliers, which are basically butchers for poultry. You can also order from some “regular” larger butcher shops (slagerij). I had to special-order my turkey through these shops from a farm.  I felt a bit guilty knowing a turkey was being slaughtered just for me and responsibility is not shared with the Butterball conglomerate.

2) Buying a turkey is a delicate balance of finger-in-the-air-guessing and providing your poelier the size of your tiny oven in inches-whoops- in centimeters. “Please sir, I’d like a turkey to feed 4 people, and it can’t be larger than 21 centimeters tall or long.”

3) Dutch people do not know what turkey basters are.  After several long investigative discussions with many colleagues, we’ve determined the appropriate term is vleesbedruiper, but sounds close to something gross or naughty in Dutch (undetermined what this is). You can only order these online and they cost up to €25. I’ll use a spoon.

4) Expat shops are good for getting things like Stove Top Stuffing mix, if you are prepared to be gouged on the price.  The best bet is to stow away a box in your suitcase on your last trip home (check), along with packet gravy mix (check), and Wheat Thins (not for Thanksgiving, but check.)

5) Non-American turkeys are not pumped up with steroids, nor specially bred to have big juicy white-meat breasts.  In fact, they are sort of sad looking, scrawny, and lack a discernable stuffing cavity.  Any they come with the neck still attached. I hope we have enough meat here for four people!

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With that, have a Happy Thanksgiving, and wish me luck this Thursday, cooking my tiny little turkey!  Good thing I schlepped home all of that stuffing mix and other fixings for the best part of a Thanksgiving meal anyway- the side dishes!

Amsterdam Musings

It’s a bleary day here in Amsterdam, so I’d like to register a few complaints 😉

So many people smell like old smoke here. Not the tee-hee hee “you live in Amsterdam and everyone smokes pot”-kind, but the “old stale, stagnant old man tobacco”-kind.  I often have to shimmy away from people on the subway or at work to get rid of the smell.  Is this an Amsterdam thing, or a Europe thing?

Things I really miss:

–real filtered coffee that is not spelled with a “k”,

–coming in first place in the commuter caste system.  In New York, the Way of the Yield went: pedestrians, taxis, other cars, bikes.  In Amsterdam, it’s: bikes, scooters/ mopeds, bikes with children in the front, bikes with children in the back, bikes with children in that bucket-thingie, bikes with a person standing or sitting on the back, holy-shit look out for that person riding a bike and texting on her phone in an intersection!, trams, busses, taxis, other cars, those tiny 2-seater cars that get to ride the bike lane, lady in an old-person scooter with a plastic cover on it that looks like a tiny rolling spaceship (true story), pedestrians.

–proper bagels. Especially everything bagels with salt and garlic, not just sesame seeds and poppy seeds. That is a “somethings” bagel. Not an everything bagel.

Things I love, and likely many other general musings to come at another time!

PS– Another thing… today at work, the creative team was tossing around a ball, and I caught it, and tossed it back.  I was told I “threw like an American” and realized that it is instinctual to me to toss an oblong ball like a football, whereas this was actually a rugby ball, where I was expected to perform this side/backwards-pass like thing that looks like you are tossing covers off a bed behind you. It never dawned on me that the nerf was not of a regular football. I am definitely in the minority here.

6-Month Trip Roundup

As I just passed the 6 month mark living in Europe, I think this is a good time to reflect a bit on what I’ve done here.

As previously mentioned, I forget everything or don’t give myself credit for it unless I write it down to reflect, or unless someone tells me to take some credit. My life is like the Will Ferrell movie where no one is really laughing the first time around (or at least I’m not. And I know I am greatly outnumbered here) but you realize how funny it is when you re-quote the ridiculous scenes over and over with your friends later.

So in addition to my Israel trip which was substantial enough to get it’s own entry, I’ve also been able to visit quite a few places in my short time here. I should reflect on this for a minute. 6 months ago, visiting these cities was part of a full-on European vacation, requiring a lot of planning effort and money. Now, these visits have taken course over 2- or 3- day weekends, planned only a few days or weeks in advance, and are able to be financed on my meager European salary (more on that change at another time). Here’s a quick look into some places I’ve been able to visit in my first 6 months:

Barcelona, Spain and Reims, France

My first trip, taken in the days before starting my job, and just 3 weeks into living here, was to Barcelona, as a hanger-on to Uri’s work conference, followed by Luxembourg to visit my dear French friend, Bénédicte who is living there. While in Luxembourg, we took a day trip to Reims, France to taste some delicious bubbly in the Champagne region. Real, authentic champagne from Champagne! This has serious significance to me since I am an avid bubbly drinker with my BFF Annie back in NYC. Hooray for Champagne caves!

Barcelona was an interesting place. After a casual warning from my world-traveling friend, Erik (see The Global Trip), to “watch my purse in Barcelona,” I became obsessed with googleing about safety issues and pickpocket scams in this city. I was going to be alone touring the city while Uri was at the conference, and was used to my first 3 weeks in Europe exploring the safe and structured Amsterdam suburbs. I am sure my fear and precautions taken were on one side of the extreme, while being an unprepared and clueless tourist was on the other side. And the reality lay somewhere in the middle.

I chose some organized tours to feel safer.  Running Tours Barcelona was an AMAZING way to see Montjuïc and the Olympic Stadium area, while the bus tour -especially to Montserrat- made me feel like a retiree, as I was the only person on it that was under 60, and was the only person not rushing to pick up the cruise ship before it left its port. After having my tours under my belt to feel more safely acclimated to the city, I wished I had longer than just a few days there to drink wine, eat tapas, and see more architecturally amazing sites. Yes, rambling around Las Ramblas didn’t feel like the safest place, but I realized the level of safety precautions needed in that city likened more towards how I acted in Times Square without even thinking about it than some other crime-ridden place. Basically, hold your purse close, look people in the eye, and don’t stand around staring at a map looking lost. If you do that, you’ll be fine.

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Germany – Hamburg, Munich, & Füssen
We took two trips to Germany – over Easter weekend to Hamburg, and in July to the Bavarian area so I could run a half marathon and we could go castle-hunting to a site that has long been on my bucket list. Hamburg and Munich were both very livable cities… so much that in both visits, I spend much time saying, “Maybe we can move here next? Do I need to learn German?”

Hamburg is set upon beautiful lake Alster, and we enjoyed cruising up it on a boat tour. We had Easter dinner at a place called Kartoffel Keller (Potato House), where your main dish centered around the potato, and your “side dishes” included any meats or veggies. And the waiters wore potato sacks over their clothes. Awesome, and delicious!

We visited Munich for one day and night, on our way to Fussen for the half marathon I ran at the Germany/Austrian border in the Bavarian area known as East Allgäu. It had grueling temperatures (90 at the start at 6pm) and grueling hills, and it was a great way to continue my marathon training. (Have I mentioned that yet? My first marathon will be in New York City this fall.)

The day after the race we climbed the castle hills for tours of Neushwanstein and Hohenschwangau, and learned about the crazy King Ludwig II. The sites were breathtaking in and around these castles, and well worth the climbs despite my sore legs and the hoards and hoards of tourists at their worst. I still can’t believe I actually personally took this photo:

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Chamonix, France
I really realized the amazingness of living in Europe when I had a visitor cancel right before arrival. With a long weekend off from work ahead of me that I did not want to go to waste, Uri and I looked at flights for the next day, chose the cheapest short-notice flight (Geneva), and concocted our plan from there to take a van 2 hours from the airport to the mountains, and hang out in the French Alps during the off-season. We spent the weekend basking in the shadows of Mont Blanc in the gorgeous little village town of Chamonix, eating tartiflette and crusty French bread, hiking the valleys of the mountains, and ascending the 12,605ft to the Aiguille du Midi. I was really bummed that I didn’t get to see my friend that weekend, but the consolation prize trip…. well — C’était incroyable!

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North and South
It was with visits like this that I began to understand some of the nuances between the north and the south in Europe. The North of Europe is very different from the South of Europe, just as the North of the European country is very different from the South of that same country (and in some countries like Spain, the provinces within are all  then also very individualistic).

Without grossly oversimplifying To grossly oversimplify, the northern countries and the northern side of each country feels relatively more structured, organized, and pragmatic than their southern counterparts. It also feel a little less friendly and less open to strangers. The primary sites usually feature churches, town centers, city hall buildings, and stone structures. The north feels like your Type-A friend who is a little closed off but is really reliable and you will mostly know what to expect.

Minus Barcelona, I have still yet to discover the true southern countries of Europe (i.e. Italy, Greece, Spain, Croatia, etc.), but I’m told that where there is heat, there is a more sensual vibe, a constant- holiday feeling, and a casual approach to life. This also brings a bit more positive and negative tourism (sun/ beaches, scammers/ pickpockets), but also more friendly people, open to meet and embrace strangers. The south is your wild party-friend that is up for a good time but might also get too drunk at the party and leave you to need to drive them home or walk home alone. …Making eye contact and clutching your purse, perhaps?

I’ve discussed the North/South difference time and time again with people ranging from Spanish, French, Dutch, and German who have all validated these trends in their countries and throughout Europe. In fact, it’s a sort of “no kidding” sentiment here. Of course that is how it is here! Well, I’m new, so it’s all new to me! I wonder if anyone else has noticed this difference? Tell me what you think! I’m fascinated by these types of things I learn every day living here.

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So that’s it for now.  6 months in, and many places on my list have been checked off, some of which I didn’t even know existed prior to my move here. My list keeps growing and there are so many places to see and things to learn. I only hope I have enough time to get to it all. We’ve got some great trips upcoming already as well (Costa del Sol in Spain and Prague for the Christmas markets), so stay tuned!