Oh, the Places I’ve Missed (Writing About)

We’re approaching the end of the year, and as one often does at this time, I want to reflect backwards and evaluate how I’ve moved forward.  I’ve certainly posted enough lately about personal changes and growth, so I want to focus a bit more on the living-abroad side of my experiences.  After all, the end of my second year in Amsterdam is in February, and living in Europe for two years is quite an accomplishment in itself.

The first part of looking back is about places I’ve been, particularly those I didn’t write about.  I realize that of the 17 trips I took in 2015 (18, if we count next week’s trip back for Christmas), I wrote about only two (Norway, and my Italian Heritage Trip).  Bear with me, so I can reflect on the changes that have taken place even in travel patterns.  This is not to boast.  Mostly it has been quite exhausting and it has helped me realize that bouncing around from place to place wanderlustfully is great, but also having a sense of home and order (as I get older? as I realize the relative importance of things when losing loved ones?) also has a valued place in my life.

Of the 17 trips, let’s take away the 4 times (5, if we count next week’s trip) that I went back home to the US for planned visits and unplanned funerals, support for family, and support for myself. That leaves 13. Repeat visits to the Lorraine region of France, twice back again to Paris, once again to Barcelona, once again to London, and once again to Chamonix. And two trips about which I’ve already written.

So… 6 new places: The Italian Dolomites/ Venice, Stockholm, Brugge, Milan, and Berlin.  I’ll touch on each of these in a series of postings and then come back for a final posting on some cultural observations from my second year living among the Dutch.

The Italian Dolomites (Cortina D’Ampezzo) and Venice

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In January, Uri and I took a week for what you do in Europe in the winter — a snow holiday.  We originally booked so Uri could get a taste for his love of snowboarding, but as he then also booked a trip with people more apt to snowboard than me, we then planned to indulge in lots of different winter activities instead, and the snowboard stayed at home.  We chose the Italian Dolomites mainly because it was less expensive than the ritzier large locations in France and Switzerland.  We chose Cortina D’Ampezzo for its size, access to Venice, number of bunny slopes for me, and non-ski/snowboard related activities available.

First things first, Uri proposed to me on our first night in Cortina. 🙂 Resolute on avoiding a proposal in Venice (how overdone!), he popped the question on our first night, so we could have a full week of enjoying our “fidanzanmento!” in Italy.  We drank many Aperol Spritz’ in celebration.

This trip was almost a year ago, and there are a few things that stand out in my memory outside of our engagement. First, eating canaderli (also called Knodeln in German), which are dumplings made of bread chunks and ham, served in a soup broth or with butter and cheese. The area of Cortina, being so close to the German border, has many crossovers in Italian and German cultures, with canaderli being one of the culinary similarities. My second clear memory is of how much I love the mountains and their views, fresh air, and ability to give perspective, despite my aversion to downhill skiing and to being out in the damp cold for hours a day, and days at a time.  Third, how much I love Italian food (PIZZA!  PASTA! BREAD! CHEESE! WINE!) but how after a week of it at three meals a day, you just would die for clean cooked chicken, or fresh veggies not soaked in oil.  I’m sure my ancestors are turning in their graves, but I remember one night of deciding to go to a fruit stand and eat two bananas for dinner, after a huge pizza lunch and previous days of carbs left me begging for anything I could find otherwise. And there was another night with me requesting plain chicken and a side of whatever the shop had that was green in the kitchen.

Cortina was also a week of experimenting with new sporty activities.  In addition to Uri taking one day to downhill ski with me (instead of his usual requisite snowboarding), we tried alpine/ cross country skiing for the first time, which for us, was swishing our legs back and forth in a preset track with absolutely no control over our speed or direction. Despite our “noviceness”, we had a blast and look forward to trying it again in a few months.  We also went snowshoeing, which must now be my favorite snow-related activity.  I’ve found I just do not get a thrill from careening downhill on skis, nor do I enjoy high speeds, having a fear of falling, or actually falling.  Snowshoeing for me was fantastic, because I was up in the mountain for a long time, enjoying gorgeous views that are really missed in those few moments you get off the ski lift before you head down the mountain. We walked high-kneed over and through the mountain with our guide, and he even brought us to an old bunker that was previously used in fighting the Austrians on the other side of the Dolomites during WWI.  Truly riveting!

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After five days in Cortina, we took the bus back to Venice and spent two days exploring the city. Not surprisingly, Venice was overwhelmingly touristy (gahhhhh the selfie sticks!), but we had some really good meals there (particularly, I had the best Pasta Fagioli I’ve ever had in my life at a place called Osteria Ae Cravate). We walked the old Jewish Ghetto, drank bombardinos and prosecco (Venuto is the home of prosecco!), and reached our breaking point for mass tourism on the island of Murano and its blown-glass sculptures.  Venice was undeniably beautiful, but perhaps its touristic hysteria and hyperbolized greatness left us feeling a bit underwhelmed overall.  It’s a wonderful city to visit, and I’m glad I saw the blue canals in person, but given the opportunity to go back again, I would probably pass.

Stockholm

In February, Uri had a work trip in Stockholm so I tagged along and we stayed the weekend.  Even though we visited in the dreary winter, I LOVED Stockholm.  It is such a livable city with a great combination of charm and modern living, with trendy and artsy-bohemian areas, without being too gritty.  There is a livable combination of Swedish and English infused in the city, and people are notably friendly and welcoming.  That said, I may have formed my bias solely from my experience at one fantastic restaurant we fell upon for brunch.  Again, without hyperbole, I had one of the best sandwiches of my life at Nybrogatan 38.

Another standout during our short time in Stockholm was the Vasa Museum. In the 1600’s, a ship experienced the biggest fail possible by sinking in her maiden voyage only after traveling 1300m in the Stockholm Harbor.  It was salvaged in 1961 as one of the best preserved and historically important shipwrecks ever. The museum, in my opinion, is a must-see.

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Traveling in winter in Europe outside of Christmas market season can be a bit discouraging.  Days are extremely short, sometimes with sun setting as early as 3:30, and sometimes it seems the sun never really rises at all. At least in the north, what makes the best of cities is often lost in the rainy dreariness.  The best things a traveler can do, I think we did well, and that is to be one with the snow and to eat good food.

 

Up next: Brugge, Milan, and Berlin.

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.

‘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!

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!