Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Japanese Pancake World

Last week, Brett and I went to Japanese Pancake World for dinner. Contrary to the image the name might imply, it wasn't a a cavernous palace of blinking lights and flashing neon. It was actually a sedate, intimate restaurant where the craft of Okonomiyaki is practiced.

Okonomiyaki is a batter pancake where the batter is made of flour, grated yam, water or dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage. It also usually contains other ingredients such as meat, seafood, vegetables and cheese. Each pancake takes about 30 minutes to make, and the chef was happy to have people sit at the bar and watch him craft their dinner.

It was an interesting meal and I'm glad we went. I won't crave them, but Brett was really impressed, so I'm guessing we'll be back one day soon. Judging from the packed house, it's clear others share his palate.

So THAT's how they do that....

In the US we have dumpsters or individual trash cans that are put out weekly. In Amsterdam we have neighborhood trash stations instead. The 3 containers in the picture are all trash cans - and they serve the entire block. They're kind of small considering all of the apartments they serve and we weren't initially sure where the trash went when the door was closed. We knew the trash dropped somewhere because we could hear it, but we didn't know if there were underground tunnels throughout the city where trash was picked up unseen by the public or if there was some other way. The answer revealed itself the other day on my way to work. Each trash can is attached to a metal box underneath the sidewalk. When the garbage truck comes, a hook lifts the entire unit (box included) out of the ground to empty the trash.

It's a nice design because you don't have to look at (or smell) the trash (like with dumpsters) and it doesn't attract rodents. Plus - after you put your trash in, there's no way for anyone to get in there to rummage around for receipts or other personal information. Recycling is handled the same way.

I also witnessed weed killing "speed style." Instead of merely walking down the street with his weed spray, this guy used an ATV! It looked like way more fun than walking and kind of reminded me of a polo match :-)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Amsterdam is a small city

Yesterday Brett and I did errands. That's what Saturdays have become since everything closes at 6PM during the week. We got our ATM cards activated and then had lunch at Tokyo Cafe, which came recommended by my colleagues for having reasonably priced sushi. For a fixed price you can select 8 items, ranging from salmon hand rolls to miso soup. It was a good value and we enjoyed sitting outside watching the street scene.

A woman was seated at the table next to us and after we told our waiter that we'd be back again next week, she said "I love this place and come here often." We continued on with our day and ended up going to see the new Batman movie - Dark Knight. As I came back from the concession stand with a beer and popcorn (yes they serve beer here) - who was sitting next to Brett? The girl from the sushi restaurant. She smiled and said "get used to it. Amsterdam is a small town."

We enjoyed the movie - which was in English and had Dutch subtitles. One translation that made us laugh was "Oh Crap" in English translated to "Oh Crap" in Dutch. :-) We also were surprised to see Bacardi mojito ads before the movie started, and liked listening to the dance music before the show instead of the usual 80's soft rock.

On the tram on the way home we chatted with a retired American couple from St. Louis who was in town for 3 days before they left on a cruise to Norway. They were really impressed with the city and were enjoying their time here. I really enjoy talking with people here and think that might be one of my favorite parts about living in Amsterdam.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

That's so British!

It was a beautiful weather in London this week with temperatures in the 80s, so after my meetings I wandered through a few markets. I found the "polite" sign above and also discovered that the meat flavored chip trend continues in Europe.

I love the vibrancy of the theater district, the beautiful parks and gardens and the interesting shops but I was also reminded of a few of the other pleasures of visiting London:

1) People are VERY polite. I sat across from a family on the subway and their 10 year old son said "yes please" when asked by his mum if he wanted water. He then said thanks after he was done, and after being handed a toy from his younger sister, he thanked her too. Such manners!!! Then he asked his mom if they were flying first class. She laughed, looked at me and said "how did I go wrong raising my children?" I told her I thought quite the opposite, which started a conversation with the son. He excitedly told me about his trip to Amsterdam last year on a PGL weekend. I asked what "PGL" was and he said "Parents Get Lost." :-) Apparently his school takes the kids to different countries for a weekend starting at age 8. I think that's great to start them out so young. In the US I didn't go on my first overnight school trip until I was 15! In Amsterdam 15 year olds go on vacation for 2 weeks without their parents!

2) When it's warm outside, it's steamy on the subways. They aren't air conditioned - which can lead to some pretty uncomfortable travel with packed cars of sweaty people (myself included). They open the windows on the subway cars to let in some air, but it's sometimes not enough to stop the windows from dripping....

3) Which leads me to my next observation: Dirty air. When you're zipping through an old tunnel and inhaling the breeze, you're bound to inhale the dirt that comes with it. You might think I'm being paranoid but I can tell you that the inside of my nose a different color after riding the tube. Tissues never lie. Ick.

4) The other shocker (which I really need to get over) is the cost. The British Pound is trading at roughly 2 to 1 to the dollar right now - so a dessert in a restaurant for 7.50 pounds is a $15 dessert, and a drink at the bar for 9 pounds becomes an $18 affair. A sandwich at a TGI Fridays type establishment is $16. I wish I could turn off the little calculator in my head when I go out but I haven't been able to shake it yet. I'll keep trying.

The meetings went well and I continue to really like this job. There's a lot of work to do, but I've always liked a challenge.

I love London

I'm in London for work right now and was reminded of how much I like the city. I don't love waking up only an hour and 20 minutes before my flight, but I'll save that for a different post about alarm clocks that only cost $10.

After arrival at Heathrow I took the "tube" (subway) to my destination, and love the fact that trains come every 3-4 minutes. It's so efficient. I also enjoyed watching some American tourists from Ohio figure out how they were going to get to Westminster. A nice man told them where they should get off to change subway lines - but you could see that they were clearly confused. Polite about receiving the advice, but confused. They didn't get off where they were told, and another passenger then told them that it really would be easier if they got off and changed lines. They halfheartedly agreed and got off at the next stop. They didn't look terribly confident but were probably thinking that it would be rude to ignore similar advice from TWO passengers.

It reminded me of when I first moved to London. If you grow up in a suburb of a smaller town in the midwest (and yes I think of Rochester as the midwest) - you don't use public transportation. You drive - so the whole concept of changing trains and reading public transport maps can really be a daunting challenge. For me, navigating a city now is no big deal - but I can remember that it took me a while to ramp up.

How do I know that these Americans were from Ohio? Because in typical American fashion - I and the rest of the train heard their story. :-)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How to move a piano down 3 flights of Dutch stairs

I've blogged before about the incredibly steep stairs in some Dutch houses. Not only are they steep, they're narrow and curvy as well. Moving things in and out of them must be a real pain. I struggled with a 40 pound box from Ikea and can't imagine having to move something heavier like a piano.

The solution: pulleys that are attached to a large hook on the front of the house OR motorized ladders. The people across the street from our apartment were moving out the other day and I watched the movers set up an electric platform attached to a ladder. I didn't see them move anything on it before I had to go to work, but Brett saw them bringing a piano down. If only moves could be that easy in the US. Then again - our houses aren't typically built with windows large enough to put a piano through. Still, it's pretty cool.

Monday, July 21, 2008

How many trips does it take to get to the center of a Dutch Bank Account

A One... A.two-HOO...A three..? Try 8 or 9. Literally.

1) First you need to apply for a "Dutch Social Security Number" also known as a SOFI or BSN. This is done at the Town Hall. We did that last week and got our numbers a week later. So far so good.

2) Brett had heard from some fellow expats that you could open an account without a SOFI - so before they came he went to do so at the ABN-AMRO near our house.... He was denied. He needed a SOFI. Since ABN-AMRO is the only bank here with online banking in English, we were pretty set on signing with them.

3) On Saturday with SOFI numbers in hand we went to the ABN-AMRO in the Leidseplein, which is the only branch open on Saturdays. We were told they couldn't help us because American accounts need special handling with the US government and only 1 branch was authorized to open them. We were directed to the airport location and given the address.

4) On Monday we went to the address on our paper, but it was the bank branch that does accounts for flight crews. They directed us to another airport location.

5) We went to the 2nd airport location but they didn't open until 1PM.

6) We came back after lunch to find out that only the top floor of that location could help.

7) We went to the top floor office and filled everything out - only to be told that the computer system was down temporarily and that we'd need to come back later to get the paperwork and sign.

8) Once the paperwork is signed, we have to wait a week for our debit cards to come in the mail. Then we have to go to a local branch to pick a pin number. Any branch should work.

9) We then have to fund our account since you can't just write a check to make the initial deposit. You can wire money from the US or deposit cash - but if you deposit cash you need to find a location that handles cash. Most of the branch locations are cashless.

Needless to say, getting set up here has been a hassle. We need Dutch bank accounts for everything - from groceries to parking meters to gym membershps to insurance to rent payments. We keep telling ourselves that all these headaches are temporary. I can only imagine what tax time will be like.

And the kicker? Today's high was 59F with rain and wind - which we got to experience on the many stops of our "bank account scavenger hunt." Did anyone else notice that it's almost AUGUST? Blah.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mooi Helm

Those of you reading this blog since the beginning have probably been wondering where the blog's name comes from. It means "Nice Helmet" in Dutch, but I also liked that "Helm" is a subset of my maiden name.

Why choose such a name for the blog? When Brett and I were sitting in Oakland in May, we were trying to figure out what to bring with us from the US. Because we knew we'd be getting bikes, we figured we should bring our bike helmets. We knew that nobody in the Netherlands wears bike helmets and initially thought the Dutch were crazy until I stumbled upon a site online which describes the biking culture here in the city and why head injuries aren't as big of a concern. The answer: lower speeds, special bike lanes/paths and carefully trained drivers. Unlike in the US, drivers don't despise bicyclists. They're bicyclists themselves who just happen to be driving a car that day - so they treat bicyclists with respect.

Wearing a bicycle helmet in Amsterdam is considered EXTREMELY uncool and on this web site I read the story of a fellow American who was teased by the locals whenever he wore his bike helmet here. They would mockingly yell "Mooi Helm" or "Nice Helmet" whenever they saw him. Brett was adament that he was bringing his helmet, while I was willing to take the "when in Rome approach."

Sure enough, when Brett arrived in Amsterdam both bike helmets were packed and I vowed mine would never see the light of day here. I wondered about Brett's. Today he bought a folding bike and rode it home without a helmet. After arriving safely at the house he agreed that a helmet probably wasn't necessary and then took a ride helmetless from our house to the train station and through the park. That husband of mine is a real daredevil :-)

For a really fun read I highly encourage you to read the site that was the inspiration for the blog name. It has lots of funny musings on Dutch bike culture followed by an overview of every type of bike here with pictures.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

You don't see this back home...

I've written before about how pet friendly the Netherlands is. Holly continues to be a hit with the locals, but we've also seen a lot of cats in shops and restaurants. It's fairly common to walk by a closed restaurant and see cats sleeping in the windows. Even my friend Kevin allows a cat to stay in his shop at night. I really like it but it still makes me pause when I walk by a shop and see a cat sleeping on a table. Somehow I don't think that would fly with US Health Inspectors.

Another thing you don't see in the US...street urinals. I mentioned the tile wall that the taxi drivers used in Paris, but in Amsterdam they have the units pictured here. I didn't see anyone using them during the day, but I bet when the bars close they're pretty popular.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Fun shopping finds

Brett and I went window shopping at Bijenkorf last weekend and saw some fun products for sale. It's a 5 or 6 story department store much like Macy's but with higher end stuff. We didn't buy anything, but I thought you might like to see some of the products (and the cool Lego model of the store).

The "Nose cups" were paper cups with, well....various noses on them - and I found them funny for a few reasons. 1) The headline was "Pick your Nose" and 2) As you take a drink it appears that you have a different nose. I particularly liked the mustached human nose option on the box. They'd be fun for a party.

For the designer in your life, you can buy them a Pantone mug. Pantone is the industry standard for printed colors. It's definitely an insider thing but I saw a few people stop and say "Cool. Pantone!" so there are other marketing nerds out there like me.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Blogging from the train

I just finished my meetings in Paris and am headed home. Everyone I met today was really friendly, from the cafe staff to the train conductor. I guess yesterday I just caught the wrong people on the wrong day.

I do love the train systems here. They're on time, relatively affordable, and frequent. The other thing I love is the concept of "ticketless travel." When I booked my tickets online I went to the Thalys train web site and signed up for their ticketless program. It's a free program where they send you an ID card (much like an airline frequent flier card). That card is all you need to travel. On board, the train conductors simply scan your card to verify the reservation, and off you go. Forgot your card? No problem. They just look at your ID to find your reservation. If only the airlines could adopt this program. Think of the paper we'd save and the time we'd get back. Plus - they send me a text message on my cell phone 2 hours before the train, reminding me of the confirmation number, carriage number and seat number.

I felt like a saavy traveler when my Dutch and French seatmates looked up and saw that I didn't have paper. They immediately asked me how it worked and said "Wish we'd known. We just ran for the train because of the queue for tickets!." Usually I'm the one who's clueless here - but today I was in the know.

I also love that they have Wifi Internet on the trains. It's a bit slower than normal, but I gladly paid 6 Euros ($10) for the service.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Perspectives on Paris

I took the train to Paris today for meetings. It was a quick 4 hour trip from Amsterdam on the train. Here are a few observations from the day....

1) I think I watched an attempted pickpocketing occur on the metro. A man snatched a woman's iPhone from her front pocket but she caught him and yelled at him. Then he just stood there nearby before going upstairs. When he got off at the next stop, he was carrying 2 phones....

2) Parts of the train stations smell like urine. I discovered later that there's an open urinal on the street for the taxi drivers (literally a ceramic wall out in the open) but I think the local homeless must be the culprits in other areas. In addition, as in Amsterdam - dog poo on the streets is common.

3) Unlike in Amsterdam, shop attendants aren't always happy to speak in English. I was approached by a woman in a shop today and when I told her I was sorry that I didn't speak French, she gave me a thin smile and turned and walked away.

4) At dinner tonight we had a large group (15 at least). Everything was pre-ordered, but one of our colleagues doesn't eat meat. He didn't know it would be a pre-ordered menu, so he didn't tell the organizer ahead of time. The main course was chicken. When he saw someone else eating fish down the table, he asked the waiter if he might also be able to get fish. The waiter's response: "It is NOT possible." When my colleague said "I can't get the same dish that woman has?" the waiter said "NO. It is not possible." When my colleague said "but I don't eat meat" the waiter agitatedly said "It's not my problem. It's not possible. Do you understand?" A few moments later a different colleague whispered the situation to our host, who promptly requested the fish and 5 minutes later, my co-worker got a meal he could eat. I understand that group dinners can really stress a kitchen but geez!

I was here 10 years ago and didn't have quite the same experiences. Maybe we just caught some folks on a bad day? The hotel staff was quite nice and our French hosts were great - so I'm holding out hope that these were isolated incidents. Regardless, Paris is a beautiful city - especially at night.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Dutch tinkler strikes again

Today Brett and I were sitting on the grass in the Beatrixpark with a couple that we met through Craigslist. Our two golden retrievers were playing together when a little white westie ran up, sniffed the woman across from me and then peed on her back!! What is it with Dutch dogs and their desire to "mark" American women? That's twice in 1 week! All we could do was laugh in disbelief. Gross. Gross. Gross.

Lost in Translation

If you've ever seen the movie "Lost in Translation" you might appreciate this post. In that movie, Bill Murray's character flies to Japan for a photo shoot, as he's been signed as a spokesperson for some sort of high end alcohol.

Here in Europe, Brett and I have been on the lookout for US actors who are hawking products here. Sometimes it's part of a worldwide campaign (see the Nespresso ad with George Clooney) but other times the campaign is being run only outside the US (see the Eva Longoria ad for Magnum ice cream bars).

They're fun to watch and I know they're working because the girls in my office have designated Fridays as "ice cream day." When they go down to the cafeteria they often pick up the "Eva Longoria bar" (it's really a Magnum branded item - but the girls think it's more fun to talk about Eva).



Saturday, July 12, 2008

Is pizza a political statement?

Today Brett and I were in the grocery store and we saw a box of "Big Americans Pizza." Note: that's not "American pizza" or "Big America" pizza - but "Big Americans" (plural) pizza. We laughed and laughed as we read it. You could interpret this package in so many ways. Was it saying Americans are fat? Did the slogan "crispy outside, soft inside" represent how the rest of the world sees us? As all bravado and no spine? And is the fact that it says "Texas" pizza a dig at our current president? Or is it just a strange notion that Texas has the best pizza? It's certainly not the first food that comes to mind when I think of Texas. I will never cease to enjoy looking at the different product packaging here.

I also enjoy looking at the names of stores. On the tram to work I pass by a store called "The Dump Store," and another called "People of the Labrynth." They're both clothing stores, but you wouldn't guess it from the names.

We've also been noting the subtle changes some American brands have made when selling their products overseas. For example - the M&M's packaging has a band of red white and blue at the top representing the Dutch flag, and the M&M's are wearing orange crowns (to associate with the color of the Dutch royal family).

The other thing we noticed is that "Snuggle" the bear of fabric softener fame is here in Amsterdam too - but his name has been changed to "Robijn." I can assure you that despite the name change, he's still doing a good job keeping our clothes "Morgenfris" or "Morning fresh."

Friday, July 11, 2008

According to the Dutch government - we're not married

Today Brett and I both registered with the town hall. Everyone has to register with town hall, regardless of if they're a foreigner or not, and you're supposed to do it within 3 days of moving. Registering here is kind of like going to the DMV in the US. You walk in, get a number and wait for the bell to ring. It reminded me of playing bingo. Each time a bell rang and the monitor flashed a new number, everyone in the room would look at the screen, then down at their ticket and then either sigh or jump up and run into one of the closed rooms with numbers on them.

After waiting about 5 minutes, our number was called and we went to the office with our passports and lease agreement (the only 2 documents our Dutch lawyer told us to bring). Within 2 minutes we realized we had a few small problems.

1) The lease agreement showed one apartment owner while the city's database showed another. A call to the landlord cleared that up, but it was still a bit strange thinking that our landlords didn't have the right to rent the house to us.

2) Then they asked us for our birth certificates and marriage license. We had them back at the apartment but even so - the Dutch government wouldn't accept them. They have to have an Apostilles seal on them to be valid here. Apparently Apostilles seals are used to leglize documents for international use.

They let us register, but we now have to go back to our home states to get this seal added to our certificates. In the meantime we are registered as unmarried and living together. Even after we get the proper seals though, the Dutch government supposedly won't recognize marriages that are under 10 years old.

I asked the woman how many Americans got it right the first time they went in to register. She said that those who had companies assist them with relocation got it right frequently but that everyone else just looked at her with blank stares when told about the Apostille's requirement. I had read about the Apostille seals online so I at least knew what they were - but I got to look at her blankly for a much simpler request: My phone number :-)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Dutch TV

Brett arrived yesterday and within an hour of getting to the apartment he set to work making sure the entertainment center was working properly. We decided to get a digital cable package from UPC (the Dutch cable provider) so we'd have more English channels. Here's what we've seen so far:

1) A Heineken ad with a bunch of nude men in their 50s and 60s running through the snow

2) All the "B - list" movies from America. I couldn't even tell you the name of one, but they make the ABC After School Specials look good.

3) Lots of movies from the 80s and 90s like "Lawnmower Man" and "The Secret of My Success"

4) South Park with Dutch subtitles

I guess we didn't come here to watch TV anyway...

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


The good news: Brett arrived today. The bad news: I got peed on. Tonight I was walking Holly and a big black dog that was off leash came bounding up. He sniffed Holly for a few moments and then came to see me. I leaned down to pet him and he lifted his leg and peed on mine!

His owner looked shocked and apologized. I tried to take it graciously, and as we walked home I tried not to think about the fact that my foot was wet.

It's gross....yet kinda funny at the same time.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Meat chips, anyone?

When I was at the store the other day I noticed these potato chips flavored like BBQ Ham, and some other chips flavored like Asian Chicken. I wonder if the meat flavored chip craze will catch on in the US.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Random tidbits about the Netherlands

I've had a few requests for a Dutch geography lesson, so I'll attempt that here along with a few other random thoughts. Disclaimer: I pulled the information from a variety of online sources. I *think* what I'm writing here is accurate - but I could be wrong. You get what you pay for :-).

To start, a lot of people think that Holland is the same as the Netherlands, but they're different. The Netherlands is the name of the country, and Holland refers to the name of just 2 provinces inside the Netherlands (North and South Holland). The country is bordered by the North Sea on the north and west, while Belgium is to the south and Germany is to the east. It sits at 52°23'N, 04°54'E which is further north than Vancouver and about on par with Newfoundland. Because it's so far north, it can stay light out until 10:30PM in the summer months. The summers are cool here with temperatures in the low 70s and the winters are supposedly mild due to the proximity to the North Sea (at least that's what they say - but I was here in February of 1997 and it was FREEZING). I've been told that 1997 was the last cold winter, but I'm still skeptical.

Much of the country (about 60%) is below sea level and they've had a horrible time with flooding over the years - but the Dutch are great engineers and they've got a solid system in place for preventing water from coming in from the sea and another good system for removing it.

To keep water from the seas out, the Dutch started the Deltaworks project. Between 1950 and 1997 the Dutch built a series of dams, sluices, locks, dikes, and storm surge barriers. The American Society of Civil Engineers has declared the works to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

One of the most impressive projects that I've seen in person is the Maeslantkering which are storm surge gates near the port of Rotterdam. The gates took 6 years to build, and they're the largest moving structure on earth. They're about 60 feet tall and 600 feet long. When the storm surge from the sea is expected to be above 9 feet, the gates automatically close, protecting the port and surrounding areas from flooding. You might have seen the show about them on Discovery Channel's Modern Marvels series. They were used successfully for the first time in 1997, and are expected to be needed once every 10 years or so (or more frequently due to global warming).

There is also a system of pumps in the Netherlands to keep the land dry. Windmills used to be used for this function. As the sails on the windmill spun around, they turned an "Acrhimedes screw" down below. This screw moved water out of low lying areas and into irrigation ditches or lakes. It's all very fascinating, so if you're interested in a deep dive, just do a search online for "Delta Works."

After seeing the destruction from Katrina and the latest flood damage back in the US, I do wonder if we could take a few lessons in planning and engineering from our Dutch neighbors. They seem to have it down.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A nice birthday

Today the landlords came over to do some minor repairs and they gave me a lovely pot of Gerbera daisies as a birthday present. They also invited us to Dim Sum after Brett gets settled. I'm not about to turn down an offer to find good Dim Sum from a native of Hong Kong, so I'm looking forward to it.

Then this evening a friend brought me some yummy treats from his British foods shop. He remembered that I love "Hob Nobs," which are a "digestive biscuit" with absolutely NO nutritional value - despite the healthy sounding description. They're graham cookies dipped in chocolate, and they're quite addicting.

We later walked to dinner at a Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood. The bill for 2 appetizers and 2 entrees (without alcohol) was 77 Euro (about $120)! That's about 3x the price of a similar meal back in the US. The food was tasty, but it wasn't 3x as tasty. I either need to start cooking more again or I need to find a cheaper neighborhood for dinner. We had dessert at an ice cream shop across the street and my cinnamon ice cream was delicious and a relative bargain at 1 Euro ($1.60) :-)

After dinner we took Holly for a nice stroll around the canal. It was a great way to end the day.

Lots and lots of errands

It's been a few days since I last wrote, but I've been busy getting things ready for when Brett comes this week - and with applying to stay in the country.

On Thursday I applied for my residency permit. I had to go to the IND (immigration) with my application and 433 Euros ($675) in cash. It was really efficient and I was done in 25 minutes. Now have a sticker in my passport that gives me the right to continue working here while they make their decision. They have up to 6 months to decide, and if they accept me I'll get a residency card.

I've also been out buying things like a dog bed for Holly, a Nespresso machine for Brett (as a gift to him for coming with me on this adventure) and other random appliances that we couldn't bring from the US due to voltage compatibility issues. I'm looking forward to his arrival and to showing him the apartment and neighborhood.

My friends here are also eagerly awaiting his arrival because he's bringing their American food requests in his luggage. The list of items he's bringing includes: Shake N Bake, Mint Oreos, Cheerios, Ranch dressing, peanut butter and Fritos - among others. It's definitely a hodge podge mix.

The cravings that you get when you're away from home are funny. Sometimes you miss an item because it's a staple in your diet and there's no local substitute. Other times you rarely ate it at home, but then you read or hear about it and suddenly the craving takes over. That happened to me here with Marshmallow Fluff and Aunt Jemima Pancake mix. I ate them maybe once a year at home, and then I read about someone else's craving on an expat site. Now I keep thinking about how good they'd taste. I probably only want them because I know these things are tough to get over here, and once I get them I'll be underwhelmed - kind of like when I tried Spaghetti-Os as an adult. I've been told there's an American food store nearby, but to expect high prices. Think $20 for a box of Cocoa Puffs or $25 for Aunt Jemima Pancake mix!! Crazy. With those prices I could fly home and stock up myself!

I'm sure the cravings will pass eventually - but anyone that comes to visit wins brownie points for bringing me a favorite treat. It's also my birthday today. Overall it's been pretty quiet, but I think Brett and I are going to rent a boat to tour the canals to celebrate once he arrives.

One last thought: I don't get US holidays anymore and the main Dutch ones are done until Christmas. Boo!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Meeting new people

I've really enjoyed my encounters with people I've met here. There's the tram conductor who laughs with me each day as I try to correctly prounounce my stop, the woman I met at the tram stop from Surinam who saved me a seat, and then today I met two American women for a walk in Beatrix Park.

When I was looking for an apartment a few months back a woman responded to my posting and said she didn't have an apartment, but that she also had a Golden Retriever and would be moving to Amsterdam in June. She suggested we meet for walks one day.

Today I met with her and one of her co-workers at Beatrixpark, which is where the photo above was taken. We all have large dogs (there were 2 goldens and a chocolate lab in the mix) and while the dogs enjoyed running through the park together, we talked about things like dog walkers, yoga classes and expat life in general. They were both very nice and I look forward to walking with them again soon.

Tomorrow I go to apply for my residency permit. I hope they let me stay :-)

Shopping fun

Although I have a few friends here that have offered to take me shopping, until now I've gone it alone due to scheduling conflicts. A few observations on shopping here follow. Some are byproducts of being in a new country. Others reflect adapting to my new "city" lifestyle as opposed to my former "suburban sprawl" lifestyle:

1) Doing any substantial grocery shopping without a car or bicycle is a bit painful - literally. I knew this from when I lived in London, but after my first grocery run to the Albert Hjein I think my arms were 3 inches longer due to the weight of the canned goods and liquids.

2) Reading ingredient lables is a guessing game. I've learned that "kip" is chicken -and that nutrition labels are based on a standard 100 gram serving but beyond that, ingredient lables are a blur since they're not in English. I had to ask my co-workers what meat I was eating on my sandwich yesterday :-)

3) It takes me about 5 times as long to find something - if I can find it at all, and I've realized that branding and packaging play a big role in helping me identify what things are. If things are packaged in the same shape or material as in the US - it's much easier to quickly grasp what's inside. Laundry soap was a cinch to find.
But, when I scan the aisle looking for hand soap in a clear rounded bottle, my eyes skim right over the solid yellow square bottle on the shelf.

4)In addition, things are organized differently. For example - in the US, sugar, flour and seasonings are all in the same "baking" aisle. Here, they're in 3 separate aisles. At least I think they're in separate aisles. I still haven't been able to find flour.

5) There are also fewer options for each type of item. For example - in the US, there might be 5 or 6 choices for hand soap where here there's one, and the spice selection was about 1/3 the size of the selection at Safeway. Maybe this is a byproduct of a compact "city sized" store - but I've been told I need to go to a special spice store for the best selection.

6) Grocery stores don't sell over the counter drugs or prescription drugs. You have to go to a separate store for that.

7) The shops have late openings on Mondays and they're only open from 9-6 Tuesday - Friday. Even the "Safeway like" grocery stores close at 8PM each night. Plus - stores aren't open on Sundays. Sometimes the grocery store will open on a "special Sunday" but in general they're closed.

I just have to do a bit more planning here.