Sunday, August 31, 2008

Amsterdamse Bos (Amsterdam Forest) & Dutch Pancakes

Amsterdam forest is a huge park on the outskirts of Amsterdam that was built as a public works project back in 1934. There's a beautiful lake for boating, lots of shaded bike paths, and a pancake bakery that Brett really likes. Now that I have my bike, we decided to head to the park for lunch. It's a 20 minute cycle from our house, and the bike path meanders through the Beatrix Park to get there, so it's a pleasant trip.

Dutch pancakes
are similar to a French crepe. They're about the size of a dinner plate, and you can choose from a variety of savory or sweet fillings. Brett's favorite is the Shoarma pancake, while I went for a more traditional one with bacon, mushroom, cheese and onion. Yum. We've been to this spot a few times with locals - so we hope you'll come visit soon so we can take you there too :-)

Oma fiets (Granny bike)

This weekend I finally bought a bicycle. It's nothing fancy, but it's comfy and it only has to last me a year or two, so hopefully this one will do the trick. The entry level price for a cheap new bike or an OLD used bike here is about $150 Euro ($225) and they go up to $1,000 or more. I was surprised that the price was so high, mainly because you can buy a cheap bike at Wal-mart in the US for about $50. Maybe these are built better. Or maybe the demand is greater. Regardless, I can get around town like a local now. A few things I've learned in just the last day and 1/2:

1) When you're riding down a bike lane, don't be surprised if a scooter comes whizzing along and passes you. You might even get your handlebars clipped by one like I did within 3 minutes of riding my new bike home.

2) People walking on the bike paths and kids on bikes can be annoying obstacles. Now I know why I got yelled at for walking in the bike lane when I was in Amsterdam in 1997.

3) When biking down a street without a bike lane, it's a bit unnerving to have cars zipping by you - but I will say that they give you a wide berth.

4) There are a lot of things to watch out for. Pedestrians, fellow bikers, cars, and trams. And there are 3 traffic lights you have to watch (car, bike and pedestrian). Depending on the intersection you have to obey different lights.

5) Make sure you don't get your bike wheel stuck in the tram tracks

6) Wear whatever you want - from skirts to club clothes to spiked heels. Men wear suits. Anything goes.

7) People carry everything on their bikes. Other adult passengers, kids, groceries, dogs...and they do it with incredible ease - holding umbrellas, talking on cell phones. I don't know how they can balance. It's impressive.

8) Make sure you lock it up. One chain through the frame and the front wheel, and a second lock on the back wheels :-)

9) Riding a bike around is really fun. Kind of like being a kid again.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Happy Birthday to Brett

Tonight Brett and went out for Indonesian food to celebrate his birthday. We went for an experience called a "rice table," which is 25 -30 little plates of different Indonesian dishes. My understanding from my Indonesian co-workers is that the dishes served are Indonesian, but the concept of a rice table doesn't exist in Indonesia. Apparently it's a Dutch import.

It was tasty and a fun experience overall. Kind of like a buffet brought to you. For the dessert course they brought out blue pears! They had been soaking them in blue curacao liqueur to give them an electric blue color. The picture here (from a cell phone) just doesn't do it justice.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Did she really just say that?

When I was riding the train back from Paris last month I sat next to a woman whose nationality shall remain anonymous (and no she wasn't French or Dutch). After a few minutes we began talking and she told me I needed to read the book "French Women Don't Get Fat." Those of you who know me, know that I've always struggled with my weight, having lost about 90 pounds from the time I finished high school until the time I finished college - and I could still stand to lose some more. Needless to say, I wondered if she was just raving about the book or if it was a pointed comment. The answer soon revealed itself to me.

An hour after the journey started, our conversation had long since passed. I got up to get my luggage and she looked at me and said "Yes, you do need to lose a bit of weight - but you're not as fat as most Americans I meet."

I wasn't quite sure how to take the comment. Was I supposed to be flattered by her "compliment?" The kicker is that she gave me her number at the end of the trip and told me if I was ever in Paris, that I should call her.

I put enough pressure on myself in life without hearing it from strangers, so somehow I think I'll pass on her invite. Seriously. What are people thinking when they make these comments? I laugh about it now, but geez. And they say Americans are blunt. Oh well. The story makes great fodder for cocktail parties :-)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Shock and Awe

Mission accomplished. The mouse has left the building. If you've been reading this blog, you know we've had a mouse problem in our apartment. Amsterdam hardware stores sell just 2 mouse remedies. Wooden traps and poison pellets. We didn't want to use poison pellets because of Holly, so we had tried the mouse traps for the past several weeks, using cheese and chocolate as bait. No luck. This mouse had better things in mind and would thumb his nose at us as he scurried past the dining room table towards the kitchen to get his 11PM snack.

When I was back in the US I stopped at Lowes to get some good old American mouse remedies. Live traps, enclosed snap traps, special mouse bait, etc. Brett got to work putting out the new traps last night, and within seconds of seeing the mouse scurry past, we caught him.

I'd like to say the war is over, but I'm sure we'll find "roadside terds" from his other mouse insurgent buddies over time. Still, now that we have our American weaponry, our odds in this battle are much better than they were. Hooray for Lowes and generous checked baggage allowances on United. :-)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The friendly skies

This morning I flew back to the US. I have to say it was a very pleasant experience. I've been a loyal flier with United Airlines since 1997, so I'm a member of their frequent travelers program. I love the perks that come with it. Priority handling on the phones, priority check-in, lounge access, better seats, more baggage checked free and shorter security lines. If you travel a lot, it really makes a difference, especially when there's a cancellation or other issue.

Today I was seated in economy in an aisle seat on the bulkhead. It's a good seat with lots of legroom so I was happy to score it. Then a flight attendant came and asked me for my boarding pass. It turns out that I was assigned the same seat as another passenger. While she went forward to the galley to sort it out, I saw another flight attendant walk from the galley towards us, eyeballing me and the other passenger. I had heard that they sometimes look at how people are dressed if they're going to upgrade them. I was wearing a t-shirt, jeans and street hikers. Not terribly professional looking. Luckily for me, the other guy was wearing jeans, a loud Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap. The woman came back and said "miss, get your things and come with me." Then she said "You're not dressed for business class." I was kind of surprised that she actually said that to me, but wasn't going to protest.

I was escorted to business class where I enjoyed a tasty 3 course meal and a very comfy seat. I'd been pretty annoyed with United recently (they wanted to charge us $500 in change fees when it was too hot to fly with the dog back in June - saying that "people can travel even if pets can't" - implying that we should have left Holly behind)- but this freebie went a long way towards restoring my happiness.

A few other tidbits from the day:
1) You don't have to take off your shoes or get your baggie of liquids out when going through security in Amsterdam
2) You get screened after arriving at the gate instead of right after check-in
3) You can't bring ANY water with you on the flight as they don't sell it after you've gone through security.
4) If the passport control guy sees that you live in Amsterdam he will try to speak to you in Dutch. When you tell him you'll take Dutch lessons soon - he'll tell you "I'll check your progress next time" Yikes!! I guess I better get cracking on scheduling classes :-)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

2 things I never thought I'd see in Amsterdam....

1) A bicyclist wearing a helmet (He was 3, riding in the handlebar seat while mom pedaled)
2) A construction worker on the street wearing wooden clogs. Yes - the ones you see in all the tourist brochures on Holland.

I saw them both today. Wonders never cease :-) One thing Brett never thought he'd see - (and probably wished he didn't)....a man in a thong roller skating down the street wearing swim goggles. Apparently this guy is well known in the city for his "exercise routine" and Brett had the "good fortune" of seeing him live - right in our neighborhood.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I met my first non-English speaker in Amsterdam...

Of course he was about 5 years old :-) I was walking home today and this little voice called out "Hallo frau" (Hello miss). I turned around and he said something that I think meant "I have a new skateboard." I said "I don't speak Nederlands. Do you speak Engels?" to which he replied "No." I told him his skateboard was very nice and he skateboarded away.

He must have spoken some English though because he either wouldn't have answered me or he would have said "no" in Dutch - which is "nee." So cute. I guess they start teaching them English early here. Very admirable. I was 15 before I started learning Spanish.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Now that's a custom bike

The owner was very proud to show it off - as were his friends :-) I bet riding it takes some getting used to.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

I wish I had my camera...

I try to carry my camera with me everywhere I go - but sometimes I get caught without it. Today I was at the airport getting tickets for a flight back to the US, and they had airport karaoke! There was a woman singing her heart out about the Olympics - all set to the tune of "Hit me baby one more time!" I'm not sure what it was all about but I think you would have smiled like I did if you saw it.

Other random tidbits from Amsterdam:

1) French fries with peanut sate sauce and mayonaise on top is a delicious snack (according to my co-workers). Maybe not the lowest calorie snack, but they swear by it.

2) My Dutch colleague and one of Brett's colleagues both came back from trips to the US complaining about the high sugar levels in US bread. I never thought of US bread as sweet. We'll see how my tastes change over the year we're here.

3) When my co-workers bring their lunch to work it's often a sandwich or two. No chips or other sides. Just a bag of sandwiches or for a snack, slices of bread. What's interesting is the fillings and the quantities of those fillings. One slice of cheese is the sole filling on a sandwich here. No lettuce, tomato or other toppings. Whatever the filling, it's often about the thickness of a slice of cheese, so sandwiches are typically very thin. Popular fillings include egg salad and tuna salad and what they call "filet American" but what we might know as raw ground beef.

4) Our mouse doesn't seem to like the traps we bought, and he's very brave - even coming out during the day while Brett was in the dining room. Blah.

Other than that, there aren't too many new insights to share. We did have fun giving directions to a driver last night. When we were done he looked surprised and said "Thanks - that's sound like a tourist!" :-)

And for those of you reading from the US, I'll be in Rochester, NY August 14-17, San Francisco August 18-22, and Washington, DC August 23-25, so I hope to see you soon.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Bay Area Connections

Our dog walker in California had a client who was planning a trip to Amsterdam, so she gave them my e-mail address. Last night we met up for dinner and had a great time at an outdoor cafe, chatting about the Bay area, Amsterdam and life in general. Though we'd never met before this it was fun to meet a fellow American and to reflect on the tasty food in San Francisco. We may even get together again this weekend after her husband arrives.

So far though we haven't been very lucky finding food here that we love - particularly when you factor in the cost due to exchange rates. Maybe we're just spoiled from living in the Bay area. Some of our favorite places are the $8 pizza place and the $6 donar kebab (meat shavings on a pita with vegetables and garlic sauce). I guess until we find the "gems" we'll keep cooking at home and doing our best to recreate favorite recipes. It can be tough to find all of the ingredients though. Mexican food is the hardest so far but we'll keep up the search.

On another note, we've got some fun travel planned. In early September Brett and I are headed to Brussels for the day for a beer festival. Then later in the month we'll be in Munich at Octoberfest, followed by a work trip to Cologne, Germany. In October we'll head to Ireland for a few days. I can't wait to start traveling :-)

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Dutch love their flowers!

I wrote a month or so ago about a really nice woman I met at the Sheraton at the airport. She sent me a gift of some magnets and offered to have a drink with me one night since I didn't know anyone in Amsterdam.

We finally got together for a drink and decided to meet at my house. When I opened the door she was carrying this beautiful bouquet of flowers. It's very Dutch to bring flowers to someone's house as a gift and I love the tradition.

Flowers are the one thing I've discovered here that are cheaper than in the US - even with the exchange rates. There's a flower shop on every corner and the quality is impeccable. I've heard that the Dutch are one of the world's largest flower exporters, so I guess it makes sense.

We enjoyed chatting for several hours on a patio at a neighborhood bar and I'm sure I'll get together with her again. She was SO much fun and coincidentally is dating a man that lives 10 minutes from Reston, VA. Maybe someday we'll find ourselves having lunch together at Wegmans (a place we both love). :-)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Dutch ATMs can be pretty cool

Now that we actually HAVE a Dutch bank account we have to fund it - especially because so many things work on auto withdrawal here - like gym memberships and insurance payments. We have a few weeks until payday since pay is deposited monthly, so to avoid "bouncing checks" we had to make a deposit.

Only one branch of our bank is open on Saturdays and they don't handle cash...but the special ATMS in the bank do. In the US I'd have to fill out a deposit ticket and fill out a deposit envelope to make the deposit. Here in Amsterdam it's paperless...

You simply put in your bank card, enter your pin, choose the deposit option and then a little drawer opens and you put your money in it. The machine counts the money and automatically deposits it in your account.

There's also this cool little device you have to use with online banking. You put your ATM card in it and enter your pin on the keys. It then gives you a special temporary code that you enter online. This way, there's no risk of you having your pin number stolen online. I quite like this extra security and wish my US banks had the same thing.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Everyone loves a parade!

Today was the annual Gay Pride Parade in Amsterdam. Over 80 boats floated down the Prinsengracht canel in a 4 hour affair that had hoardes of people lining the streets, sitting on bus stops and climbing construction scaffolding to get a view. The boats had great music and everyone seemed to be having a good time. Even local governments and corporations like IBM had a presence.

The spectators also had fun with the event, including this dog with his, well - extra arm.

A lot of the boats were fairly casual with people just floating down the river drinking and dancing - but others like this one had a theme and choreography. Definitely a party unique to Amsterdam.

Friday, August 1, 2008

There's a mouse in our house!

Unfortunately we have an unwelcome visitor. When we moved into the apartment we noticed poison pellets behind the fridge. I asked the landlords if it was an old problem and they said yes. I vacuumed up the pellets. Then a few nights ago Brett said he saw a mouse....

Tonight I saw it. We were playing Wii bowling. I was winning (as usual since I'm a bowling nerd with 5 years of real league experience under my belt). Out of the corner of my eye I saw something run across the dining room and into the kitchen. Eww. As a person who had pet mice as a kid, this is a very different experience. I'm not loving it.

So, tomorrow we'll be off to the store to buy mouse traps, food storage containers, and a fan. Why the fan? Because we're air conditioning junkies without our fix and it's been a bit steamy and muggy here lately...As with the $10 alarm clock I bought, the $8 fan just isn't cutting it. The $20 router is working like a champ though. You win some you lose some with cheap electronics :-)