Flowers Flowers Everywhere by ExpatrordinaryAmsterdam

I’ve always liked flowers, who doesn’t like flowers? When you live in Holland, you fall in love with them. I have fallen hard, for the second time.

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Arriving in The Hague 20 years ago in winter left a lot to be desired. The sun didn’t peek out til 9:15 am in January and would set early, at 4:15 pm. You could say this much darkness was something an expat has to get used to.

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Once I mastered riding my Dutch bike in a full-length winter coat, I dared to cycle to work, like everybody else. As I cycled slowly with the masses, the American in me kept being distracted by the flower stands I would pass -the vibrant colors, the masses of pretty bunches, the low cost of 50 tulips for 5 guilders/$2.50 (this was before the euro). Flower stalls were a true head turner, and part of the reason for causing a few mishaps in the bike lanes.

Helping out the Dutch economy as best I could, and also feeding my craving, I bought bunches of flowers at least twice a week. It was just too cheap and easy and beautiful. Flowers truly lifted my spirits and brought happiness into our home in a dark and chilly new country. It’s the little things. My addiction to flowers has never waned, and I brought this dependency back with me to America for 16 years.

Now living in Holland once again, the flowers are still screaming at me from the stands “I am so pretty and you need me.” I am a sucker, fixating on all the colors and arrangements. I listen to the screams of these fragrant bunches, dish out some euros and take them home with me, vaseloads of happiness to grace the rooms our new home, this time, in Amsterdam.

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Holland is the size of West Virginia and produces and trades the most flowers, plants and trees in the world. At certain times of the year, I try to book flights back to the USA so I can catch a bird’s eye glimpse of the flower fields in full bloom from the air. It is truly nothing short of spectacular. It isn’t a bad view from a car or train window either. There are at least 60 km of flowers growing sustainably at all times of the year in the NL, either under glass or in the fields, with very low impact on the environment.

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At the largest flower auction warehouse everyday in Aalsmeer, 20,000 different flower varieties like sea lavender, calla lily, carnation, freesia, hydrangea, lisianthus, cymbidium, amaryllis, zanthedeschia, chrysanthemum, daffodils, roses and tulips, just to name a few, are offered for sale. And they sell in minutes. Once sold, they are carted off for delivery to countries across the globe. You could say the Dutch are flowering the world with happiness, and addictions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thundsterdam! by ExpatrordinaryAmsterdam

My Newfoundland Thunder has made a splash on Amsterdam. Whenever we go on a walk, there must be at least five people who will stop us, ask to take a picture, to pet him, ask what he is, how much does he weigh and ooh and aah over him. You hear “Heel mooi!” which means “very beautiful” over and over again. He is a sight. He’s very large, black and white and fluffy. He’s a great big – really big dog.

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I am thinking of charging one euro to pet him, two euros to take a photo and three euros for both. We literally cannot get 25 paces in before someone stops us to greet Thunder. Thunder has made his mark – as dogs will do – all over the Museum Quarter.

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And Thunder has grown fond of this attention. When we come near a group he instantly veers towards them as if to let folks know, “Yes, I am here, pet me.” And my somewhat quiet husband gets into this act too. He is like a Parisian lady walking her poodle. They both get in this zone where a walk means a prance around the hood where inevitably people will gawk and engage. Are they expecting the doggie paparazzi? Yes, I believe they are.

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It was like this back in the US too, but not on this scale. Since we live in a tourist city, perhaps people think he is part of the tour. If I am on the walk too, sometimes I forgo the onslaught of admirers, I am assigned the role of “here hold onto Cookie,” our other, smaller – but cute Coton de Tulear, who gets overshadowed – in more ways than one – by the larger than life Landseer.

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While it’s very nice that Amsterdammers and tourists really like Thunder, it can become, at least for me, a teensy bit much. One woman asked if she could put her little girl on him like a pony. We kindly explained that he would not enjoy that. Another man asked to see how tall he was and could we make him stand on his hind legs. We explained he was eight years old and that would be hard for him at that age. I almost asked 20 euros for that one.

My husband insists on taking him almost everywhere – even to dinner. I have to put my foot down if we are going to a nice place because I know not everyone will enjoy eating while tufts of fluff (not the kind that goes well with peanut butter) fly through the air and potentially land in someone’s plate of food, or Thunder decides he wants to stand and not lay down on the floor or the sidewalk and when getting up knocks over glasses, or wags his tail in the guests’ faces behind him.

I have no doubt that Thunder will bring us more friends, more fun and more memories. He will make Amsterdam a happier place for those he meets, for sure. What people do not expect though, when trying to get their petting and photos in, is the icky side of owning and admiring this type of dog. There is drool and dander and shedding that is highly likely to come in contact with his admirers.

The first day we took him for a walk after arriving here, he really made a splash. Literally. Walking towards the iamsterdam letters on the Museumplein, Thudere eyed the “lake” just in front. At the sight of water, he broke loose from his leash and went pouncing in. People around just loved it. They were clapping and cheering and laughing. It was all great fun – until he came bouncing out. The 140 pound soaking wet side show of a dog graced his audience with a very happy shake of what had to be a gallon of water thrown from side to side. At least it was a really hot day. We steer clear of the lake on our walks now.

One great thing about having a dog like Thunder is that he is an instant icebreaker. That’s a pretty nice thing to have when moving to a foreign country. Here’s to Thunder and making a splash on the ‘dam!

Photo credits: Taylor Smith

The Dutch Stairmaster by ExpatrordinaryAmsterdam

 

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If you live in The Netherlands, there is no need to invest in a gym membership because chances are your house comes complete with its own Stairmaster -otherwise known as the Dutch staircase.

Anyone who has lived here can easily conjure up a vision of impossibly steep, narrow, long twisty staircases as part of the charm of living here. Did I say charm? I meant harm. Dutch stairwells can be described as perilously steep, vertically menacing, gravitationally perilous and just plain crazy.

When house hunting back in June before moving here, and wanting to live right in the city, there was one stipulation we gave our realtor. “We have two dogs, one is very large, we need a ground floor flat that has a garden (think backyard) and no or few entry-level stairs.” Having lived here before, we were well aware of how many steep and scary stairs can come with a Dutch apartment.

Holland is a country reclaimed from water. Land and space are in short supply. Homes are tall and thin – and so are the people. A little history for you… Centuries ago, when most homes in the Randstadts (big cities) were built, they were built very tall and alongside one another with load bearing stakes known as piles driven down through the sand beneath. In order to save money when building, some folks skimped on the length of the piles but built houses close together in a row to help keep them upright. It didn’t always work. Walking through the center of Amsterdam, you can see some very old row homes do indeed lean. Imagine adding that to your Stairmaster climb multiple times a day, everyday. Later, the government took over the construction of homes and standardized the length of piles. And, of course, added a tax on the width of the home built to cover the cost. Hence, there are very tall thin homes here. Before I knew this, I thought the Dutch themselves were so tall (the tallest in the world) and thin because they had to fit inside their homes, or more importantly their stairwells.

 

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Every time I make my way up my stairwell to the second floor, I have to concentrate intensely and hold on to both banisters for fear of falling and killing myself. It’s even more intense on the way down. The stairwell seems endless. There are only 21 stairs. That’s actually pretty good. Some of my friends with flats on the second or third floor have at least 30 to 40 stairs to climb just to get to into their apartment door. That’s a serious workout just coming and going. And add grocery bags to that climb. Also another reason this country is not a target for the popular Fitbit.

The Dutch may not have mountains to climb outside their homes in this beautiful land of windmills and flowers, but they (and expats) have a mountain of pain associated with the daily trek up and down the stairwells inside.

In Search of a Dutch Cocktail by ExpatrodinaryAmsterdam

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There is nothing like ending the day or starting the evening with a delicious cocktail made with shaken ice and perfectly paired liquors. A few sips of a well made martini and relaxation sets in and you can forget about any trials of the day or lists you have to scratch down. I have not ended my day like this since I have moved to Amsterdam. Where, oh where, are the cocktails?

After doing a little googling, I have learned that there are, in fact, very good cocktail bars here. I just did not realize I needed to google to find them. And alas, I have also discovered they are not far from my reach. Before my online research, silly me thought that if I saw bottles of gin, vodka, tequila and the usual liquors over a bar here, that the nice young strapping Dutch bartender could make me a cocktail. Oh no, just because you see it there, does not mean it can be mixed, shaken or stirred for you. Hmmmm, another frustration that I just have to suck up… if only I could, with a little straw.

No matter, I did my research and found the top 10 cocktail bars in Amsterdam. Three of them are behind hidden doors like the old speakeasies and almost all the others are in hotels. Eh hem, no wonder I could not find them before engaging Google. Looking at those  photos of mouth watering martinis, I am up for the hunt.

As I edit copy paste those cocktail bar addresses into my iPhone, and Google maps, I realize I need to actually plan ahead for visiting one of these fine establishments. No matter, just around the corner is a Gall & Gall (popular wine and spirit store here in Amsterdam). Taking matters into my own hands, I head home with a bottle of Grey Goose (I know, I should have purchased the Dutch Kettle One) vodka and organic cranberry juice (found at the new and hip market called Marqt) and grab a few limes at the green grocer. I think to myself, thank goodness I found those fabulous ice cube trays last week at the Duikelman!

Pouring my concoction of lime, cranberry and Grey Goose over freshly cracked ice, I think, this looks pretty good. But not nearly as good as those Cosmopolitans I enjoyed back home. I am a little nostalgic of times spent sipping delicious martinis with my close girlfriends in my old hood. It’s only been a month. I’m pretty confident I can shake this homesick feeling and organize an outing with some new girlfriends in search of that perfectly paired and poured Dutch delight. Just give me time.

Dedicated to my girls: Tricia, Karen, Caroline, Sue, Stephanie and Tracie 

Eten Glorieus Eten!

Food glorious food! Some people eat to live and some people live to eat. I am one of the latter. Leaving home is hard. You say goodbye to family and friends and your kid’s friends and their school friends and your neighbors AND your favorite restaurants. Before we moved, my husband and I tried to frequent all our favorite restaurants so we could savor all that we would miss.

Here in Amsterdam, there is a plethora of outstanding food. For some reason, food just tastes better. It could be the missing preservatives, hormones, pesticides and additives that do not get thrown into the growing of the produce and the meat. Oxfam rated Dutch food number one in the world in 2014 for being the most plentiful, healthy, nutritious and affordable. Aside from Australia, the top 20 countries on their list were all in Europe. Lucky lucky me!

Ok, I know what you are all thinking, Dutch cuisine? Really? I say Really! Let me rattle off just a few:

1)Kaas/Cheese – Dutch cheese is phenomenal and widely available all over the NL. The large round orange circles in the cheese shops will be sliced to your specifications to take home and are packed with flavor – my personal favorite is oude kaas (old cheese) that is aged and creamy and a little dry at the same time.

2) Stroopwafel – this is probably the most widely known pastry in the NL and I used to buy these at Trader Joe’s whenever they had them in stock. Who wouldn’t like a syrupy caramel-like cookie, especially if you can get one in the center hot off the hot plate oozing with sticky goodness?

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3) Bitterballen – These little round balls have a crunchy breaded outside with a warm and delicious filling on the inside, kind of like a combination of flavored mashed potatoes and delicious gravy and a bit of meat too. A favorite of the Dutch snacks to be eaten here at a restaurant or café, and order a beer to enjoy them with.

4) Frites/French fries -Those of you who follow my blog already know my fondness for the potato fried to perfection here and I have to say, the Dutch do it right. They will come with a side of mayonnaise, but you can ask for ketchup too.

5)Pannenkoeken/Dutch pancake -Thicker than a French crepe, and thinner than IHOP’s specialty, the pannenkoeken can be eaten with powdered sugar and syrup, but the locals like them with all kinds of toppings including eggs, ham, cheese, even fruit.

6) Erwtensoep/Pea Soup – this delicious heavy thick green soup is usually found in the winter months and is packed with flavor.

7)Sinasappelsaap /Orange juice – The orange juice here beats any Florida juice I’ve had, ever. You can get this fresh squeezed at the Albert Heijn (self serve) and many other little shops and it’s divine! The sweetness of the juice is beyond delicious! And my daughter loves ordering it and she loves saying it too.

Aside from these traditional foods, I have yet to be disappointed with what I bring home from the grocery store, especially the organic fruits and vegetables in season. Nor have we been let down by the many restaurants we have frequented already. Even my fussy teenager is trying new items on the menus over here and expanding her food repertoire. As far as food goes, we are pretty happy. There hasn’t been time, or reason, to miss our old haunts back home and for now we will keep exploring the restaurant scene. But, I’ll be damned if I can find me a cocktail in this amazing city! What I would do for a grey goose cosmo, extra sweet! More on that next time.

Grocery Game Face from Expatrordinary Amsterdam

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Grocery shopping has never been at the top of my list of favorite things to do, but it wasn’t the worst thing either. My weekly routine back in the States was to go first thing in the morning after dropping my daughter at school at beginning of the week. Less crowds, less traffic, more inventory in the store. This is when I had my air-conditioned car. I am starting to miss that Beetle.

Now living in Amsterdam without a car, grocery shopping has dropped down there with cleaning the Dutch toilet as one of my least favorite things to do. Purchasing groceries in the Netherlands is not as easy as one may think, especially if one is American.

Americans are used to a certain level of service in the grocery store including someone else bagging their groceries, asking what kind of bag they might like them packed in and, even, someone to walk their groceries to their car. Well, here, one should put their self-sufficient, self-reliant and self-bagging shoes on. Aside from the cashier, the person behind the bakery (yum) and the cheese (Yummier!) cases, YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN. If you do not bring your own bags for your groceries to be packed in – by YOU – you have no other choice but to juggle your groceries in your arms or to purchase bags. Advice, bring your own bags – sturdy ones, like the kind you can buy from Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. And be ready!

Armed with my own bags to carry groceries home, I feel prepared entering the Albert Heijn (popular grocery store chain in the NL). I have my game face on. Arriving as early in the morning as I possibly can, I have my plastic circle insert to put into the chain linked grocery carts so I can pull one out and use it, my local bank card with a CHIP to pay and my strategy for shopping.

The quality of items at the Albert Heijn is truly comparable to the quality of food at Whole Foods. And better yet, everything is much much cheaper in the Dutch grocery store. I go through the aisles strategizing the amount of groceries I put in the cart, and also how much everything weighs, cause I have to carry it all home, usually by bike. I know from the past few weeks it won’t all fit into my bike basket – so I will be carrying some of it on my back TOO. And because this is how I shop, I will be coming back here sometime soon this week. UGH or Uggghgghh in Dutch.

Once I am done shopping, I choose an aisle (never behind an elderly person) that is only for the CHIP card, (no cash). I feel my heart start to pound. I load my items onto the conveyer belt, heaviest items first. The cashier starts racing my items through the scanner as I try to manage packing them as fast as she is scanning them. The cashier always wins. Mid packing she asks me if I have a bonus card, which I haven’t yet had the chance to fill out, and she tells me the amount due. I push my chip card into the little machine and, in an instant, I have paid. And then the nice cashier immediately starts ringing up the next person in line. Luckily at the end of the conveyer belts there is a long divider that pushes and squishes my groceries to one side. The Albert Heijn is well aware that SELF bagging takes longer than scanning and paying.

Bags all packed (phew!) I return my cart to the chain link row of carts and take out the little plastic circle and head up the escalator, heavy bags in hand to my bike. I pedal home feeling enormous personal satisfaction I have survived another trip to the Albert Heijn. I wonder if the local Amsterdammers have the same feeling. Probably not. They probably have cars they use only for grocery shopping. Maybe they are even air conditioned.

I thought this was urban legend, but I have heard personal accounts of new friends using self scanners to scan their groceries as they put them in their cart at the Albert Heijn. You simply give the card inside the scanner to the cashier and pay – so much easier! Unfortunately, these are not available at the two local stores I shop at. Of course they aren’t.

Public Transport in a Heat Wave from ExpatrordinaryAmsterdam

11905950-tram-in-amsterdam-netherlands.jpgIf there is one thing I have to rave about living here in Amsterdam, it is the reliability and access of public transport. In peak hours trams and busses come between every 5 and 10 minutes. And in off hours, about 12. It’s helpful to know that if you need to get somewhere not in walking distance, and you aren’t biking, you can rely on these to get you where you need to go pretty much whenever you want and need to get there.

As expats, we were offered a car as part of our “package” moving here. We turned it down. Being familiar with the accessibility of public transport and bike lanes and living in walking distance of most conveniences, we opted out. The real fear of accidentally taking out a biker driving probably factored in a little bit as well, but all the same we decided to embrace city living without a car.

What we never took into consideration was, however, that public transport here in the Netherlands, being in Northern Europe, has no AC. While we are extremely fortunate to still be celebrating summer weather in Amsterdam, today was in the 80s, riding on public transport takes on its own level of tolerance. With this lovely extended hot summer weather, riders are suffering on trams, trains and busses. Oh my word. If I haven’t dropped 5 pounds already from all the walking and biking, I have sweated out at least 5 more just sitting – and sweating – on the tram and bus in my daily treks.

This is highly unusual weather for Amsterdam in September, and of course, we are loving it. But, even with the windows open, the temperature outside makes it pretty stifling inside. As I climbed on the tram today to do some errands, I got a little nervous when I saw the tram driver with half his shirt wet. I nearly turned around and got off. But, no, I stayed on thinking , how bad can it be?  I only lasted three stops.

I know I sound like a very spoiled American, but how spoiled can I be opting out of having a car, which I am sure would have AC? I started thinking about my first experience living in a big city riding the metro on a daily basis in Washington DC. I do remember it was air-conditioned. As one of many trying to manage the stifling heat on the tram, I asked the woman next to me if any of the trams had AC and she said, “No, but they do have heat.” Great. Can’t wait.

The weather will change sooner than later here – I know the dark and cool and rainy season is upon me, and all this fretting is only for a week or more, but for now I will stick to the bike lanes, and when it gets too hot to keep on pedaling, will look for a café to plop down for a cold beirtje and side of frites.

The Evolution of the Sneaker from ExpatrordinaryAmsterdam

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Twenty years ago I was warned. Don’t ever wear sneakers outside the house in European cities because everyone will peg you as an American!

I still remember these words today as I peruse my closet choosing what to wear. Americans sometimes get a bad rap for our choices in clothing and shoes, and perhaps it is well deserved. Many of us like to wear our gym/yoga clothes as everyday wear. Twenty years ago, this was a huge no no on city streets in Europe. And as far as clothing goes, this is still a big no no. I am sorry to share this with all my Lululemon fond friends back home, but when you come to visit me, you should be aware, that here in Europe, one does not wear gym clothes unless returning from the gym. One now does, however, happily wear sneakers!

Sneakers have surely evolved. I cannot help but stare in awe at the beautiful and diverse amount of sneakers I see on a daily basis on almost EVERYONE. Gorgeous colorful Nikes I have not even seen back home in the land of the Air Jordan. If any of you know me well, then you already understand my intense love of shoes and sneakers and boots and sandals….  To me, the amount of diverse choices in sneakers here is comparable to the American grocery store cereal aisle. Bright red and blue, bright blue and white, red and white, pink and green, orange and pink, yellow and blue, and multicolored varieties… it’s like a vibrant speckling of cool and lightweight footwear adorning the pathways of Amsterdam.

And it is not just the Nike brand. All the other popular brands are here in full force on feet large and small, like Adidas and New Balance and Converse. There are sneakers made by high-end designers showcasing storefronts as well. Sneakers would never have been on display in stores selling mod clothes and cool jackets twenty years ago. But, now, they have evolved to a sort of art form for the foot. Sneakers have been elevated to acceptable and praise worthy everyday footwear. And I want in! It should come as no surprise that three weeks into our new expat life, my daughter and I are happily and eagerly adorning our feet in our brand spanking new colorful sneakers as we tread the streets of the ‘dam. Perhaps it is the Europeans who were missing the boat twenty years ago and have learned something from us Americans.

The Shelf – It’s a Bit Stinky from ExpatrodinaryAmsterdam

Warning: This Post May be Gross and Disturbing to Some Readers!

I remember quite clearly during my first time living in the Netherlands 20 years ago my awkward and gross fascination with the Dutch toilet. If you have traveled or lived here, you know what I mean. It is something that shouldn’t be talked about – but here goes. And for obvious reasons, I have not included a picture. But feel free to google this topic as I am sure you may find some.

The Dutch are super tall people – Dutch men are the tallest in the world. The average height of Dutch men is six feet tall. I am not sure if this has anything to do with the toilets or not, but I thought I would mention it just the same.

One of the first things I was struck by when I first moved here, and still strikes me as odd, is the shelf inside the toilet. Yes, the shelf. The toilet is not ALL bowl. There is this kind of porcelain shelf before the water. It’s kind of disgusting and fascinating at the same time. You can imagine where I am going with this. If you need to do a poo, you will surely get to see it, and smell it – in all its stinky glory before you flush.

I mean WHY? Just why? Please. Can someone explain this to me? It’s not like this topic comes up in everyday conversation. And I would never want to insult the brilliant and inventive Dutch who reclaimed most of their land from water, who are building parking garages (for bikes!) underneath canals, who installed garbage depositories that push your garbage bag in an instant under ground – right on one’s very street! I would never question the ingenuity and brilliance of the Dutch. But seriously, why?

The good news is that bathrooms are usually very private in a household or restaurant – separated from the rest of the bath, shower and vanity. As an expat from a country that does not have this shelf situation in bathrooms across America,  a lasting and stinky impression is imbedded forever in my experience living here. Expats do talk about this here and there, and since it is an experience different from at home, perhaps it is good to get it out there in the open.

 

Let’s Talk Trash! fromExpatrordinary Amsterdam

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Reminded of trash woes from back home of the town waste management company suddenly canceling its contract to pick up garbage (every other week!) I thought I would share with you how fabulous trash collection is here in Amsterdam.

Who knew that I would actually enjoy putting out the garbage? In a city of 820,000 people and 3.5 million visitors a year, you could say there is a lot of garbage in Amsterdam. Twenty years ago, it was stressful remembering to put out your garbage between certain hours on one day a week, especially if you lived in an apartment two hundred stairs up and worked a lot.

Stressing no more, I was happily and strangely surprised to find a new Dutch trash collection system here. Just steps from my apartment door there is this silver box with instructions on how to insert your trash bag. At any time on any day of the week, you lift the lid and a circular container spins to let you put in your trash bag, you shut the lid and off it goes underground and then you hear it being squished with all the other neighbor’s trash. And that’s it. No dragging a smelly large plastic container to the curb, no hoarding all your trash outside somewhere to stink up the street, no leaving it in a huge pile. Yes, I know you are all envious of my new fabulous trash situation.

I have always admired the Dutch for their ingenuity and practicality. But shouldn’t be too surprised, I mean the Dutch reclaimed most of their land from the sea. On collection days, the garbage truck arrives, but no one gets out of it. This crane type of thing (think long metallic arm) comes to magnetically connect to the silver bin and lifts it up and over the truck – and it opens and dumps all the compacted trash in. About one minute later the trash is driven away.

It’s pretty sweet, this trash thing here.