The Prize of Expat Life – the Euro Mini Break

As I sip my cappuccino in the very posh shopping area of the Aeroporto Venezia surrounded by Valentino, Versace and Prada, I’m feeling pretty full. Full from the amount of Italian food I eagerly consumed, full from the touring we accomplished and full from the gratefulness of the mere opportunity to be here, taking advantage of our daughter’s week-long break from school.

Waiting for our KLM departure gate to come on the screen for our flight back to the “Venice of the north,” I feel especially grateful we decided to be expats again in Europe. Our quick one hour and twenty minute flight brought us from one European city of canals and the tallest people in the world to another European city of canals and some of the shortest, with loads of gorgeous shoes in MY size.

When visiting Venice, a city built on water with no roads, half the fun is getting lost or stumbling on that gorgeous photo op or finding that truly memorable meal or eyeing (and buying) the many beautifully designed Italian leather heels you just have to have. Strolling in Venice with no motorized vehicles through twists, turns and one small picturesque bridge after another, I was very conscience of the lack of bikes, bike bells, bike lanes and mad bikers. What a welcome reprieve from the Dutch living experience. Appreciating all that is new and different and fun and tasty is what touring is all about. Venice provides all that and more, in an absolutely gorgeous location filled with fantastically warm and welcoming Italians. (I should note that my husband is of Italian descent and my writing may be biased).

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But, when you give up one bother, another one takes its place. While there are no cars, bikes or mopeds in Venice, there are loads of very fast pushy walkers and…. water. The cramped tightness of the walkways filled with crowds of people trying to get across the same bridge as you can be challenging. Even more challenging and a potential impediment to one’s touring schedule in Venice, is flooding. There are always long lines at sites in tourist cities, but a long line during high tide in the rain in the flooded Piazza San Marco on an elevated walkway to see inside St. Mark’s Cathedral or one of many museums in this one location, can definitely make you feel squished (and wet). Venice floods. Often.

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Our trip happened to coincide with an astronomical high tide and rain. But, not to fear, Venice knows how to deal with flooding. The expert use of elevated walkways at tourist sites, and eager kiosk sellers of plastic boots to pull up over your shoes (in various assorted colors) complete with non-skid soles, seriously impressed us. We took advantage of purchasing three pairs and had a ball. With rain jackets securely fastened, umbrella in hand and our shoes and legs protected from the elements, we could not be deterred from touring, and marveled at the strangeness of a famous piazza filled entirely with a foot of water.

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When crowds (and tides) are high in Venice and you’ve gazed at more naked biblical art than you can imagine, it’s time to escape that madness and eat. On our first day dealing with just this circumstance, we happened upon a small non-descript yet friendly pizzeria and feasted over a two-hour lunch complete with antipasto, pasta, pizza, vino and gelato. Mangia! Delicioso! It is essential to enjoy yourself while traveling, especially when the elements are against you.14708165_915551095255623_4695826649728024958_n.jpg

 

 

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14680776_916729411804458_4481163567790348713_n.jpgAfter two water-filled days, the clouds parted and the sun shone high for the rest of the week allowing us to finish off our list of must sees: The Doge’s Palace and Bridge of Sighs, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, The Natural History Museum, the Chanel Exhibit at the Ca’ Pesaro, and Beilini’s art in the Church of St. Peter the Martyr on the nearby island of Murano. We were also delighted to enjoy some different Venetian seafood dishes as well as the tried and true Italian pasta entrees we knew would not disappoint. Gastronomically speaking, Venice was a huge success.

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As we touched ground at Schipol and rushed in the taxi to get back home to see our dogs and dogsitter, my daughter asked, “What’s for dinner?” My husband took no time in answering, “Pasta!” Why do I feel Venice has followed us back to Amsterdam?

The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same by ExpatrordinaryAmsterdam!

Twenty-three years ago after getting married we moved to Washington, DC for work and it was then that I was introduced to this amazing and wonderful and gigantic store called IKEA. Newly wed, with little to zero money, we needed to buy items that were not expensive, yet attractive and functional to help start our home. Practical in terms of price as well as design, we visited IKEA on many occasions buying items for the kitchen, living room and bedroom. We all know this Swedish store has positively everything one might need aside from the house itself.

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Moving a few years later overseas to Holland, IKEA was a godsend helping to fill the sparse expat apartment we were provided in The Hague. Three years after that, we moved to Copenhagen and I was able to frequent the largest IKEA I had ever seen on a monthly basis. Complete with a play and arts&crafts area, FREE babysitting service, restaurant and massive shopping space, it was like a little piece of heaven for me, a new stay-at-home mom, needing a respite from the cold dark grey day and a couple more things for the house.

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Falling in love with simple and sleek Scandanavian contemporary minimalistic design at every turn, in the IKEA aisles and in Denmark, I took home (to the USA) an appreciation for the modern. Here we are, once again, expats living in Northern Europe, this time in Amsterdam, heading to IKEA to furnish the kitchen, the living and dining rooms, and the empty walls and floors. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

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As anyone who has shopped at IKEA knows, you may go in looking for a few things, but you will check out with a cartload or two. If you are not paying for delivery, and do not have a car, it is a little tricky getting household wares home from IKEA. Thanks to a relatively new American company called Uber, this problem is solved. We quickly figured out Uber drivers who accept to pick up anyone from IKEA come ready with empty trunks and the ability to put down backseats to accommodate you. Cheers to innovative Americans in San Francisco (who founded Uber)! And the smartphone.

Recently, we rented a car for a day to take our Newfoundland to a vet a half hour from our home, specializing in large breed dogs. With this in mind, I immediately planned a trip to – you guessed it- IKEA! It is hard not to get excited at the thought of picking up those things you desperately need for your everyday living but cannot carry them home on your bike or in a shopping bag. Slipping this side trip into the conversation with my husband (the driver), I am greeted with a look of “oh no, really, seriously, do we have to!?”

Backing out of the parking space in front of our house, I gently remind him “Watch out for the bikers.”Again, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

 

I’m Gonna ZOOMa ZOOMa ZOOMa ZOOM! by ExpatrordinaryAmsterdam

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In the Netherlands there are more bikes than there are people. It’s a fascinating statistic. And support for bikers in this infrastructure is impressive. The Dutch are actually building parking garages for bikes underwater because they are running out of bike parking space. That’s what I call commitment to bikes.

But now, move over bikes, because here come the mopeds. Something not as impressive and quite annoying that’s changed from when I lived here twenty years ago, is the amount of menacing mopeds.

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If you own a small motorcycle fitted as a “light moped” that cannot exceed 25 km/hr and you don’t want to wear a helmet, you can ride in the bike lane. Yes, the bike line. Think on that for a moment. It would be one thing if the bike paths weren’t already very crowded with bikes. But they are. The volume of cyclists between 2:30 pm-6 pm when school lets out to early evening, increases hour by hour. Think sardines. Packed like pedalling sardines.

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It’s hard enough being a non-Dutch master of the bicycle here trying to get from point A to point B and back again. Add trying not to get sideswiped by the “light moped” passing you on your bike with its loud hummmmmmm in your ears a little too closely, and it becomes much much harder.

As a newcomer to Amsterdam, biking as a means of transportation takes a different level of concentration than you might be used to and a steadiness when crowded in on all sides. So does crossing the street and the bike lanes on foot.  At certain times of day you have to be quicker than usual – you have to zoom across. Every afternoon around 4:15 pm I go the nearby tram stop to meet my teenage daughter on her way home from school. First, I have to get across the bike lane to the sidewalk and then the main thoroughfare and then another bike lane and make it safely onto the other sidewalk to get to the tram stop. Phew. This is high traffic time. There is a constant hum of mopeds, clanging of the trams, bings from the bike bells and vrmmms from the cars. It’s a sensory overload of wheels. I don’t walk, I zoom.

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My daughter is pretty tired when she gets off the tram from school and just wants to get home. The first month or so after arriving here and not being familiar with the constant flow of bike and moped traffic, she needed a little (Ok, a lot) of reminding about looking to the left or right before crossing the bike lane to get to the sidewalk before crossing the road. It’s tiring just writing that. “Heads up” is my usual reminder to her if she’s not paying attention. A walker can easily collide with a bike or a faster approaching moped if crossing before the path is clear.

At this time of day, we do not walk. We zoom. It’s somewhere between fast walking, kind of running or zipping across a thoroughfare with all the other crossers, before the light turns red and the wheels start moving again. And moped wheels are much quicker on the bike lanes than the bikes. You are on guard, alert, head whipping from side to side, and once safely on the sidewalk, you can breathe a sigh of relief and relax and start walking again.

They say assimilating to a new country takes patience, time and willingness to adapt.  I am happy to report that after just six weeks, we are zooming along just fine. Sort of.