It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas!

The Christmas season has officially begun in Holland. I can turn on the holiday music without thinking “It is not even Thanksgiving yet.” Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, arrived last Sunday from Spain. No, not the North Pole. This Saint is smarter, (and historically accurate) hailing from a much warmer climate.

Dressed in his red cape and flowing white beard, Sinterklaas came to town by boat and horse (not flying reindeer) along with his many helpers –  the “Piets” (think elves with lots and lots of soot on their faces), to parade through Amsterdam as marching bands played and the Piets tossed pepernoten (spiced cookies) and candy to the crowd of thousands.



This was just a prelim. On the eve of December 5th, before the feast day of St. Nicholas on the 6th, Dutch children young and old will lay out their shoes (not stockings) with maybe a carrot inside them, (for Sint’s white steed) by the chimney or back door for Sinterklaas and the Piets as they ride across rooftops to drop treats and presents into them. This is the big day for kids here in Holland, not Christmas.

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If you live here and are wondering what all the chocolate letters are for in the shops, now you know. These letters, special poems, treats, hot chocolate and presents will make this special holiday celebrated here feel more than gezellig (according to Wikipedia: Dutch word which, depending on context, can be translated as convivial, cozy, fun, or nice atmosphere, but can also show someone belonging, time spent with loved ones, the fact of seeing a friend after a long absence, or the general togetherness that gives). 

If any of this sounds familiar to Americans, it should. European immigrants coming to America in the 1700s brought these festive St. Nicholas traditions with them and they morphed much later into our version of Santa Claus and his merry toy building elves.

All around town you can feel the season upon you. Windows are decorated, festive lights are hung in the streets and holiday music is streaming in the shops. Outdoor markets are filling with Christmas decorations and I just saw gluehwein mix for sale at the Albert Hein. Normally, I would not indulge in the festivities until THE DAY AFTER Thanksgiving when my husband reluctantly agrees to tune into the stations playing Christmas music in the car and he carries down numerous boxes from the attic filled with decorations for the house. This was, of course back in the US. So, when in Rome….

I am feeling more than a little excited about celebrating Christmas here in Amsterdam with my family. I even found a delivery service that will bring your Christmas tree to your front door. The Dutch have come along way in customer service, which is good since we left our car back in the US with all the Christmas decorations. Luckily, there will be many Christmas markets between now and then and I won’t have to travel far to stock up.


Wake Me Up Before You Van Gogh Go!

Amsterdam has more than 50 museums. That’s a whole lot of art and culture in one relatively small city. As a visitor it can be hard to narrow down your choices. Top on the list for most include the big three all located on the Museumplein: the impressive and world renowned Rijksmuseum showcasing the Dutch masters (Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer), the Van Gogh, just a short stroll down the greenspace, boasting the largest collection of Vincent’s masterpieces as well as some by his contemporaries, and the Stedelijk, which strives to be one of the most innovative museums of modern art and design in the world situated at the end of the plein housed in what looks like a giant bathtub. These three are definitely worth the time and warrant the purchase of a Museumkart allowing entrance to 400 museums in the Netherlands, no waiting in lines, these three included.

One would undoubtedly also want to see the Anne Frank House, (hint: purchase a ticket online so you will not have to wait in a line reaching around the next corner – think 2 hours long), take a boat ride through the UNESCO protected canal ring, shop along the Negen Straatjes (nine streets) and stroll or bike through the Vondelpark where, apparently, you may sight green parrots.

Recently when my cousin came to stay for a weeklong visit, after the usual must-sees, I suggested we board the 16 tram to a relatively new museum located in a 17th century canal house in a quieter area of the city on the Herengracht, the Museum of Bags and Purses. With over 5,000 handbags to view, this sweet little fashion find is included on the Museumkart and also has a high tea in their museum cafe. Being enormous fans of purses, I thought this visit would prove fun. It did not disappoint.


All of the bags are encased in glass like Mona in the Louvre and some even show the shoes and hats designed to go with them. In the upscale contemporary section, you will see bags from iconic designers like Prada, Chanel, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Lagerfeld, Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent, and Judith Leiber as well as a section for up and coming designers given the chance to show off their skills and bags. Purses owned by celebrities are also part of the collection including those of Elizabeth Taylor Lady Gaga, Julia Roberts, Madonna and Angelina Jolie.



In addition to the permanent collection with some bags dating back 500 years, we were also lucky enough to see the Exhibition Royal Bags including those carried by Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco and one of her infamous Kelly-bags by Hermes, Queen Elizabeth and the Dutch Royal family. Suffice it to say they were/are all fans of Miss Coco Chanel. Also quite interesting were the traveling cases (think Louis Vuitton boxlike suitcases) of the Royals on display highlighting intimate personal objects such as hairbrushes, combs and laundering essentials.


The largest of its kind in the world, and the only one in Europe, The Museum of Bags and Purses was a delight and took us only 45 minutes to ooohhh and aaahhh our way through all three floors. If you too are a fan of this fine accessory, put it on your list of things to see and do while in Amsterdam. Hint, wake and get out early. If you go when it opens, you will most likely have the place to yourself, and possibly the cleaning lady we bumped into as she was vacuuming behind us.

The US Presidential Election and Dutch Deja vu –by ExpatrordinaryAmsterdam

Sixteen years ago when living as an expat in The Hague, I mailed my absentee ballot home to the US and looked forward to a climate change believer and Democratic nominee to be my next President. That didn’t happen. As Americans at home and abroad waited weeks for the outcome of the 2000 election, ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, George W became our President. That was disappointing. And the process of counting and recounting votes with America looking like a third world country to the rest of the world was just a little embarrassing. At least I did not hail from Florida.

For this very strange and historic election, I mailed my absentee ballot in over a month ago to a small town in MA knowing it would not be opened, but at least the candidate I supported would win my state. I also made sure my 18 year-old son studying in a very red southern state received and mailed in his absentee ballot as well. Even though his vote would also not be opened or count in that southern state, I wanted to impress upon him the importance of participating in the process.

I woke up two days ago to a real shocker. And I will say it threw me for a giant loop. My expat friends living here from Croatia, Australia, Britain and other parts of the USA all texted me and each other pangs of disbelief and asked ME “How did this happen?” I started to feel the sense of deja vu bringing me back 16 years to The Hague – only this time it was mixed with grief and fear.

While a Bush Presidency was disappointing then, it was not too hard to swallow. As I type this blog post in my white pantsuit in Amsterdam, still in shock, full of sadness and disbelief, trying hard to swallow what feels like sharp glass a President who does not represent me or half of my country, I am experiencing a deja vu of epic proportions.

Watching CNN for a couple hours the morning this election was called, my visiting cousin and I tried to console each other and experienced some of the many stages of grief and loss. In case you haven’t grieved in a while, they go like this:

1) Denial and Isolation – check

2) Anger – check

3) Bargaining – that is happening now

4) Depression – check

5) Acceptance – not sure that will happen soon

I am going to add a 6th – Fear

Holland is in its rainy dark chilly stage now and the rain pouring down outside that fateful day seemed to be crying for me and all those who thought the US would see its first woman President. European newspapers at Dutch newsstands all had full page pictures of the US President-elect and captions that did not flatter our wonderful country. Another had a crying Lady Liberty in despair. Even the young and friendly Dutch Ziggo (cable guy) representative helping to fix some cable issues yesterday expressed his condolences to me. I am not alone in my feelings living in this foreign and friendly country. And once again, I am more than a little embarrassed.



What’s done is done and the Electoral College has spoken. That’s the way it is in the USA, congressional districts mapped out in each state set up to select a new President. The popular vote would have put a woman in the White House. Another text question I needed to answer and explain to some of my foreign friends.

The electoral college will officially vote on December 19th and on January 20th a reality TV star billionaire whose racist, bigoted, sexist epitaphs are too many to forget will be sworn in as our 45th President.

In my current stage of grief and trying really hard to look on the bright side, I am bargaining with my husband to stay here for the next four years. Yes, you all can come stay with me at any time.


Construction Dysfunction

What do you do when the tram and bus lines you use on a daily basis are cut off, re-routed or just plain MIA? While panic is the first thought that comes to mind, I suggest resorting to the use of the good old-fashioned paper map. Road construction projects in and around the center of Amsterdam have been many and frequent since we arrived in late summer and show no signs of stopping. We are living in a boot camp of transportation hell – ok, maybe purgatory. And we don’t even drive.

I know we are not the only inhabitants annoyed and frustrated with the diversion of transport lines here in the ‘dam, but at least the ‘dammers know their way around, at least a little better than us newbie expats. Since the mobile app 9292 was incorrect in its advice yesterday as I waited too long for a bus that never showed, I went home and got out the trusty paper map. Studying the area where I needed to be, and avoiding the area closed down to all traffic including pedestrians, I realized that I could walk to my destination in less than a half hour – the time I waited for my bus that did not come. While I could have biked, it was raining and the congestion of bikers was so frightening, I decided I would do best on foot.


I kind of know my way around this city now, but I don’t necessarily know which lines pick up and drop off at destinations unless I check my apps. But this handy paper map has the big city picture on it complete with the tramline color coded routes.Walking merrily and hurriedly on my way with trusty map in my raincoat pocket, I smiled and chuckled to myself as I saw huddled masses crowded under the bus and tram stop shelters waiting for that ride that was either not going to show or be extremely late. Cars stuck in grid-lock and stationary for blocks crowded the thoroughfares and blocked crosswalks. As I squished through the line of cars, I saw faces of mad angry frustrated drivers waiting to inch forward.


The diversions will last for an entire week. Last evening I witnessed the entire Van Baerlestraat lined with cars on each side headlights glaring in the rain and trams stuck waiting to move during rush hour. Cars were pulling up from side streets trying to creep into the thoroughfare blocking the bike lanes. Those usual fast flowing paths were impeded. Bikers were pissed, putting it bluntly. I learned some new Dutch swear words on my walk to dinner. The good news is, I guess, is that my language skills are improving.