They Call it Crocus Break

They call it Crocus Break here in The Netherlands. But let’s just call it what it really is – a week-long escape from the cold dark winter. Crocuses make one think of spring and new beginnings. As a Northeast girl hailing from Boston, and someone whose expatted here for a few years, way back when, I know those crocuses have more time left in the ground.

Piggybacking on my husband’s work trip to a warmer climate on another continent, we cashed in some of his well earned air miles and took our teenage daughter to Dubai – land of sun, sand, immense shiny wealth and artificial beauty. Making my way on to the Emirates Airbus 380, I realized this destination is very popular among Europeans, one of the closest guaranteed warm weather vacation spots, and just a little over 6 hours from Amsterdam. There are other crocus breakers here too.

From the moment we entered the enormous, beautiful, glitzy, perfectly climate controlled Dubai airport, after deplaning with 500 plus other crocus breakers and their small screaming children, we were in awe of the enormous shining silver columns reflecting all around as we waited in line to pass through immigration. Without saying one word to our immigration officer, who also had nothing to say to us, we found our transport and headed to our hotel.

On the twenty minute drive to Jumeirah Beach, it was impossible not to marvel at the myriad of uniquely designed skyscrapers rising up from the desert twinkling in colors of red, pink, purple, green and white in the cloudless night sky. Unable to stop searching out of each side of the car windows, past the loads of jaw dropping luxury car sales offices (McLaren, Aston Martin, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Bentley to name a few) I found it, the truly one of a kind spectacle I was looking for, the Burj Kalifah. Truth be told, it was Ethan Hunt who scaled this building on one of his impossible missions that sparked my interest in seeing this man-made wonder. It’s even more impressive up close.

 

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When we reached our hotel on the artificial Palm Tree designed with reclaimed sand and sitting proudly in the Persian Gulf, I thought to myself, it’s not just the Dutch who know how to reclaim land. And in Dubai, they do it much fancier.

 

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A little fearful after reading the guidelines to vacationing in the United Arab Emirates, I soon realized after talking to the many other vacationers who have gone before me that there was not too much to be worried about. Putting aside my real concern for possible arrest and incarceration for swearing, something I have been known to do from time to time, a few times a day, or showing public displays of affection, also something I do a lot of, or inadvertently using my left hand to hand something to someone, I started to relax on my vacation in the Middle East.

Dubai is truly impressive, a modern, cosmopolitan city and emirate. There is no way to miss the wealth oozing out from everywhere. Lounging on my beach chair at our hotel, facing the sun and gulf, my view to the left is bombarded with a futuristic cluster of awe-inspiring buildings. I feel like Jane, wife of George Jetson.

 

 

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As if lounging for days on this beautiful beach was not enough to enjoy our time in Dubai, we decided to embark on a once in a lifetime adventure, an Arabian desert safari. Our guide from Uzbekistan was very talkative on our hour-long journey to the 87 square-mile Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and informed us what it’s like to live here. Dubai’s population is made up of only 10% UAE nationals and the rest are expatriates here to work. It is a popular place for expats since there is no income tax and everyone speaks English.

We learned that the national sport is cricket, although football (or what we Americans call soccer), rugby and horse racing are also popular. A real surprise was when we stopped to see another popular sport – camel races. Camels run. They run with robots on their backs. Because children between the ages of 5 and 10 (who did not weigh that much) sometimes fell off the racing camels, robots were introduced as safer substitutes. Camels will not run without weight on their backs, and they cannot see who is on them anyway, child or robot. Camels are protected here in Dubai. In fact, if you accidentally hit a camel with your car, you are fined $100,000. If the camel is pregnant, you are fined $150,000. Good reasons to slow down in the desert.

 

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You can choose between open-air Landrover or camel to ride on your safari. We chose to go by camel. Camels spit and bite so they wear a hand-knitted facemask. You can still hear them grumbling though, as they are guided to stand up or kneel down to get on and off them. On our hour long camel ride guided by our Arab host, we were transported into another time and world of the Bedouin nomads who trekked through this same beautiful sand.

 

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After climbing/half falling off my camel, we enjoyed a falcon show as we sipped on delicious sparkling apple and date juice. Falcons are the national bird of the UAE, even though they are not native here. We watched a peregrine falcon fly, dive and hover while hunting its prey from the falconer it imprinted on since birth. Peregrines are the fastest animal on earth, being clocked at 180 miles an hour. This demo was over pretty fast.

 

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Afterwards, we dined in an authentic traditional Bedouin styled camp made entirely from natural materials including stone, wood and goat hair. It was stunning, lit up with lamps and gorgeous pillows and Persian rugs under a starry sky. We enjoyed authentic Emeriti cuisine prepared by local chefs such as lamb cooked over 24 hours under the sand, marinated chicken kababs, assorted rice dishes, fattoush, Chubab bread and various deserts. We passed on trying the camel cooked in herbs and spices.

 

 

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16683804_1007487352728663_8906986647613223920_n.jpgThis weeklong escape to Dubai is one we will never forget. Waiting in line to board the plane back to the land of crocuses, a little sore from my camel excursion, more burned than kissed from the Arabian sun, I ask my husband when he must return to this beautiful place – for work. He just gave me that look. He knows I am hoping he has more air miles to share.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Short. The Struggle is Real.

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Everyday going about my business in Holland, I feel it. I am five feet four inches tall. Here, I am short. I am height challenged. I cannot reach the handle hanging overhead on the tram when it’s packed. I cannot reach half of the cupboards in my kitchen without the aid of my IKEA stepstool. My kitchen countertop is even with the bottom of my ribcage and my feet never touch the floor on any public transport I have taken.

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As a short person, you feel the height challenge on a daily basis. It never really hinders you, but you get annoyed and frustrated, nonetheless. When in a restroom and looking in the mirror, I can only see myself from my chin up. Door handles and coat hooks are higher. You start to notice small things that you would never even think about if you were in the US. Like in the Apple store here on the Leidseplein, the tables holding all the latest and greatest machines are taller. It’s hard to type comfortably on that shiny new iPad if you are not the typical Dutch person. Even in my furnished expat apartment, the desk I am typing at is too high for me. I sit on a pillow on the chair so that I can type at a normal level.

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And when you are short, your legs get an extra workout. We know the Dutch love stairs. And stairs here are measured for the height of the average Dutch person. For men, that is a little over 6 feet and for women it is 5 feet six inches. My thigh muscles have become noticeably more toned since moving here. It’s not all bad.

When shopping here in The Netherlands, I am now conscious of how many more euros I would need to add to the cost of any pants I may want to buy, for shortening them. And even some tops I cannot choose because the arms are simply way too long. Luckily, there are Italian and French (where shorter Europeans live) designers carried in most stores and I can find clothes that are just right for my height.

I have tried to understand the reasons for the Dutch being so tall and I am attributing it to their consumption of dairy products. When you are new to the Dutch grocery store, you will be surprised, amused and bewildered by the amount of yogurt drinks, milk drinks and dairy options available. It reminds me of an American cereal aisle. I had no idea when I first arrived what karne melk was and why there were so many varieties. It is buttermilk and the Dutch love it. Even adults. There is always a small mob of tall Dutch people hovered around the milk case. Everyone drinks milk products here on a daily basis and everyone eats cheese. There is a cheese store in every neighborhood. Once you have tried Dutch cheese, you will find your favorite and be among the locals standing in line asking for your hunk to be sliced from that orange wheel as well. I am curious to see if my teenage daughter will gain some height while living here, as she too has come to crave the Dutch cheese. And then she can reach the top shelves of the products I need at the top of the dairy case.

I do love the expressions on my visiting friends’ faces when we pass a really tall Dutch guy. You cannot help but notice when a six’ six” or taller guy walks past again and again. You might only see this in the US at an NBA game.

Since my toes have also received more attention in the stretching and tipping that they are doing here, my feet have grown stronger and all those heels and wedges are starting to feel pretty comfy now for longer wear. Come summer, I feel confident I will be running for the tram in heels, and will be hanging on to those overhead handles with ease.

 

Visitors are coming…. AGAIN!

If you’re expatting in Amsterdam, chances are you’ll welcome more than a few visitors. A visit from friends and loved ones is like receiving a treasured gift. The gift is their arrival and the treasure is added as your time together progresses. They bring so much of what you miss from wherever “home” is. Whether family, BFFs or long lost relatives who’ve heard you’re in Amsterdam, guests arrive happy to see you with their own set of expectations of what to see and do in the ‘Dam along with their oversized suitcases.

For us, the fortuitous expats living in this amazing European city, we are relied on to help fulfill these expectations over photo-worthy romantic canal bridges, crossing hazardous bike lanes and through the most impressive art museums ever to be found. Balancing hosting and guiding while trying to ensure a memorable visit can be tricky and tiring. I’ve compiled a few strategies to help create a happy visit for both hosts and guests.

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I used to think it imperative to greet every guest at the airport. Now, after being on my third expat tour, I no loner feel compelled to do so unless they haven’t traveled through Europe or is someone I really want to give a huge hug to (like my son arriving on his college break) after emerging through the kissing-Dutch-kids arrivals door. Instead, I offer detailed instructions to take an official airport taxi or the red Connexxion Schipol bus.

When guests arrive from an overnight flight, as with most arriving from the States, they may want to sleep after they arrive, or to jump right in and get out and about in the ‘Dam. I tend to steer folks close to home base on arrival day since they may be falling down from exhaustion come afternoon.

If you’ll be taking trams, busses or trains to get around quicker and easier, purchase some blue anonymous OV-chipkaarts (at the Albert Heijn or any major train station) in advance and add some starter trip funding. Purchasing individual tickets for each and every ride can suck up extra cash and time. And if you know you’ll have more visitors adding more treasure to your trove sooner or later, these kaarts will come in handy. The initial 7,50 euro is worth the investment to save you time and hassle. And your guests will greatly appreciate you thinking ahead on their behalf. Just remember to ask for the kaarts back before your guests depart. You can top them up whenever you need.

If you are a newbie expat, keep in mind playing tourist is thirsty work and can build up quite an appetite. Think about how much eating in and out your guests might want to do. If you like to cook like I do, and enjoy preparing meals, get some shopping done one or two days before they arrive. If you dread it, Deliveroo.nl, UberEats.com and the like, are just a click away. If you can, stock up on some fresh fruits found at any open market or green grocer nearby. If your guests are from the US they will appreciate the freshness of a large ripe orange complete with the stem and fresh green leaf still attached. They are a hundred times tastier than even a Florida orange (no offense to my Floridian friends). Also a little stash of stroopwafels, Dutch cheese and fresh bread are a nice introduction to Dutch treats and eats.

If you have been here awhile, you already have a few favorite restaurants you want to bring your guests to. When dining out, you’ll definitely want to order those staples visitors must try while here like bitterballen, one of the many Dutch beers, apple pie in the Jordaan, and maybe a rijsttafel dining experience. Booking reservations for dinner is highly recommended as good restaurants fill up fast, especially in high tourist season. SeatMe.nl is a great website for booking and also allows you to cancel easily should your plans change.

14053948_882231791920887_7535345143892352367_n.jpgNow on to the museums. Chances are Van Gogh will be at the top of the list. According to the Van Gogh Museum, Vincent is the most popular artist in the entire world. Luckily, this is a relatively small well laid-out venue and a real crowd pleaser. It’s also in a fantastic area on the Museumplein next to the Stedelijk, the modern art museum that looks like a giant bathtub, and the world-renowned Rijksmuseum which houses the Dutch masters: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and many more. All three have very nice restaurants to boot. The Museumplein is a MUST SEE offering so much to tourists and locals alike. In the winter there is the outdoor skating rink with music and a connected glass enclosed pop up restaurant. In the summer there are outdoor concerts, markets and horse shows. It is a constant green space of activity. In nice weather, stroll through the Rijksmuseum garden on the side opposite the iamsterdam letters.

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You can also just relax with a book while sipping some champagne or espresso found at the little shop just inside the garden. A whole day could be spent on this plein alone. Be mindful that the Rijksmuseum is massive and time consuming. Moving through the floor housing Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch and Vermeer’s The Milkmaid could last hours. Hint, do the Rijks in late afternoon or evening as the crowds thin. When going to the Ann Frank House Museum, book a time slot online to avoid waiting in a two-hour line wrapped around the Westerkerk.

Once your major museums are checked off, you should have some other activities in your tour guide back pocket to avoid the aimless wandering through the Centrum. Checking iamsterdam.com for happenings in town (outdoor skating rinks, special art exhibits, a flower festival, etc.) is a good idea. I especially love it when I learn an outdoor market will be on the Museumplein I did not know about. I also like to surprise folks with an afternoon tea (at De Bakkerswinkel or The College Hotel – both in Oud Zuid or the swanky Pulitzer Hotel) to rest up and delight in some savory and sweet bites after walking all day. A jaunt to the lively open-air market at the Jordaan Lindenmarkt on Saturday is well worth the trip to experience the best nuts, flowers and cheese stands in Amsterdam. Scheduled down time as well as visitor alone time is highly encouraged. I also recommend trying to mix some spontaneity in your planning. Leave time to get lost, stumble on that gorgeous shop full of wares that needs investigating as you stroll along the Negen Straatjes, or watching that random Dutch person singing in a paddle boat in a canal in the Centrum. Guests may undoubtedly want to engage in the coffee house experience. Whether partaking or not, there are no shortages in this tolerant city. A canal boat ride at night is also a lovely way to see the city and bridges sparkle.

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Always be mindful of the very possible fun deterrent…. Holland weather. Do not let this interfere with getting out and about. Weather apps are extremely reliable these days right down to the half hour, which is good, since weather here seems to change by the minute. Preparing for the day with waterproof footwear, jackets, layers, umbrellas, etc. can make or break your day. It rains a lot in Holland. It’s all fun and games while taking in Vincent’s masterpieces, but that can all turn to shit when you walk outside to a hail and rain storm without an umbrella, or at least a hood. Note – mention this to your visitors BEFORE they get there so they can pack appropriately. A good friend of mine reminded me to bring a decent waterproof jacket when I first came to Amsterdam last June to look for an apartment. It was the BEST piece of advice I received. And when noting heavy rain or crazy weather, that is the time for your indoor excursions.

I am a firm believer that outside adventure, even in the form of a bike ride or walk through the Vondelpark is essential to any visit. Fresh air, mixed with some exercise and doing like the Dutch do can leave a lasting impression, even if, at first, seems difficult or pushing one out of their comfort zone. Biking for many of us expats in Amsterdam can be extremely stressful at first (or always), but it is something that the Dutch do on a daily basis with ease (and aggressiveness). Throwing this into the mix can be a great way to spend some time and create some memorable moments, especially if you spot one of the hundreds of parrots that reside in the Vondelpark (no, this is not urban legend). There are bike rentals everywhere.

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Whatever your plans, guests will marvel at the tall skinny houses leaning right or left, the constant flow of bikers and those menacing mopeds and the ease of Amsterdammers speaking English. If you have enough time, side trips to Haarlem, Leiden, The Hague and Delft provide experiencing even more Dutch culture. Don’t forget to look out the window of your car or train at the flower fields, windmills, and flat green pastures along the way. And always have enough money (suggested at least 20 euros for a roundtrip) on those blue OV-Chipkaarts for day trips so you aren’t barred entrance through as you run to make your train home.

 

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