The Fabulous Five

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Five small, yet dramatic, cliff-top towns sit on the northern Riviera coast of Italy painted with colorful houses of pinks, yellows and orange all with green shutters, connected by a long winding hiking trail, crowded by grassy hills covered in vines and streets lined with bright yellow lemon trees along the bright blue sea. Inside tourists climb scary strangely cut steps combined with very steep hills for the romantic and stunning jaw dropping views, a sightseer’s dream. This is the Cinque Terre.

 

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Our daughter’s spring break afforded us a week in this magical place. After a quick flight from Amsterdam to Pisa, we bought our train tickets in the airport and easily hopped on the Pisa Mover mini train just two stops to Pisa Central Station. Paper tickets in hand, validated at the little white box on the platform, we found our train bound for Levanto, and hurried aboard. Heed this warning: Don’t even bother renting a car. One should not try driving inside or between the fabulous five of the Cinque Terre.

 

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We were picked up at Riomaggiore Station after an hour and a half ride, changing once in Le Spezia by our airbnb host. I was thankful for the ride through the incredibly windy one-way streets with steep dips and climbs and turns pushing our bodies to the sides as if we were on a rollercoaster. Our apartment for the week was situated down a ”private street” or in Cinque Terre terms, a set of fifty or so craggy stairs. Having great difficulty carrying both my luggage and myself down what seemed like forever, our host reached out and grabbed my suitcase and plowed down that obstacle course with ease.

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I don’t think I’ve ever been so unphased by such a hazardous and hassle of an entry because of the beauty around me. I think I’ve found my favorite place in Europe. There is truly nothing more dramatically beautiful I’ve seen all in one place. Perhaps it’s the happy vibrant colors of the houses rising high on the hills contrasting with the light blue, sometimes bright turquoise, ocean and sky. Or the welcoming Italians smiling as I pass watching me snap my photos. Or the sun that seems almost permanent in its heavy heated presence wrapping around me like a blanket. Perhaps it’s the lack of loud motor scooters. I think it’s the feel of romance. The reasons are many and easy to understand once you see it for yourself.

Staring at the drawn out paper map given to us outlining our neighborhood in Riomaggiore, I try to find where it is we should go. This is a true experience in navigation. I wonder how locals endure this physically challenging town daily. Getting around requires strength and muscle power. Clearly my gym workouts aren’t measuring up. It’s the stairs. You’d think living in the Netherlands would have prepared me, but no. If the Dutch lived here, there’d already be an inventive, creative system to get up and down this town (probably with bike lanes) that didn’t require hoofing, huffing and puffing. There is an elevator near the church, but it’s only open at certain times of the day when the school children come and go. There’s no time or desire for pain and soreness here. There’s too much to see and do. A few ibuprofen, socks, sturdy sneaks and a positive determined mind are the cure for dedicated sightseeing.

 

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Riomaggiore, the first and largest of the Cinque Terre towns heading north has a small beach, a wharf, a castle, shops, restaurants and lots of beautiful streets and paths to view the sea. It’s absolutely striking, especially at night. I could argue that once you arrive here, there’s no need to see the other four towns, but after only two days discovering the beauty of our base, curiosity gave way to the desire to see more. There’s four other cliff towns along the sea connected by the infamous hiking trail, most of which is still closed from flooding and a landslide in 2011.

 

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You can get around the Cinque Terre easily by train or ferry, quickest being the train, with each town about five minutes or so from the next. Buy your tickets online since there may be no one selling tickets at the stations and just one ticket machine, inevitably with a long line. Get our your smart phone and go to Trainline EU and buy them at least five minutes before you board. Do yourself a favor and walk to one of the far ends of the platform since most aggressive and eager passengers will flock in the middle and crowd those train cars. The train is long so take advantage of the length of the platform. You don’t want to be stuck standing squished like a sardine on this ride, even for five minutes in the heat.

 

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IMG_4625.JPGWe headed to the northernmost Cinque Terre town, Monterosso al Mare, a 15 minute train ride from Riomaggiore and the least hilly. Graced with a big sandy beach and picturesque views across the sea, it also has some historic sites, a church and lovely colorful streets filled with shops and restaurants. This is the place to stay for those seeking less stairs, less hills and easy suitcase dragging. The train lets you off close to the beach. Walk down the street to sun bathe or climb on some cool tall rocks jutting out of the sea on the sand. Or head through the tunnel to the center of town. You can’t miss the San Giovanni Battista Church with stripes imitating Florence’s Duomo. After some good eats and wandering, great photos and some shopping, we headed back to Riomaggiore by ferry to capture some pics of the cliff towns from the sea. Buy your ticket at the ferry ticket booth before the boat ramp. The ferry ride didn’t disappoint, even in the sprinkling rain. Get a seat outside on the left side so you can get the best pics.

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Our next few days were filled exploring the middle towns Manarola, Corniglia and Vernazza, all special in their own ways. My favorite was Vernazza, a colorful and surprisingly simple seascape town with all the buzz heading downwards towards the port. Its hiking trail is open now heading towards Monterosso and an easy walk for amateurs. Vistas are stunning, so be ready with your camera and take your time here. There are pretty little boats in the small harbor and colorful umbrellas at the seaside restaurants which ooze a happy vibe as you marvel at the beauty while smelling the fresh salt air. It’s simple visual pleasure. Stop, look and soak it all in. There’s no need to rush here, and try not to let the crowds rushing downward get to you. If you remember, head to the crowd-pleasing Belforte restaurant at the end of the port. Climb up the stairs to get a table or book ahead for guaranteed stunning views, very friendly service, delicious food and a very memorable experience.

 

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Corniglia is the smallest town with very narrow walkways, a 367-step hike up (or you can catch the little white van/bus) from the train station to the center and some pretty amazing views across the sea to the other Cinque Terre towns. The train or bus is the only way to get here. There is no boat access. You can’t help but marvel and appreciate the views of the vineyards growing on the hills here. We were enveloped by slow moving misty clouds on our visit to this colorful and quaint little town. Ducking out of the sprinkles into an inviting little restaurant we ordered delicious gnocchi and ravioli with butter and sage washed down with the local light and fruity white wine. One doesn’t need more than a few hours here. It’s that small.

Manarola, also stunning and small, has colorful fishing boats lining the center walkway of town heading downward. After heading past the shops and restaurants, you will find a climb to the hiking trail offering spectacular photo ops. When the sun is shining, the sea looks almost bright green. You can go a little ways to see Manarola with its brightly colored houses sitting tall and proud atop the cliff. Make sure you bring your camera here. It’s worth it.

If you have an extra day, consider a side trip to fancy Forte dei Marmi, about an hour away by train. Look out the window on your way to see the mountains laced with white. It’s not snow, but marble and Michelangelo himself ventured here to find marble to carve his famous statues. This upper class Italian Hamptons-like destination has a very long beautiful beach with lounges and umbrellas in the summer. We’re here for a much different reason, the large outdoor market on Wednesdays. Sellers offer all sorts of Italian made clothes, bags, shoes, linens, soaps, jewelry and more between 10am and 1pm. After shopping, do as the rest of the town does and head to lunch for a few hours. The real stores this town is famous for won’t open back up till 3 PM. There are loads of adorable restaurants with outdoor seating. Pick one and relax, perhaps planning your route through what could be Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. All the major designers are here, along with various other stores. If you time it right, you can catch the public bus from the train to the center. If not, hop in a taxi for 12 euros.

Upon returning to Amsterdam a friend asked me what I thought of the Cinque Terre. It’s so different and beautiful it’s hard to describe, like a place you read about in a novel. It’s almost too romantic, too dramatic, too colorful, too stunning to be real, but it is. Go there and bring your camera. Those five towns are simply fabulous.

 

 

It’s a Dog’s Life

 

unnamed-33.jpgWhen repatriation is in your near future and your expat days are coming to an end, you can’t help but think about the things that won’t be commonplace anymore – in the place you’re headed. We’re headed back to the US and while there’s much to look forward to, there are so many things I’ll be missing from Amsterdam.

Flowers, open air markets with miles of fresh produce, riding a bike instead of driving a car, amazing transportation options, Dutch cheese, walking along the canals, and the ability to bring my dogs with me practically everywhere I go.

The US can seem uptight about many things. You’ll hear this declaration living abroad. Some of those things include nudity, sex, anti-bacterial everything (which probably does more harm than good) and NO DOGS ALLOWED in restaurants, shops, schools and on beaches. We Americans are used to seeing NO DOGS ALLOWED signs in too many places.

Our dogs, brought with us from the States, have been living pretty well in their comings and goings with us in the Dam. Here, and throughout Europe in general, dogs are allowed almost everywhere with you. You can bring your furry friend in most restaurants, shops (but not grocery stores), on trams, trains and busses, even on vacation with you. No need for a service dog certificate.

We hail from a small town on the north shore of MA where townspeople campaign every year for or against, write letters to the Editor, and vote continuously about dogs being allowed – for how long and from what time of day – to walk on the beaches. I have to agree with some of my European friends, we Americans may indeed be too uptight.

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Thunder, our 10 year old Newfoundland is pretty popular in our Amsterdam neighborhood because of his size and dare I say, beauty. He’s a friendly gentle giant with a very loud bark and he’s all about the show. He knows he’s literally “something else.” He commands attention, pushes his way into doorways, goes right up to people for a pet and very much wants to be included. In Amsterdam, it’s a dog’s life and he loves living it. Thunder doesn’t always come inside a cafe with us for lunch or dinner given his size, but since we do as Europeans do, who love to sit outside, even in winter, with heat lamps or not, Thunder feels included. He loves seeing the shopkeepers he knows and enjoys getting a treat from them. It certainly keeps us returning to these places as repeat customers.

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Our little dog, just slightly too big for my purse, also enjoys an afternoon or evening out with us. Cookie is always admired by waiters and other diners and enjoys the attention and stimulation of watching the cyclists pass by out the windows. He’s a cat chaser, so I keep him close since cafes and restaurants welcome cats too and many allow them to live there. If you live in the Dam, you know mice are a nasty common problem here, and cats are essential for shops and restaurants to help deter them. No need to call an exterminator.

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Thunder needed a knee surgery, his second, during our first year here as expats. His first was performed in the US. Our Dutch vet insisted we be with Thunder as he was brought into surgery to calm him before sedation and be there when he woke up to assure him he was OK. Now, this definitely did not happen in the US. I don’t even know what the surgical room looks like back home. But I can tell you, from personal experience, the Dutch approach to caring for one’s pet is way better. Did I also mention the surgery was cheaper in Amsterdam?

Civilized and welcoming, Europe opens up its arms wide to our furry friends and realizes the benefits of including them (or not excluding them) in one’s daily comings and goings. Dogs make people happy and being with their humans makes dogs happy. It’s a win win over here in the Dam. I will savor it while it lasts.

 

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Petite Popcorn Gladiator

This past week the world celebrated International Women’s Day. News outlets are highlighting the heroic women we all admire for their amazing contributions to gender equality, rights for women and standing up against sexism. It got me thinking about the strong women I’m constantly quoting in my daily life, the ones who are no longer with me, my mother and my grandmother.

I grew up in a small noisy house with three older brothers, no sisters, a dog and my mom and dad. There was a lot of talking. My spry, fancy, fun, barely 5 feet tall, with size 4 feet, grandmother, Clara, who enjoyed her family, a good party, family picnic, card game or just hanging around, was a fixture in my childhood. Clara spent a lot of time at my house, probably more than my father enjoyed. The time I spent with Clara was usually filled with laughing. Clara loved to laugh. She wasn’t the type to harp on advice or meddle or pelt me with questions, like my mother. I used to think it was because she loved to talk so much and sometimes, I admit, I tuned her out.

 

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My mother, a registered nurse, like so many women of her generation, had so many “sayings” she would bestow on us, no doubt, handed down to her from Clara. One in particular my mother offered when I called seeking advice to get my young son to listen was “Keep telling him and eventually it will sink in.” And now, decades later, I hear my mother’s “sayings” coming out of my own mouth repeating them to my own kids. I spent so much time with these women, it’s no wonder I sound like them.

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My grandmother didn’t go to college and at a very young age worked in a paper factory. She had the special talent of being able to count the number of papers in a thick phone book just by pulling her thumb against the ends of the pages as they fanned by. I found this fascinating, although she didn’t think it all that fascinating. Her intent showing me this special talent when I was still in elementary school, was to first capture my attention, and then impress upon me that life can be hard, harder without an education. She wanted me to understand the importance of doing well in school. She didn’t want me to have to go to work in a paper factory, special talent aside.

Her young life looked very different from mine. She talked a lot about her sisters and her time working with them when she was young. She grew up in the Great Depression (the first one) and it had an enormous impact on her. I used to remark on how she saved things like paper towels (dried after having been used) and paper bags, newspapers and shoe boxes, among many other things, just in case. You see, “money didn’t grow on trees.” She never ever threw out a carton or tin or can of food until it was scraped clean. She cut coupons. She ate leftovers. She also divorced my grandfather after over 20 years of marriage, which was very uncommon back then among our large Catholic circle of relatives and friends. She was kind of a rebel. And I loved this about her. Her challenges in life seemed to make her even more feisty.

I remember fondly the time I was sent to stay with Clara because I had some childhood illness and my mom was afraid my brothers would get it. Cuddling on the sofa and watching Love Boat, she suggested making some popcorn. Back then you made popcorn on the stove before we all had microwaves. She forgot to put the lid on the pan and came back to see if I needed anything. Then we heard the popping pretty loudly. We ran to the kitchen and popcorn was flying madly in the air and my petite grandmother was blocking the kernels flying out at her with the lid like a gladiator. Neither of us could get the lid on because we were laughing so hard. Clara laughed so hard “she peed her pants.”

Right before I was to leave for college Clara sat me down and said we needed to have a chat about me going away to school. I was expecting some serious earth shattering advice. Clara grabbed my hand and in her in no-nonsense, blunt way said “Cathy, when you’re away at school, never ever wear sweatpants outside your dorm room. You don’t want to look like someone who isn’t put together. You want to be taken seriously. And remember, you can always tell a lot by a person’s shoes.” That was it. I was to leave for college with wardrobe advice.

After my college graduation in 1990 “jobless and in search of,” I was taking my grandmother shopping to the only store that sold her size shoe, Cohoes Manufacturing, a high end discount department store. On the way she seemed to feel I needed some confidence boosting. She told me how proud she was of me graduating college, something she had never been able to do. She told me I had so many gifts and I was ready to use them. And if I ever needed anything, I could come to her. She also asked me what it was I wanted to do for a career. And like most young 20 something year olds, I wasn’t exactly sure. She encouraged me to go out and try, to not be afraid, that sometimes life will “throw you a curve ball”, and you need to be ready to face it and keep going. She Said, “Cathy, you may not know now where you’re headed, but I do. You’re strong and you will do well.”

I don’t think we ever finished that conversation about what it was I was going to “do with the rest of my life” after arriving at Cohoes being distracted in the shoe section by Salvatore Ferragmo, Etinne Aigner and Franco Sarto, a new brand at the time my grandmother didn’t recognize, but was an instant admirer of. “Look, they come in my size!” I wore a 5 and 1/2 size shoe (at the time) and appreciated Franco just as much as she did. Clara fully believed to never pay full price for anything unless it was a very special occasion or a gift for someone else. She did believe, however, in quality shoes, bags and clothes, a trait (good or bad) she handed down to me.

I wasn’t as grateful for those encouraging words she offered me on the car ride as I am now. Part of me expected her to champion me back then, I guess, and I din’t really let them sink in. It wasn’t till much later that my grandmother’s encouraging words came back to me, long after she had passed, at a time in my life when I really needed to hear them. And it was also then that “saying” my mother offered to me many times before came flooding in “Keep telling them, eventually it will sink in.” Clara’s words had finally, decades later, sunk in.

My grandmother, the petite popcorn gladiator, had a strong influence on me. To me, she was fancy, always dressed up, always with matching bag and shoes. Her hair was always “done.” I very rarely saw my grandmother in a state of anything but “put together.” She loved to read and always talked about whatever book she was reading (a lot). She was kind. She was loyal. She showed up. She didn’t cancel. She was interested. She was especially interested in the things I failed at or struggled with or when I was being a tad mischievous. She even laughed (at the dismay of my mother) at some of my naughty escapades. She found perfect people rather boring. And she had no use for those who pretended to be. She was quick to point out when someone or something wasn’t “on the up and up.” She shared her wisdom all along and I didn’t realize then she was giving me resources, and “sayings”, I would use twenty, thirty years later.

My grandmother’s words of wisdom were not about fashion or the importance of good shoes. She wanted me to take college seriously and work hard because life will “throw you curveballs”. She wanted to instill the importance of “dressing for the occasion,” which, in turn, would prompt me to think about the occasion, by way of taking myself seriously looking “put together.” And then others, too, would take me seriously. She wanted me to be mindful. She wanted me to have persistence. She wanted me to resist laziness. She wanted me to be strong.

My mother, Patty, having inherited much from my grandmother, including very small feet, also emulated traits I now find invaluable as a mother, wife, friend and woman in a complex, modern world. Although much more involved in my young life, happy to pelt questions and eavesdrop on my phone conversations, my mother, Clara’s daughter, also left me with tools I didn’t know I would need till much later, after she was gone.

 

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My grandmother passed away soon after my son was born. My mother passed away soon after my daughter was born. I was too young to be without my mother and felt at times anger and regret and grief that she would never know my daughter. My daughter wouldn’t know her. I know now, as my daughter is about turn 15, I’m wrong to think this because I hear my mother, and, in a way, so does my daughter, with my own words and  all Patty’s “sayings”.

I am grateful for those two women who showed me over and over what it is to be a strong woman in the face of adversity and challenges with steadfast support and encouragement. Theirs were not grand gestures or dynamic feats effecting women everywhere. Their teachings, through their words of wisdom and personifying what it truly means to be strong, was to benefit me and help guide me into becoming another strong woman.

Neither my grandmother, nor my mother said this, but I know they would love this quote just the same:

“Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.”

Some of my favorite sayings of my mother and grandmother or things I heard them say over and over that have stuck with me:

“God loves you as much as He loves the person in jail.”

“Put some socks on, my feet are freezing.”

“You need lipstick, without it you look dead.”

“There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”

“Never judge a book by its cover.”

“No news is good news.”

“No one likes a bragger.”

“You have to invite the entire class and leave no one out.”

“You don’t know what anyone else is going through until you have walked in their shoes.”

“I’ll light a candle.”

“You’re only as happy as your most unhappy child.”

“ Let go and let God.”

“Just keep telling them, eventually it will sink in.”

 

 

 

This Must Be The Place

 

IMG_2169.JPGAs expats living in Europe, it’s not unusual to find ourselves feeling torn at times. We’re living this exciting and different life in one country filled with new friends, new lifestyles, new languages, culture and outstanding affordable travel opportunities. And living another life, albeit some of it in the past, or planning repatriation, or trying to settle permanently, in the near or distant future. At times, the psychological and emotional management of these realities separate or intertwined can be tough to manage, especially with kids.

When you feel your brain ticking off the to do lists from abroad, if they get to be too much, lasso those thoughts and bring yourself back to the here and now and start planning to do things on this current side of reality. At times like these, when I’m feeling torn, which is a lot lately, I like to snap myself into a more conscious state of mind. I may be showing my age here, but really, age is just a state of mind…. I turn up Spotify and sing out loud the lyrics from one of my favorite bands, Talking Heads’ This Must Be the Place.

“Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me around
Home is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there”

I used to think home was a particular place. Now my understanding of home is where I am “now.” I’m guessing that expats who have another life somewhere they left behind which included a treasured set of peeps, feel lonely and wanting at times. It happens to me. That’s when I turn up another old favorite song from Simple Minds, ‘Don’t You Forget About Me

“Don’t you forget about me
Don’t Don’t Don’t Don’t
Rain keeps falling
Rain keeps falling
Down down”

Preparation can ease the mind too. Expats become really good at organizing out of pure necessity. The more prepared an expat is, the higher the survival rate. By survival, I mean staying in a host country till the end of the contract. While living in Holland is almost perfect in regards to lifestyle, safety, culture, health, cost of living and travel accessibility, it also comes with something that permeates into your experience. The weather. It leaves a lot to be desired. It rains. A lot. It can rain for weeks on end. And in the winter especially, it’s grey. And dark. And chilly.

Make the concerted effort to FaceTime special friends and family members. Make plans with them, convince them to make the trek over the pond or just keep in touch. My son, studying back in the US, is at the top of my FaceTime call list and just a couple minutes looking at his face and hearing his voice brings a relief and joy that can carry me through a really low day.

 

 

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When you have down time, which is when the mind tends to wander, organize your calendar and dot it with travel, lunches, dinners, excursions, museum visits, historic walks and visits from loved ones. Get out of the house even in the pouring rain. Buy some tulips. Take pictures of the canals. Don your closet with rainproof jackets, shoes, boots and a few umbrellas. Remember, it’s never bad weather, just bad clothing. And since this is home for awhile, better be prepared for what that entails.

 

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When the ping pong match inside your head starts bopping back and forth and Team Home Country vs. Team Host Country is too much to bear, you know it’s time to engage with a friend or two on Team Host Country. Go for a walk in the Vondelpark, go to the Rijks and appreciate Vermeer’s masterpieces, gaze at Van Gogh’s sunflowers or just sit with a cappuccino at an outdoor cafe (when it’s not raining). Life in Amsterdam is quite extraordinary. And as David Byrne wrote, “This Must Be The Place” so we should do our best to enjoy it.

 

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Go to Rome in Winter

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There’s still so much of Europe to see (again) before we’re told to repatriate, so we took advantage of a long weekend in January to show our teenage daughter Rome. Surprisingly warm, bright and sunny, the Eternal City welcomed us northern expats with statuesque open arms. For my husband and I, this was our third pilgrimage here and this magical city proved worthy of more attention.

 

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Staying in the eclectic neighborhood of Monti near the Colosseum this time brought us different views and surprising sights on our daily treks down into the main heart of the city. It seemed to us that Rome is still in ruins, ancient and protected, amid playgrounds, apartment buildings, metro stops and walkways. Everywhere you turn there’s a landmark begging for your eye and a quick snapshot. In just one afternoon you can easily see ten awe-inspiring sites. Aside from one of the biggest in this hood, the Colosseum, and the adjacent Roman Forum, there is an astounding amount of sites to explore.

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IMG_3824.JPGYou can map your way precisely or go off the beaten path through winding skinny streets, up and down (Rome is very hilly). Either way there is much to see walking through this beautiful welcoming ancient place. Look up and through and don’t forget to turn around as you might miss the view from behind. There are literally hundreds of ruins throughout Monti hidden behind homes and fences.

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Climbing down stairs on our way towards Trevi, we stumbled on to the Altar of the Fatherland, built to honor the first King of Italy, Emmanuel. He is forever honored, caste in bronze on his horse with two winged chariots above him on either side affixed to this magnificent white marble monument, the largest in Rome. An eternal flame at the top highlights the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Walk straight past the slew of hagglers hawking selfie sticks and the Italian men dressed as gladiators (do not engage) to take some photos.

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Continue wandering and remember, when in Rome, you should do as the Romans do. Take time to chill. Italians love to sit, eat, have a cappuccino, relax and enjoy the piazzas, even more special on a sunny day. And food in Rome, or anywhere in Italy, for that matter, is more than half the reason to go. It’s easy to find a reasonable and delicious place to eat lunch or dinner without reservations in the low season. Using Google, Yelp or Tripadvisor, there are plenty of good eats to be found.

If you’re there on a Saturday, stroll through the Market at Campo Dei Fiori to see the most beautiful vegetables stands and Italian delicacies to take home. All around this square are delicious restaurants and cafes where locals wait in long cues for a slice of pizza or a small table in the sun.

 

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If you’re in the mood to be surrounded by loads of tourists, even in the low season, pen in the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, both very near each other. Warning! It’s crowded, so mind the uncomfortable bombardment of men coming straight for you to sell all kinds of wares or just trying to engage a conversation as you walk by to ask for money.

Piazza Navona, in central Rome is easy to wander through, or sit with some gelato among the many who come to enjoy the large square with two impressive fountains. At one end you can walk into the Pantheon, also the Basilica of Santa Mary and the Martyrs, for free (until May). Once inside this comparatively small church, look up to see what looks like the moon door from Game of Thrones in the center ceiling.

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Take the metro to Piazza del Popolo, a beautiful square set inside the giant walls of Rome, or northern gate. Cast your eyes on the roads ahead to the Tridente with the twin churches of Santa Maria de Montesanto and Santa Maria Debi Miracoli. This view begs the question, to which one should a Roman attend mass? Head up one street or another to find a fancier part of Rome – and the shops that go with them. At the end of one of these long streets sits the Altar of the Fatherland.

 

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No visit to Rome is complete without going to Vatican City, an easy metro, Uber ride or walk away. You can tour inside this very impressive and enormous church as well, or try and be in the square when Pope Francis is scheduled to say mass from a perch off the papal apartments (although Pope Francis lives in a more modest apartment nearby). The Vatican Museums and can take up a half-day walking through the enormous rooms of gold decorated with incredible works of art and ancient artifacts. At the end of the Museum lies Michaelangelo’s masterpieces inside the Sistine Chapel.

 

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Expats, pack your most comfortable walking shoes and go to Rome. Take advantage of the low season for less crowds, decent weather, cheap direct flights and hotel offerings. If your family is paid in US dollars (still struggling against the Euro) book your hotel through a US travel site and save even more. Also consider purchasing Skip the Line tickets for St. Peter’s Basilica and the Colosseum, both available online. Even in the low season, these sites are crowded.

Should old Acquaintance be Forgot?

2018 came in with a big bang here in Amsterdam, or should I say a night of firework mayhem that would rival a small war zone? I was looking forward to ringing in the New Year with new friends at their rooftop apartment before anxiety took hold of me – and my small dog – with each loud boom starting in the afternoon heading into evening. Eventually, my pup and I were too unnerved to leave the house. As the clock struck midnight, the fireworks in unison, so it seemed, were set off everywhere in the city with a display out every window, front and back, in every color of the rainbow for hours. It was truly spectacular and impressive, along with the almost full moon in the background, watching from the windows in the comfort and safety of my own home.

 

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People warned me Amsterdam was crazy and loud and a bit scary on New Year’s Eve. I just didn’t understand till I experienced it for myself. I shouldn’t be surprised the purchase and ignition of dangerous fireworks are permitted three days a year in a country that tolerates prostitution and weed, mopeds on bike paths and no helmets while riding bikes.

 

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My neighbors, young and old were out on the streets lighting their pyrotechnics, then, standing back to watch the loud bursts and explosions illuminating the street. It resembles celebrations back home, only way, way bigger and more independent than our own Independence Day. The Dutch, underneath their serious and calm demeanors, really do love to be loud and colorful and party. You’d believe this if you were here on New Year’s too. If it weren’t for the immense pounding smoke bombs, spinners and firecrackers coupled with police and ambulance sirens, I’m sure I would love it.

 

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I’m not a believer in New Year’s resolutions, trying to come up with some in years past only to have forgotten them soon after finding them. “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? We’ll take a cup of kindness yet for days of old lang syne.” Instead of making resolutions, I’ll take from this traditional Scottish poem, turned song, sung at midnight on the Eve, to forget what is worth forgetting and keep what is worth remembering from 2017. I’ll keep all the new friends I’ve made, adding them to my treasured group of “old” ones, I’ll keep my happy memories of travels and experiences with friends and family and throw out the few unsavory happenings. I’ll keep the belly laughs, the tears of joy, the proud mom moments, and bring them with me to charge into a new year. I’ll toss out the feelings of dread at the present political situation at home, as 2018 has already been coined the “Year of Women” giving me hope that, the times, they are changing, hopefully, for the better.

As expats, our path is somewhat unclear for the year ahead. Will we stay or will we go? Either way, I’m looking forward. With each leftover firecracker randomly set off here in the Dam, also setting off my nerves, I’ll take that cup of kindness to wash away the anxiety of New Year’s Eve in this magical city as I remind myself to plan to celebrate the end of this new year outside of Holland.

For Patty and Thanks Johnny!

“Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? In the lane snow is glistening. A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight walking in a winter wonderland.” Every Christmas, from the time I was little, meaning the day after Thanksgiving till the epiphany on January 6th, my mom got out the record player and put on her Johnny Mathis Christmas albums. My mom loved Johnny Mathis. I know every single line of every single Christmas song Johnny sang. Maybe I subconsciously love Johnny too.

 

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And while the records were playing we were always doing something festive like stringing popcorn or those paper circle strands of red and green. We had an artificial tree my dad would find in the basement and my parents would struggle figuring out where each branch stuck into the trunk. I would busy myself with the colorful bulbs and lights and tinsel. Tinsel was really big back then. We had the same decorations every year packed away with the tree, including the nativity. I can still picture that big red Santa and a big green wreath made of some kind of crazy plastic that my mom hung on the wall in the living room on each side of the tree. And I wish I knew who got the green elves she had that sat around the house way before the Elf on the Shelf.

 

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unnamed-5.jpgIf only I had my collection of decorations to pull out, all 25 years of them. I’m one of those expats renting a house out to others back in the US with all our personals packed away in brown boxes. Of course we couldn’t ship the contents of our household, just the essentials for one year abroad here in Amsterdam. Um, we’re on our second year. So here we are renting an apartment filled with other people’s stuff. No bother, I’ve already started another holiday collection, much to my husband’s shagrin.

Patty, my mom, who traveled to The Hague and Copenhagen for a couple Christmases with us on this side of the pond, would ask my husband to play Johnny Mathis for her. Back then we used CD players. Luckily, she brought one with her, the one where Johnny’s on the cover standing with his skis in the snow. It’s been 14 years since my mom passed away in early December. As we decorate our rented apartment this week in Amsterdam, with a collection of 2 years strong, I’m lucky I can program Spotify or YouTube for Johnny to sing Sleigh Ride or any of his timeless songs to ring in that Christmas cheer and memories of Patty. Thanks Johnny!

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Oliebollen, Nothing Like a Cider Donut

Only one of my expat friends has told me try an oliebol. Hmmm… why is that? When I first saw, I should say smelled, these pop up oliebollen stalls (think large food truck) around the Dam last year, I thought, is this like apple cider donuts? I love apple cider donuts. They smell like apple cider donuts. But, sadly, they are nothing like apple cider donuts. They are like deep fried dense rolls with warm apple filling inside and sugar on the outside.

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I really wanted to like, dare I say love, oliebollen. I did. But, I don’t. While most of the “things Dutch people like” I like, and I say most, because I don’t like those little fish people swallow in one bite, I do love bitterballen, stroopwafels, poffertjes and french fries with mayo. So why can’t it be the same with oliebollen?

I walk by the same oliebollen stall a lot. It’s always busy, which is a good sign. However, something about seeing fried balls piled high for hours in the same spot makes me second guess their freshness. And there’s that thought in the back of my head, how much fat content is in that ball? Is it worth it? Cause, to me, eating a cider donut is worth it.

 

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One cannot really tell until one tries. So I did. I read somewhere that one of the best stalls was in De Pijp near Heineken. Off I ventured to this stall intending to be there as soon as they were open for business. I was the first to arrive and asked for one fresh from the fryer. I wasn’t surprised to hear form the seller that all of those balls piled together were fresh and which one did I want?

So, instead of my usual pushy American comeback to my order request that was met with a response in the typical Dutch “not possible” category, I bit my tongue and ordered one of the warm (but not hot) balls with apple inside and sugar on the outside.

 

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Super filling and dense with dough, it took me a while to get it down. It was OK, but nothing like an apple cider donut. To me, the smell of these Dutch treats, usually eaten on New Year’s Eve, is way better. I did bring this topic up at my most recent book club gathering and one friend suggested I try some other kinds of oliebollen. So, perhaps you should try the ones that speak to you from inside the stall waiting for you in a pile, cause they are only around for a few months.

I’m gonna stick with the delicious, mouthwatering scones from the Bakkerswinkel, open all year round.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Holland may be a small country with a large amount of rainy days and grey skies, but no one can argue Amsterdam’s prodigious Schiphol Airport makes escaping pretty easy and, dare I say, enjoyable. With over 63 million travelers passing through its colorful corridors each year, Schiphol, (pronounced skipple) built in 1916, is at the top of many organizations’ lists of best airports in Europe and the world. With 108 airlines represented and 322 direct destinations to 95 countries, you can easily find a path to “get outta Dodge.” Flight specials on KLM and discount airlines such as Easy Jet, Transavia and Vueling, make it even cheaper to explore your world.

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Your bags are packed, you’re ready to go, but expats be prepared. Schiphol promotes itself as a city,  Airport City. And this particular city is BIG. It can easily take 30 minutes or more to get to your gate AFTER security, hence the notice you’ll receive to arrive early, especially if you’re checking a bag. Even with the seemingly endless treks to gates and baggage, the fast, efficient and extremely thorough security check system, friendly border control officers (who want to chat and see how far your Dutch is coming along – be ready with some Nederlands to surprise them), numerous tempting restaurants, a playground for your antsy toddler, Duty-Free shops and VIP lounges, Schiphol’s smart and impressive design makes the hassle of flying breeze by. Schiphol even has a library. And heads up frequent travelers who hold a European ID card, the Schiphol’s Privium card fast tracks you through security and border control, allows access to priority car park spaces and the Privium Club Lounge. We’ve come a long way since John Denver made flying sound so painful and lonely.

 

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As an expat living in the lowlands, escaping – I mean travel, is a mainstay of the assignment abroad, especially when in search of sun, or just the absence of rain. Chances are Schiphol will become very familiar. I have come to appreciate Airport City as being so much more than just an airport. I’d describe it as a mecca of food, shopping and travel. Before living here, I never thought about shopping at an airport. I just wanted to get from point A to pint B as quickly as I could. No time for shopping or viewing art at the Rijksmuseum Schiphol (located at Delta’s customer service desk on the second floor). Arriving at least two hours ahead for an international flight, I almost always have time on my hands before I need to be at my gate.

 

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Look around walking through the Departures Hall. After quenching your thirst at the fancy champagne bar, you’re bound to spy the many inviting luxury duty-free shops for items you want – like Hermes, Rolex, Burberry, luggage, fine foods, cosmetics, alcohol, cameras, sunglasses and clothes. On a recent trip back to Boston I spied a sale sign at the handbag store (directly across from the Delta Gate 2). I scored some pretty big savings there I haven’t seen elsewhere. You know those Dutch treats you want to give to those back home like chocolate, especially Tony’s Chocolonely, stroopwaffels, cheese, bulbs and the like? Get it at Duty Free. It’s fresher and easier to carry in a plastic bag without fear of getting squished. And misplaced or lost your favorite baseball cap, gloves or jacket? Have no fear. You most likely can find a replacement at a decent price as well. I always tell visitors if they can’t find what they’re looking for while sightseeing, they can find it and much more at Schiphol.

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I’m also a big fan of grabbing a freshly prepared salad or sandwich and some little snacks for long haul flights at one of the many food court options with to-go items. While airline food has gotten much much better in recent years, still having something substantial to eat – just in case, for me and my kids goes along way in preventing grumpiness due to hunger. No one enjoys traveling with grumpy kids, no matter how old they are.

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At Schiphol’s Arrivals Hall back in Amsterdam, tired and dreading a trek to a grocery store, most likely in the rain, I now pop into mini Albert Heijn and grab the essentials I need to tied me over. I also love the Nespresso shop where I can buy my sleeves that will last me a long while. I always need that caffeine. Talk about convenience. Should I take the train? The 197 bus, an Uber or grab a taxi? Look down. The floor guides you to trains, taxis and busses.

So, kiss me and smile for me, tell me that you’ll wait for me, hold me like you’ll never let me go. Actually, just take me with you! I’ll be the one packing an extra Tony’s Chocolonely.

 

 

 

Tony’s Chocolonely Isn’t Lonely Anymore

Those who know me well know I’m a bit of a foodie and one of my most highly cherished foods is chocolate. So imagine my great surprise when I found possibly the most amazing chocolate I’ve ever tasted made by a Dutch company in The Netherlands in the form of a really big chocolate bar. No, really. It’s true. Tony’s Chocolonely chocolate bars have won me over heart and soul. And no, it’s not because my husband’s name is in the title.

 

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After arriving a year ago as an expat, for the second time in Holland, I spied these bright and boldly packaged chocolate bars with “Tony’s” written in giant letters on the front at Marqt, an upscale organic grocery store that carries a select inventory of food and household items. I have to applaud their marketing in a “point of purchase” display because it didn’t take much for me to grab a large sized Tony’s Chocolonely bar immediately, eager to try at home. And it only took one mouthwatering bite for me to become obsessed.

 

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Like Charlie hoping to find his golden ticket to enter Wonka’s factory, each time I buy one, I eagerly open the back paper wrapping and find the creator’s mission “Crazy about Chocoloate, Serious About People” and “100% Slave Free in Chocolate” slogan. Then after peeling away the tin foil to the actual chocolate bar, I giggle at the pieces of chocolate you’re supposed to break apart. The design is definitely unique, giving you, or better yet, someone you’re sharing with, a chance to have a large piece or a tiny piece. I’ll take a large piece, dank je vel.

 

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You cannot help but be wildly impressed with Tony’s Chocolonely. This chocolate company has been committed to abolishing child slave labor in the African countries of Ghana and Ivory Coast for the last 12 years and responsibly produces organic, fair trade DELICIOUS chocolate. The orange bar made with milk, caramel and sea salt is my favorite. But I will happily eat any of the bars they make, including milk chocolate, white chocolate, extra dark chocolate, dark almond sea salt, dark pecan coconut and dark coffee crunch without the guilt of knowing child slave labor helped produce it.  And if you are a chocolate milk fan, Tony’s makes that too!

Expats just arriving, you can find these chocolate bars all over, at the Albert Heijn, Marqt, candy stores, etc. But, beware, you’re likely to become hooked once you’ve tried them. And then family members will spy these bright and boldly colored bars too and start to invade your stash.

Move over Lindt, Lenidas, Godiva and Ghiradelli cause Tony’s Chocolonely will surely give you a run for your money. And your trade practices.