Monday, November 30, 2009

Weekend Trip to Rotterdam Part 1

After the Thanksgiving food and dance marathon, I headed over to Rotterdam with my friend and fellow au pair Libby. I like this country for many things but especially for their public transportation! Wow. Its clean, efficient and so easy to use. Of course, I've already traveled all over but I'm still just amazed at how functional things are. Maybe I'm just in shock that places like Orlando are still completely dysfunctional when it comes to transport. But, I digress because this post is about the Couchsurfing Sinterklaas event in Rotterdam! Here we are starting out on our Holland "road" (train) trip.

The first thing we saw upon arriving in Rotterdam was this crazy clock thing where people manually created a digital clock for a day. Its art (?) or something but it was definitely an interested idea to construct.

Libby and I spent our first day in the city enjoying an American pastime known as 'Black Friday'. Technically, this isn't applicable here in the Netherlands since #1 Thanksgiving isn't a holiday and thus, #2 there aren't crazy shopping discounts the next day. Either way, we had some time to kill and wandering around any city center is going to involve shopping! One thing we (and probably all other expatriates) are getting extremely frustrated with is the lack of a chipboard (can't get one until I have my Dutch residency and Dutch bank account!) This is a special somewhat magical credit card that is accepted everywhere and therefore making all other and/or American credit cards invalid. So, needless to say our shopping whimsy was put to a hold since most of the stores wouldn't accept our Visa or American Express cards. Grrrrrrr! We enjoyed our day and made the best of a rainy winter afternoon in Rotterdam while indulging in a myriad of french fries around the city. This includes but is not limited to Libby's complete devotion to McDonalds! I love to tease her about this (You can take the girl out of America but...) although on this occasion, in the freezing rain it seemed like a perfect time for a second dose of fries.

I should probably dedicated an entire post about fries in Holland and curry ketchup which are hands down amazing.

Yay for being generic American kids going to McDonalds! I have gone to McDonalds more times with Libby in Holland than I have in the last 10 years of my life, eak!

Later that night we met up with our Couchsurfing host and headed over to a big dinner/meetup/ "speed dating" event. The dinner was deeeeeelish. Libby and I really got into the spirit of Sinterklaas, which clearly included a lot of balance and poise.

The dinner company was also great, one of the best things about couchsurfing events is meeting people from around the world... But the speed dating...well, lets just say it isn't really my style. So, instead of wandering around talking to strangers about *wild* dating related topics I chose to drink some tea, in the corner with a group I selectively chose entitled as the tea party VIP group. It was much nicer in my opinion, although, Libby had a great time with the whole speed dating concept. Eventually, I branched out from the VIP club to create yet another fake secret club to include only the tallest people in the room. As a person of giants stature, I can not describe how great it is to for once not be the biggest person around! Actually, I am feeling a bit 'normal' in this country of giants and its a completely different experience! It was a fun night, interesting at least and I did manage to drink an entire (gross) beer. Libby can attest to this, but I am not posting the photos of my horrified face during this experience.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Pretty Autumn Day & Visit to Oosterpark

There was minimal rain today, yay! So, I used my day off to explore the Oosterpark. Its a lovely English garden style park that was designed in 1891 and conveniently located in my new neighborhood. The plan was to find the last of the autumn leaves before winter arrives. Autumn isn't really a season in Florida, we just have super hot and moderately less hot. Before I moved here, I was so excited for season changes and cute fall/winter accessories. So far, I haven't started to hate the cold but I'm sure by March I'll be whining and wishing for Florida's warmth.

First I rode my bike for a bit, then wandered around the park in the crisp autumn air taking photos. Followed by riding my bike (see a pattern developing here?) and checked out some of the surrounding neighborhood where I found an organic food store. It was so nice to find a shop that had lots of vegetarian things. Yum yum. I got some sesame snacks and some vegetarian cup of noodles type things and a few other snacks for my upcoming weekend to Rotterdam with Libby. Here's some pretty fall leaves I saw at Oosterpark. I love autumn!

I don't remember what this plant is called, but I do remember loving to pop them as a kid. they make a great noise when you squish them.

Lovely shades of autumn...

Wild World of Bikes

This is basically an update of my last entry. I didn't have my camera with me during the crazy amazing bike festival at the boy's school so I found some great photos to share with you the intensity of the bikes here. Its ride or die in Holland, they are serious about bikes, some of these cost like 1500euro! Daaaang. Enjoy the bikes and imagine riding them through Amsterdam on a sunny summer day (or a rainy winter day if that's your style). Oh and for a bikefiets success story update, I have now successfully driven the bakfiets with two kids in it! Yay for me and yay for bikes!

Here's a nice, cute, normal bike...

And then you can also get something like this, for giants!

Or if you have 2 kids, groceries and a small puppy

I might need this bike just to fill with ice cream, eat all the ice cream and then burn the calories off by riding this around town full of cheese, then eat all the cheese and fill it with something else yummy and repeat again and again.

This bike extends your capabilities on a rainy day, but probably doesn't help when its windy.

This bike is just cute because you can stack your kid on the front and keep an eye on them. No mischief allowed!

*All of these photos are from de Fietsfabriek website

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bakfiets Success Story

Bikes are everywhere here in Holland, they're like oxygen but almost more important. The entire county is based around the bike transport system. The fietspad or bike path runs along all the major roads, there are serious biking rules and even stop lights for the bikes. To say the least, its intense and amazing! Bikes are the best form of free transport and I'm so obsessed with the omafiets granny bikes here. Today I rode in the bakfiets ("cargo bike") which is a stretched out bicycle that has a big wooden bucket on the front. I've aways been a supporter of bicycle global domination and I'm glad to see this bike obsessed style is (finally) starting to catch on in other cities. I remember being younger and small enough to fit on the back of my mom's bike, we would ride around for hours on these great wooded bike paths and sing songs from the Sound of Music! But, I digress and here is a visual of the bakfiets.


The bakfiets are great for stacking groceries, flowers, puppies and children inside! My first bakfiets experience was with groceries. I passed that (wobbly) test with out crashing. Honestly, I was a bit dizzy the first few minutes because finding balance was quite an accomplishment. Oh sure, riding a bike isn't hard but this thing definitely takes lessons. On top of obtaining bakfiets skills I always have in the back of my mind that this thing costs about 4 times my monthly salary! I wasn't kidding about the Dutch really loving bicycles!

Today, I moved up a level in bakfiets skills, and used it to pick up the boy from school. I was fascinated while I waited for school to let out, gawking at all the parents on all these different, magical styles of bikes to pick up their kids. I think it was more intense to be completely surrounded by crazy cool bikes, because they're pretty commonly seen around town. These bicycles had different seating arrangements and things stacked on here and there...its just so efficient! I successfully made it to school and back, with a child in tow, on the bakfiets, in the rain, in Amsterdam! Score for me!

The next level I suppose is having two kids in there which really makes me concerned since its a common fact that children like to wiggle around. Riding (driving?) the bakfiets still feels like I'm just learning how to bike ride. It's balancing act on wet cobblestone streets. Oh and of course there are all the street signs in Dutch and the other more experienced bikes rushing past me. So, I've still got some practice but I haven't crashed and that's whats important!

Heres a really fabulous, leopard print bakfiets that found.

I am currently searching for a nice omafiets and fell in love with this one. Awesome perks for this bike aside from totally cuteness: front basket, and back holder useful for carrying bags, flowers, other people, etc.

And let me share with you this beautiful dream bicycle - that is completely out of my price range - I just looooove so much. She will be mine, oh yes, she will be mine! (That's correct, I just quoted Wayne's World on my blog). My friend in Leiden had a Gazelle bike and it was so lovely. Its a worthy investemnt that just I'm just not financially capable of at the moment...but one day!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Getting in the Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet Spirit

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet have already arrived on their boat, but theres still another week before Sinterklaasavond!

Here's a general Sinterklaas 101 for those of you who are confused. Sinterklaas (Saint Nicolas) is from Turkey. Zwarte Piet is his helper. Apparently, when Dutch adults paint their faces back it isn't blackface (umm, yes it is) and it isn't racist (yes it is). I find this debate hard to believe but it's my first year here so, a lot of Dutch things seem pretty weird... Zwarte Piet takes the cake pepernoten!

Allegedly, there are a bunch of different reasons why Zwarte Piet is black ("he came in through the chimney!") but let's be honest, he was a slave. And back in the day, slaves were black. It's so weird for adults to do this and when I saw Zwarte Piet in Leiden last year, it was totally daunting. A grown man with a shiny black face and cartoon red lips? In my opinion, you can still dress like Zwarte Piet without offending so many people with blackface and big fake lips For example, wear the silly costume, throw some pepernoten at the kids, sing all the songs and no one gets their feelings hurt. So, that's we did!

Do you recall that historically, Dutch people are really into sailing, exploring the world and making maps? Well, St. Nicolas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants and children so you can guess the importance with that. In the Netherlands December 5th is Sinterklaasavond and the nights leading up to this revolve around children leaving their shoes out with some snacks for Sinterklaas' horse Amerigo. Then Zwarte Piet brings some little presents in exchange. Also involved are funny poems.

It's pretty funny story kinda similar to the Santa Clause tradition (with a dash of racism). Basically, you've got happy kids, spicy cookies, some great medieval costumes and a steam boat parade which is pretty cool too. Also, did I mention that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet live in a castle in Spain? That's where they make the toys an the naughty kids will be stolen in bags and taken back to the castle. Perhaps it's those naughty kids who magically turn into more Zwarte Pieten!?   

I've been meaning to post this because its amazing and basically left me speechless the first time I watched. I was trying to explain Sinterklaas-Zwarte Piet-black face situation to my friend Jolie and this was the easiest way:

Wearing Zwarte Piet's funny hat (no blackface required)

Zwarte Piet chocolates 

A questionably confusing Zwarte Piet (?)

And Zwarte Piet mountain climbing on some bread

Libby and I are planning a weekend to Rotterdam soon and hope to explore the city and other Sinterklaas delights. I think we might have to actually purchase these awesome headbands. See what I mean? No blackface was needed for us to celebrate Sinterklaas!

Walking Tour Photography Day

While Libby was here we had a lot of ideas for things to do today. But, then we slept in and lost organization. So, I came up the walking tour because #1 there was only one bike (still working on getting a bike that I can carry people with), #2 we enjoyed the perks of a beautiful lazy Sunday and #3 walking is free! Since we're on a budget FREE is something that really resinates with my adventure planning. I'm trying to cram in as many experiences as possible during this year abroad and euros only go so far. Thus, the Chocolate Festival did not make in out our list since everything there was 20 euros or more. I figured its possible to make our own chocolate festival for about 2 euros at the grocery store! HA! 

My goal for the day was to wander around, get lost, and figure out my way back without a map. Final result: Success!! I have always been so confused by Amsterdam's winding canals and tiny, twisted streets, but now it's so easy for me, yay!

An adorable corner canal. 

Houses with fun windows

Oh, whats this? Just another adorable street!

House boat + Garden
Bikes, Canals and Bridges

Pretty art nouveau details

Sun setting early as winter approaches

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Windy Day with Mama at the Tropenmuseum

Today was SO windy! Seriously. I've been though hurricanes in Florida and today was no joke. More importantly, it was very a special day because my Mom came to visit! I was excited to show her around Amsterdam and  I am starting to feel a bit more settled after a few weeks. Although, I could definitely use a bit more Florida sunshine right now!

One of the best things about my mom coming to visit (aside from hugs and giggle time) is that she always brings the best treats! It was like Sinterklaas arrived... with a Snuggie! Oh man, we've had a long standing joke about me wanting one of these and Mom thinking they're ridiculous. Now that I've left the warmth of Florida its actually useful here in the cold therefor you can laugh all you want, but I love my snuggie! It came with a free mini book light too so, I'm all set to survive these grey winter days. She made some yummy treats and brought some practical treasures like toothpaste and shampoo (who knew whitening toothpaste was so expensive in Europe!?) Thanks Ma!

We had a nice tea party and then went over to the Tropen Museum to see the new exhibit about Maroon people in Suriname. So fascinating! It was pretty elaborate with all these interviews and oral history videos. Very intense and educational. That whole museum is so cool, we didn't have time to finish it all but of course I'll be going back soon! Check out this other creepy cool skull I saw!

On our walk back the wind practically knocked us over! It was both hilarious and a little frustrating.

There were a few moments we nearly were knocked into a canal, but we survived.

Then, we checked out Soup en Zo near Waterlooplein. They serve, you guessed it, soup! I choose broccoli soup with cashews, pine nuts and walnuts, Mama had Surinamiese soup and both were tasty. I love soup so much and its even more satisfying when the wind and cold are trying to knock you down. I might just be on a mission to try all their soups and then make some myself. I'll probably make some soup for dinner tomorrow since I found vegetable bullion cubes at the shop today. Win!

Today was great fun and nothing is better than getting big hugs from my Mom. Say what you want but her hugs really are the best! To be honest, I was quite sad watching her leave me on the train back to Den Haag and my heart broke a bit, wishing she could have stayed longer. The funny thing about Moms is that no matter how old you grow or how far away you are, they always remind you of the silliest things! I can't wait until she comes back next week for our Thanksgiving feast! Love you Mama!

Morning Sunrise in Amsterdam

Wow, look at that! This is the view I wake up to each day. That is, when it is not raining.

After a few weeks here, I still have to pinch myself. I can't believe I live in Amsterdam! This dream was something I've wanted to do for so long... and now, I'm here! A gorgeous sunrise is most definitely a sign that today is gonna be a great day!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sinterklaas Arrives in Amsterdam!

Yippie! Today, Sinterklaas and all his Zwarte Piet friends arrived in Amsterdam! I rushed back from Leiden this morning and made it literally just as the boat was going down the Amstel river. Zwarte Piet controversy aside, this parade was pretty cool. Yup, I understand that I'm over the age of seven but who cares, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are fun. It's such a uniquely Dutch thing that I couldn't miss this! For those of you wondering, the answer is Yes...those are definitely people in black face and no its not ment to be racist... but c'mon people it is. This fun parade kinda took the sting out of the first time I met Zwarte Piet. It's just weird that adults insist on wearing blackface even when so many people compain each year... Anyway, here are some snaps from the parade, it's a pretty big deal here in Amsterdam.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arrive from Spain... by steamship

Despite the rain, all the Zwarte Piet enjoyed a dance party

Sinterklaas' boat parade quickly became boat chaos! Later he they dock the boat, hops on his horse Amerigo and heads through the city for a parade. The boat parade was enough Sinterklass for me.

Mini Zwarte Piet passing out peppernoten cookies to the kids. Yup, there are kids in blackface over here, I can't stress how weird that is to see.

Heres a little video I snapped of the Zwarte Piet dance party. My camera died almost immediately after so I got lucky with these shots. All in all a fun event.

Museumnacht (N8) 2009 and New friends

My first weekend here in Amsterdam was pretty great. Naturally, I had some jet lag and immediately developed a cold- its not quite Florida weather here! Last Saturday was the annual Museumnacht (Museum Night) in Amsterdam. A 17euro ticket grants you access to 42 museums in Amsterdam until 2am! Nice plan but we only made it to six locations and even that felt like a real accomplishment! It was a great night and I met some nice friends through the Couch Surfing group here in the city. I've talked about CS before but if you are confused its an online travel networking site that allows people to host travels and also 'surf' with others while traveling. I've had a pretty positive experience with it since last year when I spend a month traveling across Scandinavia, couchsurfing the entire time.

Our little group was a great match and we had a fun silly night visiting museums and biking around together.
First we visited the FOAM PHOTO MUSEUM . It had some interesting but equally confusing exhibits and even a secret photobooth where people in another room could watch others inside the photobooth making silly faces. Haha, love that! I also love how the popularity of photobooths has increased exponentially! (Thanks to Amelie?)

Then we visited the JEWISH HISTORICAL MUSEUM that had a great exhibit about Sonia Gaskell, a pioneer ballet dancer and choreographer. Libby, another American aupair that I met made the cutest tutu! And they had a great 1930's themed Parisian dance party going on, complete the dancers and crepes of course! yumyum!

Next was the WILLET-HOLTUYSEN MUSUEM which is a historically accurate glimpse into a traditional (wealthy) Amsterdam canal house. I love'd it here! Heres Libby (also an au pair) and I taking a champagne break. Each glass had a (fake) diamond inside that you could turn in, in hopes to win a real one but we decided just to keep ours. You can also read Libby's Dutch au pair blog here!

Here we are at the HERMITAGE which recently re-opened this summer. It has the most amazing collection dresses and treasures from the Russian royal family. We all wanted to dress up like princesses despite how unethical it is to open the cases and try on the clothes!

After a quick shortcut through, (must I even mention it?) the red light district (which left me visibly traumatized but I suppose thats just how it goes) we went inside the OUDEKERK. It was a random stop but equally entertaining due to the electronic-jazz-organ-spaceship musical show that we endoured. At least I got a cool picture of the organ looking nice and creepy!

Our last stop was a little art space & dance party where all the too cool hipsters hang out. At least the music wasn't techno so we had a hilarious time dancing around like nerds which as you know is totally my speciality!

Museumnacht was a great time and I can't wait for next year. I celebrated my first weekend here eating my favorite falafel and showing Libby around a few things. FUNFUNFUN!