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Category Archives: Travel

Lisbon & The Algarve, Portugal

Expectations are a funny thing. I’d heard so many good things about Lisbon that I expected to love it. It was almost a disaster. First, our flight from Amsterdam was scheduled for 7:50am, meaning we had to be at the airport around 6:15am, which is before the main public transport is running. Therefore, we had to take the night bus. We stayed up late the night before packing and cleaning, and went to sleep around 12:30am. The alarm was set for 4:45am. No big deal, I stumbled out of bed and got ready. We walked the 3 blocks to the bus stop, and got in. It was full, so we had to stand for the entire 45 minute ride to the airport. Then, our flight was delayed, as the cabin crew didn’t show up. Eventually, we made it to Lisbon, which was experiencing a cold and windy snap. Not the best start to the trip.

The apartment we rented from airbnb.com was nice, and in a decent neighborhood. We ended up walking around a bit, and taking the 28 tram around the city to see the sights. The internet wasn’t working on my phone, which was frustrating to me. We were dead tired, staring out the windows of the tram like zombies. After a quick nap, we tried to go to a nice neighborhood for dinner, but ended up getting lost. Not having internet on my phone just exacerbated the matter. Back at our apartment, we agreed that Lisbon was not living up to the hype.

Oh what a difference a day makes…

The next day, refreshed from a good night’s sleep, we set out once more. The sun was out, and we stopped at a bakery for a quick breakfast. From there, into the main part of the city, where we sat on the waterfront and soaked in the sunshine. Over the next 24 hours, I saw what all the fuss was about. Lisbon is a unique city. Some parts of it seem to be crumbling, like Venice, but other parts have beautiful buildings. The city is built on hills, and has many narrow windy streets, with barely enough space for the tram to take the corners, much less with the pedestrians scrambling to get out of the way. Some awards ceremony was happening, and we hundreds of people line up outside, the men in tuxedos and the women in every sort of dress you can imagine. Lots of fur coats. Meanwhile, beggars and homeless roamed the streets looking for handouts. All on the same street. Lisbon is a city of extremes.

Having now been there, I’m not sure if I want to go back. I would, but it wouldn’t be at the top of my list. After 2 nights, we hopped on board the train to Faro, and spent the rest of the trip laying on the beach enjoying the sun. Photos below.

The buildings of Lisbon

The buildings of Lisbon

Inside of Lisbon's old tram 28 as it crawls through the city.

Inside of Lisbon’s old tram 28 as it crawls through the city.

A large garden in the center of the city.

A large garden in the center of the city.

A tram rides by the Lisbon Cathedral in the evening.

A tram rides by the Lisbon Cathedral in the evening.

The walls of St. George's Castle at night.

The walls of St. George’s Castle at night.

A statue at night, with a monastery illuminated on the hill in the background.

A statue at night, with a monastery illuminated on the hill in the background.

A scenic overlook of the city.

A scenic overlook of the city.

The city beach in Lagos, Algarve.

The city beach in Lagos, Algarve.

The Lagos beach from another angle.

The Lagos beach from another angle.

An old fort on the Lagos waterfront.

An old fort on the Lagos waterfront.

The farmer's market in Loule.

The farmer’s market in Loule.

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Posted by on May 29, 2013 in Photo Posts, Travel

 

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Holland vs The Netherlands

Hi All,

The blog has emerged from the mothballs briefly to share a video that may be of interest. This video came out a few months ago, so many of you have probably already seen it, but I do still encounter people who don’t know where the Netherlands is, or the difference between the Netherlands and Holland. I’ve also run across people who lump it in with Denmark or Germany, but that’s besides the point. Enjoy, and I hope you learn something! I’ll try to post more again in the near future!

 

Far East Movement in Amsterdam

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. Usual excuses. Right now, I’m enjoying the sun in Greece! The other day, while on the ferry from Athens to Santorini, I saw a music video that was set in Amsterdam. I haven’t actually heard the music yet (the TV was on mute), and even now, Roxy is asleep next to me, so if the music is horrible, my apologies. Anyway, without further delay, here it is:

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2012 in Life in the Dam, Misc, Travel

 

Algarve, Portugal

The old city walls of Faro


After our previous trips to cold Venice and cold Dublin, when my wife asked where we should go in May, I said “I don’t care, as long as it’s sunny and has a beach.” I love Amsterdam, I really do, but sometimes the weather can get you down. It rains here a lot (though usually it’s just a light rain), and it’s frequently pretty cloudy as well. Rare is the sunny day, and I needed some sun.

Roxy did some searching around, and finally settled on the Algarve region of Portugal. The Algarve is the southernmost area of the country, with hundreds of kilometers of beaches. She found a nice apartment on 9flats.com (similar to airbnb.com, but smaller and cheaper) in the little city of Quarteira.

We flew from Amsterdam direct to Faro, Portugal on Transavia.com airlines. It’s the budget carrier owned by KLM, and flies mostly to vacation destinations. Upon arriving in Faro, we rented a car (a Diesel Ford Focus, with a stick-shift). There was a slight mishap at the parking lot, as Roxy went to stand in front of the car to tell me how much room I had. I thought I put the car into reverse, but really it was in first gear, so I ended up running into her. She’s got a bit of a bruise on her leg. Oh well, what’s vacation without adventure?

View from under the umbrella


We drove the 30 minutes from Faro to Quarteira, and found our apartment. The hosts were an older couple with limited English, but were very nice and helpful. By the time we arrived, it was 8pm. We made a quick run to a local supermarket, and then found a place on the beach for dinner.

The next day, our plan was to go bask in the sun, but the winds were blowing at over 30kmh, and we lasted about 5 minutes on the beach before we had to hide from the blowing sand. We drove back to Faro, and explored the city for a bit.

The next day, the winds were still blowing, so we drove the opposite way, a little over an hour to Lagos, where the winds were much calmer. We found a nice beach right outside the city, Meia Praia, and laid there under a grass umbrella for 5 or 6 hours. On the way back, we stopped in the touristy city of Albufeira and had dinner.

Driving again was quite an odd experience at first. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like for my wife, who hasn’t driven a car in almost 2 years now. At least I got to drive last fall when I went back to the US. I was nervous at the beginning, but soon got comfortable again. Roundabouts still concerned me, but over the course of the trip I drove through probably a hundred of them, so I do feel better about them now. Time to work on getting my Dutch license.

A little restaurant right off Meia Praia beach.

The final 2 days we spent in Quarteira just laying on the beach enjoying ourselves. One of my favorite parts of the trip was my morning ritual. I’d wake up, throw on my swim trunks, then go sit outside on our balcony with a bowl of Rice Krispies and the laptop and just enjoy the warm air. We also found a nice little cafe/snack-shop right on the beach that we went to every day for sandwiches and drinks. Portuguese beer is perfect for laying on the beach, as are plenty of Mojitos and Caipirinhas, which is a rum, sugar, and lime drink.

Naturally, since coming back to Amsterdam, it’s been cold and rainy. I already miss Portugal. We will definitely be going back.

The best way to spend vacation.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2012 in Photo Posts, Travel

 

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Money in the Netherlands

First off, let me just say this post has nothing to do with the Euro crisis, nor the recent collapse of the Dutch government over failed austerity measure negotiations. I’ll leave that for the economists to discuss. This post is basically about the differences I’ve noticed in how we do transactions in the US versus how they are handled in the Netherlands.

The official currency of the Netherlands is the Euro (€). Right off the bat, there are some significant differences between the Euro and the US Dollar ($). The lowest printed Euro bill is €5, and goes in denominations of €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, and so forth. The coins come in 1 cent, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, €1 and €2 forms. However, the Netherlands has banned the use of the 1 cent and 2 cent coins. Prices are not marked in 5 cent increments though, which can lead to confusion. Let’s say I run into Albert Heijn to purchase a bottle of wine for dinner, and it is €8.97. If I pay by cash, I’ll only need to give the cashier €8.95. If I pay by debit card (called “PIN card” here), then I’ll pay €8.97. If the total were €8.98 instead, then the cash transaction would be rounded to €9. I’ve actually heard of expats who pay cash for transactions that will round down, but will use their PIN card for transactions that round up. They feel like they’re “gaming” the system. Personally, I think it all evens out in the end, and I appreciate not having to carry the tiny 1 cent and 2 cent coins.

At first, it was weird not having a €1 bill, and having to keep track of the €1 and €2 coins. However, the Euro designers have done a good job making all of the bills and coins easy to distinguish at first glance. Coins are differentiated by color and size, as well as the cut of their edges. For example, a €1 coin has a gold edge, and a silver middle, while a €2 coin is the reverse. Sometimes keeping track of change can be a chore, but at least we use it here. In the US, I’d put all of my change into a jar at home, and when the jar got full, I’d count it out or take it to one of those change machines to trade it for gift cards. Here, I keep it in my pocket, and use it next time I buy something.

While the US Dollar has somewhat recently started using colors to differentiate between bills, the colors are still somewhat muted, and the bill is mostly green and white. The Euro is much more colorful, leading to the Monopoly money comparisons. Here is a graphic of the assorted Euro bills. Their sizes are also different, so it’s easy to see what bills you have when you open your wallet, provided you keep them in order from smallest to biggest.

As I previously mentioned, what Americans call “debit cards” are here referred to as “PIN cards”, and paying with them is called “PINing”. If you go to the Albert Cuyp outdoor market, you will see signs posted at various vendors saying “Hier kunt U PINNEN!” (“You can PIN here!”). PINing takes money directly out of your main bank account. In addition, most PIN cards also have the ability to use “Chipknip” functions. Chipknip (pronounced “chip-ka-nip”) is used for small transactions, like paying a parking meter. There are Chipknip machines located next to ATMs around the city. You insert your card, and move money from your bank account onto your Chipknip card. The balance is kept track of via an encrypted chip on your card. This way, parking meters and other machines that accept Chipknip don’t need to connect to your bank to check your balance. They just deduct it from the chip on the card.

Credit cards exist here, but are mostly used for large purchases only. I don’t think many people use their credit cards to do their everyday transactions.

Checks (or “cheques” for any Brits reading this) don’t exist here either. At first, I wondered how people pay each other without checks, but it’s actually quite easy. When a business wants to bill a customer, they send an “acceptgiro“. The customer can fill in their bank number, sign it, and return it, and the business will deduct the amount straight from the customer’s bank balance. However, with the advent of the internet and smart phones, this is no longer required. If I receive an acceptgiro, I simply use my bank’s iPhone app to snap a picture of it, fill in the amount I want to pay, and it automatically sets up the payment. Furthermore, when people want to pay other people, they simply ask the payee for their bank account number, then log into their bank account and transfer the money directly. There is no charge for this, even across international boundaries, as long as you are staying within the same currency. It’s free for me to pay someone in Germany, but it costs money for me to pay someone in the UK, since they still use the Pound Sterling. In the US, we try to protect and hide our bank account number as much as possible, while in the Netherlands, people exchange theirs freely. Businesses print theirs on their stationary.

Finally, accessing my bank account here is different. I have a special little device that looks like a calculator, that I plug into my computer when I wish to access online banking. I then insert my card into the machine and enter my PIN. This logs me right into my bank account. Other banks use different security measures, such as texting a single-use PIN to the user’s mobile number when they wish to log in. Either method is still more secure than using a traditional password. Furthermore, websites can accept payment through the “iDeal” system. When you make a purchase at a website, it asks you which bank you use. After you tell them, it redirects you to the bank’s “iDeal” website, where you connect your card reader, swipe your card, enter your PIN, and the money is transferred out of your account. No credit card necessary, and much more secure than just entering your PIN card number online.

As you can see, use of money here in the Netherlands can be quite different than what you’re used to, especially if you’re from the US like me. All in all, everything makes sense, and is fairly secure and easy to use. Just be warned that if you come to visit, American-style debit cards and credit cards won’t be accepted most places. Only large department stores (De Bijenkorf, Media Markt) / international chain retailers (Foot Locker, H&M), or chain restaurants (Hard Rock Cafe) will accept American cards. Most Dutch ATMs won’t charge you to use your bank card here, so just wait until you arrive at the airport, and then withdraw enough cash to last you for a while. You can also visit the Travelex exchange booths at the airport to get pre-paid PIN cards, but they will charge you for that privilege.

 

Ahh, processed food. Get in my belly!

This past Friday (the 13th) was my birthday, the big 33. Or not. Anyway, it was as good an excuse as any to go on a weekend trip, so away we went to Dublin! This post isn’t really going to be about Dublin, though. One of the downsides to living in a little country with little houses and little supermarkets is that they can’t carry everything I’m used to eating. Normally, this does not faze me, as there are plenty of Dutch treats that I’ll miss if/when we ever leave here. I’m looking at you, Stroopwaffles, and your glorious cousin, the Stroopwaffle McFlurry.

While walking around Dublin, we came upon a decently-sized Tesco, and decided to, as the Dutch would say “rondkijken” (look around). Our efforts were failing miserably when we turned down the last aisle. There, in the cooler, glowed the yellowish-green bottle that was the #1 object of my desires. Drinkable Gold. Liquid Sunshine. The OTHER substance that got me through college. Mountain Dew. I picked up a bottle, just as my wife discovered another delicious bit of processed goodness. Rice Krispies Treats.

“But Jason”, you say, because you talk out-loud to your computer like I do, “can’t you just make Rice Krispies Treats on your own?” Why, dear faceless blog reader, if only it were that simple. Not only are Marsh-mellows somewhat rare here in the Low Countries, but Rice Krispies themselves are found only at specialty expat grocers, who charge a premium for them (as much as €9 per box!).

Over the course of our visit to Dublin, we made plenty of stops in to various Tesco, Tesco Express, and Spar locations. When I think back on Dublin, I’ll think of Mountain Dew and Rice Krispies Treats (plus a wee bit o the Guinness). Happy Birthday, indeed!

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2012 in Travel

 

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Venice, Italy


The Grand Canal, as seen from the top of the Rialto Bridge

Since last fall, we had planned on taking a trip somewhere in February. You see, February 4th was our 10-year anniversary as a couple (married for almost 5), and combine that with Valentine’s Day, a short vacation seemed like a good idea. We struggled with where to go, though. A variety of locations were suggested, until I stumbled on 1 magic word. That word convinced me where to go, and when I first broached the subject with Roxy, she liked the idea of Venice (we’d been wanting to go for a while), but wasn’t sure if this was the best time of year. It was then that I pulled out the magic word: “Carnival”. She was in.

Little did we know when we booked the trip that Europe would end up experiencing a massive cold-spell. Our first day in Venice was sunny, and we even took off our gloves and hats for a bit. It was to be short-lived, though. The next few days were dark and cold. We rented a small apartment 2 minutes walk from the Rialto bridge, and while it was cute (and right on the canal), the 2 small radiators just could not cope with the cold. We ended up putting 7 blankets on the bed to keep warm at night. After the 2nd day, we took to boiling water on the stove when we were there just to warm the place up. The cold marble floor became my mortal enemy every morning when getting out of bed, while I sprinted into the kitchen to turn on the stove.

Nevertheless, Venice is a beautiful city. Beautiful in decay. Italy itself is interesting, as it seems to exist in 2 extremes. When I think of Italy, I think of old buildings, their plaster crumbling in the sun. Old roads made of stone that have existed for centuries. Then I think of their modern cars and fashion. Everything in Italy is either very old, or very new.

Among the things we did in Venice: Eat lots of Gelato (naturally), drink lots of Prosecco (it kept the cold away!), see lots of folks in full Carnival attire, visit the glass-making island of Murano, take a gondola ride, ride a traghetto (it’s a gondola, but with all the seats removed. You stand, and the ride lasts only 2-3 minutes, as they are used to ferry you from one side of the Grand Canal to the other, in places where there aren’t any bridges.), and walk.


Views from our gondola ride through the city

One of my favorite things to do when visiting a city is to just wander around. Plan on getting lost. Get out of the tourist areas, and walk among the locals (though, there aren’t many non-tourist areas of Venice, nor are there many locals). Venice is perfect for getting lost, as it’s almost impossible to keep track of where you are via a map. We got lost several times, but always managed to find our way back.


Street vendors getting ready for Carnival

While the cold definitely put a damper on our trip, ultimately I enjoyed Venice. It’s not tops on my list of places to go again, but I would. It’s a unique city, and one of the places that, if I didn’t get to visit while living in Europe, I would feel that I missed out on an essential experience.


Murano glass-maker demonstrating making a glass horse. Very interesting.


Silhouette of a boat in the lagoon.


The Bridge With No Ramparts / aka, no side railings.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Photo Posts, Travel

 

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