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Photos: An Evening in Amsterdam

When I lived in the US, I, like most Americans, took good weather for granted. Occasionally I’d go to the park with my dog, and I was in a few sporting leagues (softball and sand volleyball), but that’s about the limit of my time spent outdoors. Even when I’d grill in my backyard, I’d take the food inside to eat. Part of that was because of the heat, humidity, and mosquitos, but part of it was because I always figured I could enjoy the weather “some other time.”

Living in Amsterdam has taught me that that is not always true. The next “nice” day may not be for a few weeks, and may not fall on a weekend, so you have to enjoy them when you can. We’ve actually had some pretty nice weather here over the last few weeks. Sunny, warm, just a light breeze. I even saw some people swimming and sunbathing on the Amstel river a week ago. Amsterdammers know, when the weather is even somewhat nice, you go outside and enjoy it.

Our apartment has a nice terrace deck on the back, and we finally got around to ordering furniture for it, as well as some cushions for the wooden bench that is already out there. Delivery was scheduled for yesterday, so we waited anxiously, since it was actually a nice day (if a bit on the cool side). The delivery time kept getting pushed back farther and farther into the afternoon, until it finally arrived at 16:15. The delivery man got lost, and then once he found us, he informed us that he “doesn’t go upstairs”, so he left all the furniture on the sidewalk outside. We carried it in, and began assembling it.

Once we were done, it was still warm enough that we sat outside and enjoyed the weather. I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story.

Churchill and I wait for the furniture to be delivered

The new furniture (complete with large umbrella, for when the weather isn’t quite so dry, plus one of Churchill’s beds and his favorite toy.)

Furniture assembled, time for a beer in the sun!

What do you do when it’s nice outside on a weekend evening? Grill!

After the sun set and the weather turned cold, we moved inside for some Dutch Appeltaart (apple pie), and chocolate chip ice cream.

Finally, Torii the cat demands play-time.

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2012 in Life in the Dam, Photo Posts

 

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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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Celebration: 100 posts, & Koninginnedag

This is my 100th post to this blog. Wow, that feels like a lot for someone who isn’t a writer, and doesn’t post that often. Anyway, on with the blog….

Yesterday was Koninginnedag in the Netherlands. Every blog about living in the Netherlands covers it, and indeed I posted about it last year. Thus, I’ll save you the re-hash, and just get right to it.

We met up with some friends, and started the day with pannenkoeken. From there, we just randomly walked around. This year, all big outdoor celebrations were banned from within the city-limits, so all of the DJs and big parties went outside of the city. That opened up some of the outdoor spaces, such as Marie Heinekenplein, Museumplein, and Leidseplein, for people to just walk through. Lots of people took blankets to Museumplein and just laid out in the sun.

Oh yes, the sun. The weather had been nothing but cold and rainy for weeks now, but yesterday it was absolutely glorious. The Queen could not have ordered better weather. It was 70 degrees F and sunny all day long, with nary a cloud in the sky. It’s back to being rainy today, but I’m happy we got 1 good day.

We visited Vondelpark, but it was overwhelmed with families, so we headed elsewhere. Upon leaving the park and going towards the Overtoom, we saw some creative decorations:

Legs

We stopped for a quick snack at Cafe Toom, and then headed towards the Jordaan district. As we turned onto the Prinsengracht canal, it was madness. Orange people everywhere, and boats floating by pumping out music.

Koninginnedag 1

We had some friends who were having a party, and they happened to have a roof deck right on Prinsengracht. Score! We stopped in, and watched the craziness from above.

Koninginnedag 2

Eventually, a drunk Dutchman came up onto the roof and started shoving people around, accusing us of pouring beer onto his baby down on the street. Nobody did, but he got us all off the roof and into the apartment. Still not a bad view, and a great way to wind down the day. We then biked home, and Roxy passed out on the bed while I grabbed a pizza from the Italian restaurant next door. The day was pretty much perfect.

This last picture has nothing to do with Queen’s Day, but I’ll share it anyway. It’s a variety of different Heineken bottles you can buy at the Heineken store between Waterlooplein and Rembrantplein.
Until next year!

Heineken Bottles

 

Echos of Decisions Past

I was thinking the other day about the decisions and events that led me to where I am now.

Back in late 1998, I was in my sophomore year at college. I had never left the US, save for a brief few hours in Tijuana, Mexico. I saw that my school was hosting a meeting for students interested in studying abroad. I went, and learned that in the fall of 1999, they would be sending students to the University of Amsterdam for a semester.

Now, I’d been interested in going to Europe for a while, but Amsterdam? All I knew of it was its party reputation. I wasn’t exactly sure if that’s where I wanted to go, but I signed up anyway. After a few more meetings and discussions, I was set on going. Then, a friend of mine started talking about moving off campus for the following year. I was interested in living with him, but he couldn’t guarantee they would hold me a place if I left for a semester. I’d most likely have to play Roommate Roulette when returning, and get assigned a roommate by the school.

Other factors to consider were: the extra cost of spending a semester abroad, and that it would delay my graduation by a semester, meaning even more money spent. Add in that none of my friends were going (so I’d be alone), and the fact that I had a girlfriend at the time, I reluctantly decided not to go.

I ended up moving in with the friend, which led me to get a job working at Domino’s Pizza. I broke up with the girlfriend, and eventually met my future wife. She was the roommate of one of my Domino’s co-workers. We graduated, bought a house, and got married. Eventually, as you know, we sold the house and moved to Amsterdam.

I sometimes wonder, what would have happened if I had spent the semester studying in Amsterdam? Would I have loved it, or hated it? After coming home, who would I have lived with? Would I ever have met my wife? Would I still have been interested in moving to Europe?

I’m not complaining, it’s just funny to think: by deciding against Amsterdam then, the wheels were set in motion for me to move here later. What decisions am I making now that will have unforeseen results years from now?

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2012 in Life in the USA, Moving

 

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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Not So Lazy Saturday

Most of the boxes are unpacked, and the apartment is finally looking like people live here. Except, of course, that the kitchen was torn out Friday in anticipation of the new one being installed on Tuesday.

One of the biggest reasons we moved was a desire to be closer to things. Since our new apartment is just across the Amstel from De Pijp, we decided to finally take advantage, and took Churchill to Sarphatipark for a walk. One corner of the park is reserved for dogs, and yesterday did not disappoint, as there were at least 7-10 dogs playing happily in the mud. Churchill joined the fray, and made lots of new friends. He also almost pooped on another dogs head. The joys of dog ownership.

On the way home, we stopped for a coffee, and then noticed that some sort of crew competition was taking place on the Amstel river. There is a crew club just up the street from us, so it wasn’t a total surprise to see them out on the river.

Crew on the Amstel

There must have been 20-30 boats out on the river, with people shouting instructions over loudspeakers. It was quite the scene.

We returned home, and I continued the work to finish setting up furniture and unpacking clothes. We finished off the night by dining at Sa Saeda, an Italian “ristorante” just up the street from us. One of the waitresses had waved at Churchill earlier as we walked by, and they were unsurprisingly very friendly as we dined there (sans dog). Later that night, as we took Churchill for his final walk, our waiter was outside unchaining his bike to go home. He recognized us immediately, and asked us if we enjoyed our pizza, then wished us a good night. We walked down a few streets we hadn’t been to yet, and found a few more restaurants to try. It’s nice to have a selection of nearby restaurants, and they will keep us busy until our new kitchen is installed.

Sunday, we’ll hopefully bike down to Gamma (a home-improvement store), and then we’re meeting a few new friends to see Hugo in 3D. This is exactly the sort of weekend I had in mind when I found this apartment.