Sep 22, 2014

Street Market Field Trip: A Cellphone-Camera Photo Journal 20 Minutes or Less*

I tagged along on the school field trip to the Albert Cuyp Market, Amsterdam's oldest street market. There's nothing you can't find at the Albert Cuyp. And yes, I'm talking about lime green shimmery hot pants, life-size replicas of The David's head, and your choice of genitalia in fine assorted chocolates. Those are all on your list, right? 

Local Tip: Go to Sonny's. Best falafel in Amsterdam. Get the fries too.

It's always an exciting day when you see the bike barge, but what happens next will blow your mind.

Praise from critics: "Sesame Street + Rainman + Geiko Commercial + Gigli + Pink Floyd's The Wall= this movie." -- Mark B. 

Not trying to make anyone jealous or anything, but did you see the picture of the Churro stand? 
But are you a little jealous? Just let me know. 

*OK, that may have taken a little more than 20 minutes. I'm a writer, not a writer/movie file compressor. 

Sep 17, 2014

Signs I've Lived in Amsterdam For a While

I was putting away a bag of basterd suiker (brown sugar) recently, and it occurred to me that I've lived here long enough to have certain things become entirely normal. Like being surrounded by a different language, and having grown men pick their nose while making eye contact with you. I said normal, not appealing.

The last time I checked in with a "here's how I'm adjusting" post was when we had been here just three months. Today is our 3 year + two month anniversary, and a good excuse to revisit that topic. So let's start:

Things I'm entirely used to now:

  1. Dipping fries in mayonnaise. Before, I barely considered mayo edible-- only in the thinnest of layers on a sandwich. Now, I don't see mayo, I just see fry sauce. 
  2. Smaller living space. I saw a picture of a some homes in the US on Facebook, and they looked gigantic. Like really for giants. I could not stop staring. 
  3. Not driving. I haven't driven a car since I moved here, and I don't even miss it.  
  4. Giving my bank account number to people. Everything is done electronically, and is well protected. Another thing I haven't done in over three years: written a check. They're not still a thing are they? 
  5. When my mail is delivered by a man wearing a mesh tank top and tiny black leather shorts. 
  6. New vocabulary. Hanging out with Brits and Irish folks have led to adopting words and phrases such as perfectly lovely, nearly, loads, quite, bits, and lie-in. While renewing our passports in the US consulate, Sam asked where the rubbish bin was, and I nervously laughed and assured the consulate guy, "ha ha, he's just being silly-- we say trash can like real Americans, trust me. Approve our passports please?"
  7. Distance is always measured in cycling times.  
  8. Drinking sparkling water, all the time. And it's one of the few things we can buy in bulk from the grocery store. I beginning to think a lot of Europeans brush their teeth and do their dishes with it. 
  9. No tipping, no shame. 
  10. Toilet stalls. Europeans understand the concept of privacy in public restrooms. Stalls are usually entirely enclosed, floor to ceiling. Note to America: you are losing.
  11. Not ever using 1 or 2 cent coins. This is very much a Dutch thing. When you are paying with cash for an item that is 4.98, and pay with a 5 euro bill, you will not get any change back. Similarly, if the total is 4.02, you can just pay 4 euro and it's good. I don't know why the Dutch just can't be bothered with the small change, but I'm so used to it, I get irritated when we travel outside The Netherlands and I get 3 cents in change. 
  12. Annual pelvic exams only once every five years, after the age of 30. That's right, ladies. Actually, the overall medical culture here is much less invasive, which can be refreshing or irritating, depending on the situation.  

Things I'm still adjusting to:

  1. My doctor (and most other people) typing with two fingers. How do they even?
  2. When the doctor doesn't leave the room when you get undressed. Yes, awkward. 
  3. Remembering that if we stay late at a friend's house, we have to bike home with three kids and everyone can see we're irresponsible parents. 
  4. People dropping f-bombs around my kids, because it doesn't have the same swear weight here. But don't tell someone you hope their mother gets cancer. You'll need to cover the kid's ears for that. 
  5. The mess of keys to keep track of:
    That would be keys for the front door, dead bolt, storage unit,
    and 2 keys each for 5 bikes. 

Things I will never get used to: 

  1. Drinks at room temperature, tiny bottles, no free-refills. It's just wrong. 
  2. Lagging laundry technology. How has Europe not figured out that it is possible to have washing machines that are energy and water efficient, can handle more than five items at a time, and only take 40 minutes? Europe: get it together!
  3. The Dutch "line." In the tradition of making offensive generalizations, it is physically impossibly for the Dutch to queue. Much like it is impossible for the American in me to stop caring about it. Neither can live while the other survives. Pretty sure J. K. Rowling was in The Netherlands while she wrote that line. 

The thing I am totally used to and will also never be used to: 

    It's both totally amazing, and completely mundane. Much like living in a foreign country. 

3 years and 2 months: happy anniversary.
Oh yeah, they have a thing for whipped cream here. 

Sep 12, 2014

Playgrounds in Amsterdam: Let's Hope You're Well-Insured

Playgrounds in Amsterdam are the best.

And by best, I mean dangerous.

It's not just the zip lines (often over water), or the tall slides (make that super tall slides), or the best swings ever (see below). It's that I'm pretty sure the motto of the Amsterdam Parks Department is: Did you pee your pants at a playground today? 

Please America, can you get these swings before we move back?

Until recently, the most amazing playground contraption we'd seen was an inverted, rotating teeter totter, six feet off the ground, with zero safety belts. If this were the US, there would be an entrance fee, a height restriction, safety harnesses, and a warning to pregnant women and people with heart conditions. As it is, there should be a warning to American parents that watching your kids play on it might give you a heart condition.

One of our favorite parks has a mini-amusement park with toddler-sized carnival rides for 1 euro each, including the Bumper Boats-- where kids get to steer their own motorized boat around a small pond, with no life jackets, no supervision, and no waiver to sign.

Now, the boats don't go fast, the water is shallow, and most parents stick around to watch, but it still took me at least five visits to get over the utter amazement that the entire thing was allowed to happen.

And it's not just the playgrounds. See this edge with no safety rails?
It's common. It's like they don't even have a powerful steel manufacturing lobby. 

Another common thing: being able to walk through construction zones. Like right next to the backhoes and cranes-- no hard hat required. And no one bats an eye.

Here's a fun story: within the first two months of moving to Amsterdam, we took a day trip to a nearby lake. While my kids played on the beach, I noticed a young boy by the water playing with a plastic bag.

A freaking plastic bag.

My jaw dropped as I watched him first wrap the bag around his neck, and then stretch it out directly over his mouth. Of the three or four other adults around, no one was looking at him, or paying him any attention.

I looked away. Just mind your own business. Don't worry about the kid playing with a choking hazard. I'm sure he'll stop soon.

Nope. He just kept on walking and playing with this plastic bag as if he was starring in some PSA about exactly what NOT to do with plastic bags. After about five minutes, I was pulling at my hair, chewing my nails, clawing at the sand-- waiting for someone to look the eff up and tell him to stop, until I couldn't stand it anymore.

I approached the boy. "Waar is jou moeder?" I tried to spit out, but I'd only started learning Dutch and it was most likely indecipherable. No matter, as he completely ignored me, to the point that I thought he might be deaf. I noticed a woman looking up from her book, with the suspicion of a mama bear, and as I started towards her, she said something in Dutch. I said, "Oh, I just wanted to make sure someone was aware of him playing with a plastic bag, because I'm feeling nervous about it."

She looked back down at her book, "Let him play. Leave him alone." Cold, blunt.

"Oh, OK, great, that's fine, just... um, no problem." I walked back to my spot, and continued to watch a scene that I was sure would never happen in America.

And guess what? He died.

Just kidding. He survived. In flat-out defiance of plastic bag labels, and helicopter parents everywhere, that boy lived.

I recently asked a neighbor what was the legal age for children to be left alone at home. They were confused. I clarified, "Is there a law stating at what age a child can be left alone?" "Hmmmm, I've never heard of such a thing. Are parents not able to figure that out themselves?"

I still don't know if there is a law or not.  No one seems to be bothered about it.

The concept of child safety in The Netherlands is not really a thing. What's more important is the concept of risk management. Most parents here find it important to help their children learn to manage taking their own risks, rather than shield them from any risks in the first place.

This is not to say that Dutch parents are reckless with their children, plastic bag lady aside. They just don't allow safety precautions to override their parental mandate to teach. Inoculation over bubble wrap.

Which leads me to the best thing about Amsterdam for kids. And by best, I mean-- well, you know.

Over a year ago, Mark took our kids to a park on the outskirts of Amsterdam. When they came home, my husband sat on the couch for a while before he could speak. "I don't know quite how to explain what we just went to, except that it would never be allowed in the US-- and there were hammers and saws."


He showed me the pictures he had taken, an my American brain could not process what I was seeing.

The concept is a "build and play" park where children can check out hammers, nails, and saws, to transform pallets and old boards into huts and forts. There is also a small petting farm, a game room, craft room, a boat dock, and a fire pit. And what's more-- it's all FREE.

We've since learned it's not the only one in Amsterdam, and they're not anything new. Do you remember a few months back, there was an article in the Atlantic about a playground in Wales, and every American had a panic attack? Well, the Dutch were like, YAWN.

So guess where my kids love to go? Yep, the danger parks.  I still don't know what to think of it all. Sure, it's a little Lord of the Flies, but I can't help but think it's pretty cool-- even while I bite my knuckles and hope nobody dies, or contracts tetanus, or maims someone, or descends into lawlessness and chaos-- OK, I'm going to stop now.

*Wanna go? Visit Jeugland in Flevopark, or 't Landje in Rembrandtpark. Go to Amstelpark for the Bumper Boats (and more), and don't miss Vondelpark's Treehouse playgound! 

That's right, a little bit of danger never hurt anyone. Oh wait... crap. 

Just some kids playing with HAMMERS. (And yes, that is possibly permanent marker all over my son's face, but HAMMERS!) 

Zip line over a river? We don't need no stinkin' liability waivers. 

At the dock, kids do have to wear life jackets, but are free to paddle their own canoes out of parent's eyesight. Be sure to pack the anxiety meds, people. 

This ain't Disneyland, that raft is real and so are the piranhas. 
OK, just kidding about the piranha part. Maybe. 

Yay tetanus! 

Hmmmm, how can we make this more dangerous? I know, how about more nails. On the ground, sticking straight up. 

Oh, and kids here ride to all these playgrounds on bicycles, without helmets. 

That's right. All my American readers may totally flip out now. 

Sep 5, 2014

That Time My Life Was an Episode of The Amazing Race

Most good stories don't start with I arrived at the airport in plenty of time and calmly proceeded to the gate. 

This one doesn't either.

You know when you have just enough time to get the airport, but only if things go absolutely perfectly, and the universe is like NOPE? That's how I ended up at the Budapest airport, standing outside the gate with fifteen minutes to go, being told that the gate was closed and I was not allowed to get on the plane.


I had been in Budapest visiting a longtime friend. The kind of friend who you started a Unicorn club with in the fifth grade, wrote notes to in a secret language, and cried with over your first break-up. So when this friend ends up in Europe for one year, and just happens to give birth to her first baby, you go visit her for a weekend. And when your husband sadly loses a brother just a few days before, and books a last-minute flight back to the US for the funeral, you just divvy out your kids to friends, and you still go to Budapest. Because Unicorn Club alum stick together, yo. Also, because of non-refundable flights, and two days to hold this bundle of adorableness:

You see what I'm talking about.

Back to me missing my flight at the airport. 

It was a Saturday, early evening. Mark was in the US, and I was supposed to pick up my kids by Sunday morning. I needed to figure out a way to get to Amsterdam as quickly as possible. Suddenly, it was just like The Amazing Race, but for realzzz. And with a disappointing lack of Phil Keoghan. Sigh.

I walked back to the ticketing area, and gave the departure board a good, long stare. Of course there were no more flights to The Netherlands that night. Summoning my inner Catherine O'hara from Home Alone, I walked to the ticket counter, and sobbed.

"I will do anything! Whatever it takes to get me on a flight, I will fight, kill, prostitute myself... I will sell my soul to Kim Kardashian's baby, wear high-wasted jeans for the rest of my life...JUST GET ME HOME TO MY KIDS."

"Let's see, looks like there's a seat on a flight to Brussels tonight at 8:30."

"I'll take it. What do I have to do?"

"Nothing, just the payment, ma'am."

"Oh, OK. You're sure that's all? Seems a little anti-climactic."

In the actual The Amazing Race, this would be the dramatic part, right before cutting to commercials. Lots of close-up shots of me looking worried, and biting my lip. Suspenseful music. Foreshadowing of tragedy to come. And then after the break, everything seems to have worked out just fine, as if there wasn't really any drama at all, just manipulative editing.

Two hours later I was on a flight to Brussels.

Brussels Charleroi Airport is actually not anywhere near Brussels. It's closer to France. After an hour bus ride, and a quick ride on the next-to-last train into Brussels central station, I arrived to find that the station was closing for the night. Who knew? It was one in the morning. I walked outside, looked at the row of backpackers curled up next to the station, and found a place to sit that didn't look as if it had been peed on too recently.

So there I was. This is the part where my insomnia super power saved the day. It's like I'd been training for this moment my entire life.

Sleep is for wusses. 

Brussels was in the middle of a music festival, so at 1 AM it was loud, boisterous, and busy. Ignoring the shouts in French from drunken passersby, I searched on my phone for ways to get to Amsterdam. Ten points to me for at least having my phone charged, though minus 1000 points for missing my flight in the first place.

Most of the trains and bus services I was aware of didn't leave until the next day, and were either fully booked, insanely pricey, or involved further transfers and waiting. I didn't see how I could get home until at least dinner time.

When was the last time you had to use the second page of Google's search results? I know, right? That's where I found a charter bus that happened to be leaving from Brussels at 4 AM, arriving in Amsterdam three hours later, for just 20 euro. I checked the location-- the bus stop was literally around the corner. And there were still seats available.

Small hiccup: the tickets were only available online, and only by credit card. Guess who didn't bring a credit card? That's right. Mrs Ultra Light Packer.

That's when I sent a message to Mark. "Hey, missed my flight (haha). Send cc#, urgent."

While it was 2 AM in Brussels, it was 6 PM in South Dakota on the day of my brother-in-law's funeral. I had two hours, hoping even a family tragedy wouldn't interfere with smart phone addictions. I really had to pee.

Cue the suspenseful close-up.
(Dramatic reenactment)

At some point, another backpacker arrived and asked in a thick British accent, "so is this where we're sleeping tonight?" He then proceeded to tell me about his day, with a brazen disregard for every word in the English language that was not the f-word, all while undressing and getting in his sleeping bag.

You would think by three in the morning things would quiet down, but no, that's just when the crazies came out. Anyone who is out after that time you just hoped kept walking. And there were plenty of people out, and no police. Which I guess was good for the backpackers sleeping in front of the train station.

A car screeched up on the sidewalk, men hanging out the windows, yelling and honking. After being ignored, they peeled out, only to come back a few minutes later for a repeat. Wasted party goers stumbled past. Teenagers ran down the middle of the street, chasing after cars.

There were the three men who walked up and spent a good thirty minutes alternately screaming at each other in French and caressing each other, until a fourth man joined them, yelled at them, hugged them, and then showed them the contents of his wallet. They all walked off together without even a glance or catcall in my direction. Thank God for gay men.

Eventually I got a response from Mark: "Of course you missed your flight." (We didn't know that three days later, Mark would miss his flight home due to bad weather, he'd spend thirty-six hours traveling due to an airline I won't name but will call Crappy "United" Airlines. But at least he would get to sleep at the airport.)

So, with my credit card number, and just enough cell phone battery, I booked my ticket on the bus and prayed it wasn't a scam. At 4:05 I was pulling out of Brussels on a bus full of sleepy backpackers, thankful I wasn't the stinkiest person there.

Twelve hours after my flight would have arrived, I made it to Amsterdam, or rather the strangest, most remote part of Amsterdam I've ever been to. It took another hour and a half via public transportaion to get home and relieve my bladder.

But it was a non-elimination round! I still had to bike around town retrieving my kids in a nasty storm. Not to mention survive four more days of Summer vacation, alone with the kids and non-stop rain. Thanks Amsterdam, for that.

So Phil, did I win?