Monday, May 21, 2007

My New Commute Home!

Today was my first day commuting to work from my new apartment. although the woman I'm renting the apartment from has given me her bicycle, she doesn't know where the keys are so I'm still looking for them and don't have a bike to ride to work yet. So - on the way to work, I took the bus and then transferred to the tram. Whipping along on the way to work with all the other commuters, I didn't really get a good feel for my commute so I decided to walk home and explore a little bit more.

I work near the zoo in the East (Oost) part of town. It’s a nice area with the zoo, the Botanical Gardens, and the Jewish Historical museum. Right as I was about to walk across the bridge over a canal, the bells started ringing – the bridge was opening. The great thing about the canals here are that they are mostly working canals! Two big flat boats (ships? Tankers?) came slowly through the canals – with big Dutch guys at the helm and lacy curtains and flowers in the windows of the boats. As the crowd started to gather at the edges of the bridge, we watched the ‘gatemaster’ wave to the boats and prepare to close the bridge. There is only one gatemaster, I think. He rides a small moped and wears a uniform. He zooms from bridge to bridge opening them and closing them as the boats slowly cruise along the canals.

I joined the throngs of people crossing over the canal on their bikes, on foot, and with two trams waiting. The weather was nice but a bit overcast. I decided to walk the whole way home, finding my way along rather than using a map. I crossed through Waterlooplein, where there is a big daily market, and continued down past the Chinese dimsum place that Corinne and I found the other weekend. As I walked along, I was behind a woman with EXTREMELY tight jeans on walking a small Yorkshire terrier. She had the handle for the leash tucked in her back pocket as she smoked a joint and sashayed along on high heels. She waved at all the bars as we walked by – me right behind her. Finally she turned around to hug a woman walking by and I realized she was a transsexual (or Transgendered person)! She had an extremely deep voice and was Asian. A HERMASIAN!

At that point, I was making my way through the Red Light District. Although it was only 6pm, the prostitutes were working and unlike Friday night when I showed around my friend Rick’s coworker, there were actually men going in to the little rooms. I was wondering if anyone actually went in there or if it was just drunk English bachelor parties harassing them. I continued to walk along through some of the allies and side streets filled with coffee shops and bars. I passed the sex shops and the fast-food shops and slowly moved into the reggae clothes/porno DVDs/marijuana paraphernalia/ postcards/Amsterdam hoodies section of town. I kept walking and eventually hit the West part of town and a street called Haarlemerstraat – a very cute boutique filled shop where there seemed to be less tourists and more Dutch people. There are some lovely cafes there and suddenly (!!) I came upon the West India House – the site of Corinne and Remco’s wedding reception. I remember some hysterical times there laughing with Alec and Carolyn out by the canal. I passed Portuguese delis, olive oil emporiums, trendy dress shops, scuba diving shops, bakeries, and shoe shops.

As I walked down the street and headed north, I crossed canals until I got to my neighborhood. I’m not sure of the name of the neighborhood but Tasmanstraat – parallels the Ij (river? Lake? Pond? ). I’m on the third floor (sorry – I thought it was the second!) with a nice view of the river (lake? Pond? Sea? ) and some trees… It’s 9:30 at night and the sun is still shining. I’m off to Berlin on Thursday to see my friend Mike Dumiak and learn more about Chad and the Central African Republic where my next trip might be…

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Moving Day: The Amsterdam Version!

Moving Day is tomorrow! I found an apartment and will be taking my eight (8) (!!) boxes and three suitcases over there tomorrow morning! After living with my extremely hospitable and tolerant friends Remco and Corinne for the past few weeks, I am moving out of the luxurious apartment on the Amstel to my own little apartment on that other river that I don't know the name of.

I was really quite lucky in finding a place because housing is tight in Amsterdam! If you are an expat - you pay an exorbitant price to housing agencies that sublet other peoples sometimes oddly furnished apartments out. Two months rent as a deposit plus you have to pay a housing agency 'finder's fee'. All the Dutch people I have met tell me how cheap housing is. All the Expats tell me how expensive. Well - I"m paying slightly more than my apartment in DC and I have a view of the river!

One of the women I was supposed to work with left the organization right before I started. She's American and moved back to the US - my colleagues suggested that she turn over her place to me rather than breaking her lease and she did! No agency finder's fee for me! I went over to see it last week and while its not the houseboat or little crooked house that I had hoped for - it's not a cardboard box on the street either!
The highlights until I post photos:
  • Big picture window with a view of the Ij (?) from the living room
  • small balcony off the kitchen with a view of flower garden and space for flower boxes. possible grill too.
  • Lots of windows - good light, whitewashed hardwood floors.
  • The world's smallest commode. Think airplane bathroom on a commuter jet.
  • The sink and the bathtub are in the bedroom. It's rare to have a bathtub in Amsterdam so that's good. Good news! The bathtub doubles as my guest room!
  • 10 minute walk to the Jordaan - the neighborhood I like; bus stop in front of the house
  • My own bicycle - that's right, I will now learn how to pedal home drunk from bars and join the rush hour commute on Friday.
  • On the second floor (first floor to you Europeans) - so no more huffing and puffing up to the fourth floor!
  • Because my friend Corinne is away on holiday this week - I've had to request the services of surly ex boyfriend with an attitude to help me. He has informed me that he has a party to attend on wednesday night and has to 'show a girl around Amsterdam' that afternoon (lucky her) and has given me a 2 hour window in which he can drive me to and from my new place. He'll probably be hungover beyond belief and it'll probably rain.

But still! My own little place. Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Bicycles of Amsterdam

When I leave Corinne and Remco's every day, I pass several houseboats on the Amstel River...

Often times, I have to dodge bicyclists as I cross the bridge or the roads.

But I always am impressed at the kinds of bikes I see... take this one for instance. It's your typical 'take your child to school' bike. A first child bike, if you will.

This gentleman is driving the small family addition. Normally two small toddlers ride in the 'wheelbarrow' like addition at the front.

But the creme de la creme, is this "Mini Van of Amsterdam". If only I could get a photo of the intrepid Dutch mother driving this while talking on her mobile phone, holding an umbrella against the rain, and carrying some tulips!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Market Day

Well I've completed one week of work and one weekend day and my belongings (minus some US Postal Service boxes) are here... and I may ALMOST have an apartment! Time flies in the Netherlands!

Yesterday - woke up latish (without Simon to remind me that the sun has risen, my rising hour has gotten alter and later) and joined Corinne and Remco out in the garden for breakfast. Thanks to global warming, Amsterdam has been having one of the warmest and driest springs ever! My morning breakfast is now compose of a roll, some sort of ham or cold cut, some cheese, and some coffee. We decided to go shopping - and headed out to the Albert Cuypstraat market. It's a street market on Saturdays that's filled with everything - from cheap underwear to lychee fruit!

The first thing we did is stop to by frites - french fries to those of you not in the know!. In Holland - you get your frites in a little paper cone and you choose what kind of fritesauce you want on them - peanut? curry? ketchup? mayonaise? Then you eat them with a little plastic fork. DELICIOUS! And very remincent of my childhood in Belgium! Remco and his mother (who was visiting) got a Croketten - basically fried meat paste inside a crispy shell! As I'm trying to avoid the label "Fat American", I decided to skip the Croketten.

We stopped to admire the flowers - 50 tulips for 5 euros - and in all the colors of the rainbow. Also, gorgeous peonies, hydrangeas, fuschias, birds of paradise, and others. The Dutch sure love their 'bloemen' and so do I. I don't care if my apartment is a hellhole, I'm going to fill it with fresh flowers. I may not have furniture or any belongings, but I'll have fresh flowers and my iPod. I could do worse.

Then we went to buy vegetables for the week. What a great selection. I missed the Dupont Circle Farmer's Market for about 30 seconds - and then I saw the tomatos, herbs, eggplants, lettuces, wild ginger, lemon grass, passion fruit, and everything else they had to offer - at a fraction of the cost! Heaven! This will definately become one of my weekend rituals. There are also cheese stands, sausage stands, fish stands, meat stands, and, of course, Herring stands!

Roaming around eating my frites, I felt more like I was at a carnival where hawkers sold polka-dotted underwear than at the relentlessly aggressive Dupont Circle's market. Ah - Dupont Circle Sundays- where perfectly toned gay men with their strollers with perfectly selected baby and dog team ram through hyper aggressive DC elites who are elbowing each other out of the way to get at the perfect tomato or the perfect $40 stem of pussy willows. Everyone with their designer dog and $800 stroller. I rarely left the market without having spent $40 and usually only had enough for one meal. We spent 20 euros at the produce stand and came home with eggplant, zucchini, lettuce, cabbage, fresh thyme, onions, garlic, mushrooms, tomatos, apples, fresh squeezed orange juice, and some fresh bread!

After a dizzying afternoon at Schiphol airport driving around the various cargo holds and customs offices, I finally received my belongings that I shipped. The boxes that seemed so large and dominating in my living room - that threatened to send me into a tequila induced coma if they were NOT TAKEN AWAY, IMMEDIATELY! are now sitting in a tiny corner of my alloted room in Corinne's house. So small - is that really all I own now?

We then retired to the garden to prepare Tuscan style grilled lamb chops with a panzanella salad. DELICIOUS.

Unfortunately, almost everyone I know in Amsterdam is fighting a cold or pneumonia - Corinne has a cold, my boss, Marc has a cold, and my frined Carolyn has pneumonia. And I feel tired and weak - perhaps from finally having a job and working four whole days last week? I ended up not going to the three social events I had been invited to and instead - watching south park (with Dutch subtitles) and going to bed early.

But - I dont' feel bad about it. I'm living here now - I remind myself - its not vacation! But somehow, it still feels like it is....

Friday, May 04, 2007

New Updates from holland

Two experiences:
I registered with the Foreign Police/Municipality yesterday. It was the equivalent of the INS interview, I think. I arrived at 8:30am when they opened. There was a line of about 30 people ahead of me. The line moved quickly, everyone were given numbers depending on their situation and sent to different waiting rooms. I waited for fifteen minutes. The man spoke English, processed everything and had me out the door in 20 minutes. I was on a tram for the train station at 9:30.

Today: I went to my first Dutch doctor ... what an interesting change from the US system. My ears were blocked (as they always get - did you know I have to have them cleaned every three months? Some say people share too much on blogs - I say no) and I made an appointment with a doctor recommended by a 24 hour English speaking phone line I found in my guidebook. A woman answered the phone, asked me what the zip code was where I was staying, found a doctor right around the corner and gave me the number.
I called, they said they could see me right away, did I have insurance. I said, no - no insurance yet, and they warned me it would cost 25 Euros. I got there, the doctor saw me in 10 minutes after my arrival, I got my ears flushed out, paid the doctor (not the front desk) twenty four euros and eighty euro cents, and walked out the door - listening to bird song - thirty minutes after I arrived there! Can you believe it?

So far, Holland is doing well on the old Pros v Cons:
  • Cute Men
  • Good Produce
  • Fresh Bread that is cheap (no more Safeway Baguettes for me)
  • Great Holiday Celebrations
  • Friendly Efficient Immigration Services
  • Friendly Efficient Healthcare

  • Don't accept credit cards at the train station
So overall - I'm giving it an A- for the time being!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

First Day Back at Work!

My first day on the job was great! I woke up at 3am (after passing out a 9pm) and remembered that I had not packed the right shoes for the outfit I planned to wear. I have not had a pedicure in two months so my toes are not worthy of wearing sandals! Lucikly, I had my ever faithful Dansko clogs. Not very pretty but comfy and toe covering. I caught the tram, got to the office, asked to speak to Mark and the receptionist said "Hey! You are the new employee! You don't need to wait for him. Here's your key card, I'll show you to your desk." I got there, everything was set up, I got a tutorial from the office assistant on how to log into everything.
At the morning meeting, Marc introduced me to everyone and told them to be nice to me and sit with me in the lunchroom since most of the departmental staff are out of the office for the month. then he gave me a very comprehensive overview of the organization's layout and design. He took me to lunch where we talked about Darfur and sat by the canal in the sunshine eating cheese sandwiches.

It was a FAR cry from my first day at Refugees International. When I got there, the receptionist made me sit in the hall for thirty minutes while she screamed at someone on the phone. They took me upstairs to my new office and noone had bothered to clean out the desk - there was even a dirty plate from someone's leftover lunch on the desk. I had no login into the system, the computer hardly work, and there was absolutely no orientation. I ended up inviting one of the people I barely knew to lunch just so I could hae someone to talk to. I had no work to do, nothing was prepared for me and then they sent me to Liberia a week later.

MSF wants me to go to Brussels for a meeting tomorrow so I'm off at the crack of dawn to take the train! How jet setter!

The only downside to moving here is the money situation. As you may remember, I lost my wallet the week before I moved here. After frantically dashing around to replace the cards and such, I've found some cracks in the system. I don't have a pin number for my new ATM card that is connected to my DC bank account. My electronic bank account won't connect to my South Carolina bank account (although I have a pin number and an ATM card for that). It also takes about a week for the money to transfer form the DC account to the electronic account. My South Carolina account has an ATM card and a pin number but they don't work in Europe.

Today I learned that I have to produce 450 euros for my residency permit (non reimbursable) tomorrow morning. And I have to pay for my train ticket to Brussels (no credit cards accepted) and wait to get reimbursed. I'm still waiting for them to reimburse me the $600 from my plane ticket. The $200 I changed upon arrival is now a 20 Euro note after buying a phone, some phone time, and going out to a shockingly expensive dinner with my friends on Saturday night (70 euros each!, I had no idea the place we were going was going to be so expensive. I ordered cheaply but that 'going dutch' thing will get you every time).

I have no idea how I'm going to get enough money for a deposit for an apartment. Oh yeah, they also pay once a month and because the woman who organizes the appointments with the tax office where they issue you a tax number (essential for opening a bank account), I may not get paid this month.

So that's my day. Wish me luck on the money front. Things will all pan out. At least they provide lunch for us every day at the office. I can definately lose weight this way. And its good for the spirit, dontcha know.