August 7, 2011

First post of 2011, better late than never

I live on a busy, touristy street in the middle of the center of Amsterdam. It's hard to be more central, my place is literally 300 meters from Centraal station, a neighborhood I never envisioned myself living. I've lived in the south, the center/east (near Weesperplein), two places in the pijp, and a canal-side apartment off the Leidsekade. I was always careful to avoid even looking at places in the Jordaan (love the area, but I work there and need a bit of separation between work and home) or the red light district/historical center, because I couldn't imagine leaving my house and walking out into a crowd of tourists and pot smoke.

I do that every day now - in fact my current place is on the boarder of the Jordaan and the red light district, but not quite in either neighborhood. and it's perfect. It's big (90 sq meters, two floors!), I only share it with my boyfriend, and the absolute best most wonderful part about it is that I have zero issues with the neighbors. Whenever I walk down the street, I smile and wave at the men and women who work in the coffee shops, kebab stands, sex stores, and tourist-friendly restaurants. My neighbors across the street have at least two or three young kids who are always at the window looking down, waving, shouting, and playing. A few days ago there was a gigantic rain storm in the middle of the day, and my boyfriend and I ran to our front windows to watch the people on the street either try to hide or just take off their clothes and run around in delight. The kids across the street did the same thing, and we waved and yelled hello to each other.

I used to wave and yell hello to my neighbor across the street when I lived on the Saphartistraat as well, and one time we even ran into each other on the street and finally said hello in person. It's so easy to see into your neighbors homes here in Amsterdam - partly because it's a city and we all live so closely together, but also because Dutch people aren't in the habit of really closing themselves in. It's strange, one could say the dutch are a "closed" type of people, but at the same time they're perfectly find leaving their curtains and windows and doors wide open whenever possible. I like this, because I like sticking my nose in everyone's business. Most people pretend they don't look into other people's windows, but the kids across the street and my former non-dutch neighbor actually enjoy the fact that we can see and hear each other. It's part of why we live in a city and not the middle of nowhere.

It's a fantastic place where I live - the building is old, the house is leaning over, I live among a lot of very dutch people and a lot of very foreign people and while my street is busy with tourists and music all day long, cars are not allowed down my street. My boyfriend (who isn't Dutch) and I were welcomed the first day we moved in by people in the restaurant across the street, who told us that they only accepted cash (we didn't have any, only bank cards) but not to worry, we could come back some other time to pay them. This is my 6th apartment in three years of living in Amsterdam, and it's the place that feels the most like home. I didn't expect to like the neighborhood as much as I do, but I've never felt so at ease anywhere else in this city.

February 21, 2010

Keep this in mind

#1. The Dutch are the tallest people in the world. If you ever had any doubts about this, if you go to a standing-room-only concert, it will clear those doubts away immediately. I had a really great time seeing Babylon Circus this past Friday night at the Melkweg, but I felt like a midget. I never thought of myself as short (I'm about 168cm, or 5'6), but here in Holland, I'm certainly below average. :)

#2. If you find yourself looking for an apartment, read this short article first. Here's a section:

"... Housing rental agencies love expats so much: they are ignorant to the local laws and some of them think that those laws only apply to locals or to apartments that belong to the city council.

As a tenant in the Netherlands, you are protected by the law in several ways. First of all, once you agree to rent an apartment (either verbally or through a written contract), this agreement can only be terminated by the tenant; not by the landlord, except in extreme circumstances (e.g. failure to pay the rent, in which case, the landlord must start a court case against the tenant). A contract that states ‘temporary’ or ‘one-year lease’ does not automatically end after the expiry date. A temporary contract is only allowed in very rare and specific situations. So if you think you have a temporary contract, you most likely don't!

The second protection a tenant has is that the landlord cannot simply charge what he likes for an apartment. Every apartment has a maximum rent, which is calculated using a points system. Every square metre and all the facilities in the apartment score points, and the total number of points equates to a certain maximum rent. Anyone can ask a Huurteam (via to visit their apartment and perform the calculation at no cost."

It's no secret that finding an affordable apartment is incredibly difficult here in Amsterdam, and for expats, even when we know the laws and the rules, we may just end up using housing agencies or paying too much because it seems like there are no other options. I may end up doing the same thing myself this time around. But it's really helpful to have all the knowledge you can ahead of time, and don't forget that we, as tenants, are the people that the law will ultimately protect more than the landlord.

You may even find (as I have), that private landlords will try to charge a month of commission for their apartments, even though there's no agency or broker involved. This is just simply against the law and entirely pointless, it's equivalent to paying someone a bribe to get into the apartment, which is a very New York thing to do. And yes, it's hard for those of us from places like NYC or Paris (expensive cities with insane housing prices) to care about the fact that we're paying someone a bribe, because we're kind of used to doing that type of thing back home. However, unlike NYC, this is something that you can fight even after you're inside the apartment. Landlords here will know perfectly well if they're doing something that goes against the law and they know the risks that come with it - and this is exactly why expats are targeted into taking these apartments, because Dutch people would never fall for this type of thing. This is why you'll see so many ads saying "expats only!" or "expat special!" Ugh.

Again, even though I know all this stuff already, I have no idea if I'll be able to avoid over-paying for an apartment - I probably won't, so I'm trying to at least find a nice place in a good location where I'll over-spend. However, I do know that there are resources available to me (in English, it's not necessary to speak Dutch to fight this type of thing) if I need them, and it helps me stay motivated to dismiss scams and just keep looking.

February 19, 2010

More than halfway there

I'm trying to appreciate the fact that the other day I was standing outside around 6.30pm and looked up to see a still-blue sky. The days are getting longer, and that helps, especially when we're stuck in a winter that seems to be lasting forever. We get to change the clocks in six weeks on Sunday, 28 March.

But how to keep busy in the meantime? I had an American friend (S.) visiting me for a few days recently, and I couldn't bring myself to do the usual touristy stuff that I enjoy doing - it was just too cold to pretend that a ferry ride to the north would be fun. We were active, but more in a "this is what it's like to live here" sense versus being tourists. We had dinner at a fantastic Dutch restaurant in the Jordaan, and then wandered over to another friend's house for beer and dominoes. If you ask me what a typical Friday night is like in Amsterdam, this is it - hanging out with Mexicans and playing dominoes until late into the night with a group of people whose nationalities covered 6 or 7 different countries from 3 different continents.

Over the weekend, S. and I also stopped by the Brouwerij het Ij, which is a place that anyone visiting Amsterdam must go. Beers brewed on the premises, a dirty, loud, messy room, cheese cubes, and of course a beautiful location next to a canal. We also went to brunch at a little squat in the oud west, drank lots of coffee, did some shopping at the Albert Cuyp market, and ate apple pastries and stoopwafels. I was happy to show my friend real life in Amsterdam, which of course meant that I put this California girl on a real Dutch bike (pedal brakes and rust included) and had her ride all around the city with me in -2 weather (28F). It was a really great visit - it's been awhile since any of my American friends have made the trip over, and I have to say, it was nice to be able to make references to people and places and have someone know what I was talking about.

The cinemas are also a great place to hide inside during these winter days. A few nights ago I visited Delicatessen Zeeburg for the first time to watch Repo Man, which was great. I'm still hitting all my regular places whenever I can - the OT301, De Nieuwe Anita, the Filmhuis Cavia, and as usual, the biggest problem is that I don't have enough free time to do all the things I wish I could. This weekend is full of options - concerts, parties, movies - I wish I could do it all.

Part of my free time is being used up with hunting for a new place to live (again!), which is a drag. I can't bring myself to pay a housing agency, so I'm searching the same way I always have - emails to friends, apartment listings online, the usual. I would love to stay in my current neighborhood (de pijp), where I've been living for the past 7 months. I have my favorite bruine kroegen (Dopey's Elixar, Lutmastraat 49), my favorite cafes and restaurants... but affordable/legal apartments are hard to come by in this city, and I can't be too picky. If anyone reading has any inside information, by all means, please share your tips for finding a great apartment. Bonus points if you know of something in de pijp!

I think I'm going to be spending Queen's Day in Amsterdam this year, having missed it for the past two years. I'll use it as an excuse to say that the entire city is celebrating my 2-year anniversary of living in this city. :)

February 6, 2010

Addressing comments and questions

I just found about 75 old comments to this blog that never got published, which is good since about 90% of them were spam. But to other people who commented, I'm sorry I never got back to you! There were some nice words or questions going back um, 6 months. Oops. Still, thanks for reading. To everyone who asked me a question I didn't answer, I apologize. When I moved to Amsterdam I wouldn't have gotten anywhere if it weren't for strangers offering me advice or sharing knowledge, both on the web and in person. I know I've been slacking in the department of Sharing Knowledge, and I feel pretty bad about that. There is some knowledge I'd like to share, but it's not about how to find an apartment or to explain how to open a bank account. This is about what most of you have been asking about one way or another - what it's like to simply be in Amsterdam during this particular period, and what you can expect if you want to make this your home. So this is from my personal experience.

A friend of mine from Italy moved to Amsterdam about 6 weeks ago, and like a ton of other people in this city, he's looking for a job in a very, very tight job market. He's discouraged and frustrated. What I've seen in the past year or year in a half is this: a huge, scary moment when the crisis really seemed to mean absolutely no jobs, salary freezes, etc. That began around this time last year, and lasted about 6-7 months. I think everyone was just very scared, including employers. I know of places that went out of business and I did have a couple of friends that lost jobs. It certainly didn't hit as hard in Amsterdam as it did in New York, but it did hit. The people that were the most affected were recent graduates. Around the late summer and early fall of 2009, things seemed to be better. I knew more and more people who had chosen to quit their jobs because they had found something better, or were choosing to go freelance (by the way, freelancing is a really great thing to do in the Netherlands - I should write a whole post on that sometime). That's a good sign, it meant that companies were starting to hire again, and work was still in demand. But at the same time, there's a much, much bigger pool of applicants for every job. Employers are putting people through an interview process the likes of which I've never seen before - it's not uncommon to hear of someone going for 4, 5, 6 interviews, involving extensive personality testing. It's not uncommon for employers to ask their interview candidates to put together presentations on the first interview, or write up a report, and that's only the beginning. A job interview, even for a pretty basic position, can take days and days to prepare for. I do see the economy improving here, but it's a very slow, slow process.

So this friend of mine is part of the pool of experienced and smart people who are having a hard time, and the look on his face when he talks about the search is a very familiar look, something I've seen before. It's a fact that this is a hard time to move to Amsterdam and find a good, steady job. One of the hardest parts is getting over that first hump, getting to learn the city and make connections. The next hardest thing might be learning to take yourself and your skills seriously, even though it seems impossible to find a job (which will of course deflate your ego and make you question everything, which I've done ten thousand times). There are still a lot of gaps in Amsterdam that need to be filled, there are getting to be more jobs out there that are waiting to be filled, and best of all, there are jobs out there waiting to be created. Setting up your own business really does work in this country. If you can find out what Amsterdam needs and fulfill it, you will be able to find work, and you don't need to speak a word of Dutch to get started. But this means you first need to live here and get to know this city, I mean, really get to know this city. Things that weren't possible in your former country are possible here (and vice versa of course), but you have to ask, and you have to stay confident.

Don't spend 10 hours a day studying Dutch, thinking that will be the ticket to your next job. If you don't speak Dutch, it's going to take a long time to learn. Maybe if you did it every day for 3 months, you would become pretty good, but you're still nowhere near fluent (unless you're coming from Germany, in which case you'll pick it up much more quickly). Of course, you should try to learn the language, especially if you have free time. But in the meantime, while you're searching for work, focus on English. If you're not a native English speaker, try to practice as much as possible and get used to the different types of accents. If you're more used to American accents but can't understand a word when a British person talks, try to find a British friend and adjust your ears to that accent, because you're going to hear it a lot. Make sure you have a native English speaker look over your CV. Dutch people in Amsterdam often won't judge you for not speaking Dutch (no one expects that you would have studied Dutch in school), but they will judge you if you can't speak good English. It's weird.

I wouldn't discourage someone from moving to Amsterdam during this period, but I would offer a lot of warnings. The crisis hasn't vanished. There's a lot of competition. But if you're in the job-searching position, especially if you're new to the city, keep in mind there are a lot more options than your basic 9-5, monday-friday job working for a big company with a proper job contract. The most important thing that you can do for yourself is take time and be patient (says me, one of the most impatient people on earth!), and keep an open mind.

I'll try to go more into freelancing and setting up your own business and the DAFT agreement in my next post. Since this is the topic I'm asked about most in comments and emails, I want to try and help - just remember, I'm certainly not an expert. I'm just someone who lives here, and everything I'm saying is only based on my experience. I'm 100% positive you could find another person who would disagree with everything I say, but that's okay. There are enough discouraging people out there and enough negativity in general. I have no reason to add to the discouragement because again, I am here. It's all worked out so far for me, and I'm no one special.

Usually the damp, foggy nights here in Amsterdam are nothing to get excited about. However, last night I was really struck by surprise. The city looked beautiful. Dark and foggy in a way I haven't seen in a long time, it made everything seem more mysterious. It was around 3.30am and absolutely silent on the tiny little street I was on (except for the noise still coming from the apartment where I had been). When there are moments like that, how could I discourage someone from moving here and giving it a shot?

When it does eventually work out, it's all worth it.

February 5, 2010

The less-glamorous (but necessary) side of expat life

I've been trying to catch up on some administration in my daily life, and thought to myself about how these routines that now seem so normal were so incredibly foreign when I first got here.

Basic Amsterdam Administration

Submitting insurance receipts: Health insurance in this country is weird, and seems to be going more and more the way of the incredibly dysfunctional US system - which is to say the cost of health care is rising. When I went to the dentist last month, I had to pay for the appointment in person (100 Euros) and then submit the receipt to my insurance company to get reimbursed. A fairly simple process, though I can't do this online, so everything goes by mail. I'm notoriously bad with paying attention and opening my mail, so of course I only saw today that while my insurance company is happy to pay me back, for some reason they don't have my bank account information. (why? how?) so I have to write them a letter back with my bank account information and send it in the mail. And one day I'll get that 100 Euros back.

Collecting tax information: I'll have to do Dutch and US taxes again this year, so it's time to start gathering paperwork. That means finding the Jaaropgaaf, or yearly statement, in the pile of mail that that I never look at. I found it, but now I have to not lose it for a couple months (the real challenge). I got my W2 (for my US taxes) from my employer. The accountants that handled my Dutch tax returns last year did a really bad job, so this year I'm using a different guy - one of my Dutch friends who agreed to do my taxes in exchange for dinner and entertainment/conversation with his girlfriend (who is also a good friend). Not a bad deal!

Continuing to deal with letters/statements about all the new cards: This one takes a little explanation. I spent several weeks in Italy over the Christmas/New Years holiday, and had my wallet pick-pocketed in Naples. I know I'm probably the ten millionth person to tell such a story, and yes, I'm lucky that they didn't get my camera, phone, passport, or take my entire bag. Still, it was a hassle to cancel all my cards, talk to banks in two different countries, fill out fraud letters, try to arrange banking by phone (without my cards, I had no way of accessing my Dutch bank account information), and receive everything little by little by post and then having to always mail stuff back. My advice is this: buy travel insurance, and don't be cheap about it - that extra Euro I could have been paying every month would have allowed me to claim all the cash that had been in my wallet when it was stolen! That was a painful lesson to learn. Travel insurance is your friend.

Paying fines: Back in October, I got a ticket from a bike-light cop. This is a pretty normal sight in Amsterdam - a bunch of cops standing around in the dark, checking that all the cyclists are using a front and back bike light. I almost always use lights, but of course they get stolen and run out of batteries and things happen. Bike light cops in Amsterdam are not very sympathetic to the "things happen" excuse. I got a 30 Euro ticket, which went up to 50 Euros because I didn't pay it for such a long time.

Trying to do basic stuff without a wallet: It's hard. My dry cleaning receipt was in my wallet, and my dry-cleaner doesn't speak a word of English. He was also entirely uninterested in my sign language/hand movements/random dutch words attempt at trying to explain that I wanted my clothes but didn't have ticket. Fortunately my flatmate came to the rescue and helped explain my situation to the dry cleaning guy, and I got my clothes in the end, but that was stressful.

Picking up other peoples mail: If you live in Amsterdam, then you know someone who needs their mail picked up. It's a fact. Or maybe you need to go pick up your own mail at a place that isn't your apartment, because the spot where you are registered isn't really the spot you live. This is just a normal part of life, but I forgot that it didn't used to be that way.

Looking for an apartment: Always on-going, always a pain in the ass.

Shopping: Trying to get to the stores on a Thursday night, which is the only night during the week that stores stay open until 9.30pm, and shopping during the weekend is a pain. The plus side of this week's Thursday Night Shopping was the huge sales still going on everywhere.

Thinking about the future: Job contract up for renewal in June, where should I live, what should I do with my life, what do I want out of life, should I plan a big trip, should I take that class... you know, basic questions.

Missing my camera: It's been in the repair shop for almost two weeks, and I want it back!

Preparing for visitors: Making sure I have extra keys, writing out directions on how to find my office/home and how to navigate from the airport to the city.

All this stuff I mentioned is routine. The day-to-day stuff. I'm not always missing my camera, but there's always something like that going on. Getting used to the basic and un-interesting stuff in another country is also part of a normal expat's life. Getting used to reading mail in a language you don't speak or the policies that you've never heard of. Knowing how to scan a list of apartment and pick the scams out just from the titles. Understanding that it's no use to try and call your insurance company, they'll still want everything by mail. I can't just call them and tell them my bank account number - about 1.5 years ago, I might have tried. Now I just know that it's not possible.

It is all pretty boring, but in some ways, incredibly satisfying. When I first moved here, everything I mentioned above would have freaked me out in some way. If I had gotten a ticket for missing my bike lights the first month I arrived, I probably would have panicked. But now I get it. Arguing with any kind of Dutch Authority will never solve anything, and if you're polite and non-argumentitive, even the bike-light cops will smile and crack a joke with you.

January 21, 2010

New Years Resolution: start writing in this blog again!

I did a lot of grumbling this month in Amsterdam about the weather. I didn't mind the snow at all, in fact I loved it! The day of the first real snowfall I ran out to build a snowman. I took tons of pictures of people riding their bikes around on snowy roads. The crazy thing was that the city of Amsterdam just really didn't clean up the snow at all. I had to learn how to ride my bike on ice, and I learned that I don't like riding my bike on ice. So that's when the complaining started ... but it abruptly ended when I witnessed something I had only read about: seeing someone ice skate on a city canal. It was beautiful. I have no idea if it was really safe, but I didn't hear of anyone falling through and dying, so that's good.

One blog entry a week... I can do that, right?


Happy 2010!

August 3, 2009

The more I move, the more I learn

I moved this past weekend, into my third apartment in Amsterdam in 15 months. In my last post I mentioned I was moving into a place in the Oud West, but that ended up not working out (long story) for me, though fortunately some friends of mine ended up taking the apartment. It was such a great place, I'm glad that I can visit!

My new home is in de Pijp, and after just 2 nights, I am so incredibly happy there. It's a ground floor apartment with a large backyard - one of those perfectly charming pijp homes with huge windows in the front and back and very high ceilings. Feeling like I'm living in the right neighborhood is everything to me, and after about 2 hours, I was absolutely sure I was living in the best spot in Amsterdam. It's the same feeling I had about living in Montmartre in Paris - there was no question in my mind that I could live anywhere else in that city. When the rest of Paris was annoying me (for instance, if I had to go shopping on a Saturday in the Marais, or go to work by the Eiffel Tower or in the horrible 16th district), I could always safely retreat back to my neighborhood and feel good and relaxed. The last three weeks that I lived in Paris, I was staying in the Marais, and I really didn't like it. For as much as I like being in that neighborhood (the history, the beauty, the fact that it was very central) and would often find myself there to hang out with friends, I didn't like actually living there.

Anyway, I'm getting the same feeling about different areas of Amsterdam. For instance, the Jordaan is a phenomenal neighborhood, and it's where I work. I recently spent about 10 days living in the Jordaan when I was dog-sitting for a colleague, and after the initial "it's great to be close enough to work to walk!" phase wore off, I was ready to leave. The problem is, anywhere in the Jordaan is going to be close to my office. If I lived in there permanently, I would constantly cycle past my office building, and my entire life would end up taking place in one small area of the city. Fortunately, it's a great area, which is why I love working there so much. It's also why I love that some of my friends live there, it's why I love going out for food or drinks or movies there. But I need some separation from my home life and my work life.

My main complaint about my now-former neighborhood (I lived at the Weesperplein from 1 July 2008 - two days ago) is that it just simply wasn't a neighborhood. It wasn't east enough to be east. It wasn't center enough to really be in the center. There weren't a lot of cool little bars, cafes, or shops within a 5-minute walk of my place (except for the Kriterion, which was great). I never got to know any of my neighbors. Now, before someone jumps in and says "oh it's impossible to get to know your neighbors in the Netherlands, everyone keeps to themselves and the Dutch don't let anyone it and everyone is so private," let me say - that's just simply not true. If that is something you're (you = the foreigner/expat) experiencing, than it's up to you to change something about the way you're approaching the situation. In my first neighborhood (the Oud Zuid, just south of Vondelpark), I lived there for 2 months. After a few weeks, I was regularly having friendly exchanges with all sorts of people in the neighborhood - Dutch and non-Dutch.

It's not to say that living among the Dutch doesn't take some getting used to. The idea that they want to live in apartment buildings that are very close together and that they'll keep their curtains open all the time, or even just leave their front doors wide open - it makes you think that they're happy to have neighbors and live communally. But should you dare make a noise after 11pm, or have friends over for dinner that starts at 10pm, you're breaking the rules and will receive complaints about the noise. Then you (you = the foreigner, or in this case, me) look around and point out that hey, we all live in apartments with giant windows that we want to keep open at night, of course, and these apartments aren't made to be soundproofed. But that's just part of city life, especially city life in an old European city, so ... get used to it, right? I mean, if you value peace and quiet so much, move to the country. Hearing my neighbors walk around has been part of every single apartment I ever lived in. Sometimes hearing parties, music, whatever. It just comes with the territory. The Dutch seem to think they can have it both ways. I disagree.

But this doesn't mean that the Dutch are unfriendly, and it doesn't mean that it's impossible to get to know your neighbors, and it doesn't mean that it's hard to find a place to fit in. I did have to change my lifestyle to suit my surroundings, but in a respectful way, I also required that my neighbors adjust to me. Eating dinner at 10pm with a group of friends who laugh and talk for hours isn't wrong, it's just not typically Dutch. We did eventually find a middle ground.

Getting back the the topic of neighborhoods: I just simply wasn't attached to the neighborhood around the Weesperplein whatsoever. It was an amazing apartment - spacious, a beautiful balcony, conveniently located next to 2 tram lines and the metro - but I grew tired of living in an area that just didn't suit my personality.

Now that I'm in de pijp, I feel 100% at home. Within the first few hours I had met several of the neighbors - some came over purposefully to introduce themselves. Strangers I never met before helped us out. I helped out a guy I had never met jump over the fence in my backyard because he locked himself out. There are tons of cafes, shops, bars, and restaurants all around me. On a Sunday evening I was able to buy fresh bread! (if you live in Amsterdam you understand how rare that is) There's tons of diversity, lots of different languages being spoken at all times. But most of all, there's the food.

If you ask just about any expat what their complaints are about the Netherlands, I'm willing to bet that most will say "the weather and the food." For me it's "the food." Period. The weather I can handle. However, I hate Albert Heijn. This is rough, because Albert Heijn - the big chain of supermarkets - is everywhere, and I really, really hate it. So I went out of my way to buy fruits and vegetables from the organic shops, I tried to make an effort to get to the markets on the weekend and to buy bread from the bakeries when they're are open during the day, etc. But now - now! I live just down the road from the giant Albert Cyup market, which is open 6 days a week. The wikipedia page says the market is the busiest in all of the Netherlands and according to rumour, it is the largest daytime market in Europe... the famous Dutch Stroopwafel can be found here, made fresh right before you. I live down the street from a little night shop that sells wonderful, fresh bread, 7 days a week, even late at night. Basically, I live in a neighborhood with a lot of foreign influence, a lot of Indian, Turkish, North African, and Surnamise people - and this has made the quality of the food improve about ten million percent. All of a sudden, everything is easier. I'm sure I'll go to the supermarket for the basic items, but now a majority of my grocery shopping can take place at the markets and at the small shops that sell their vegetables from bins on the sidewalk, and it's all right outside my door.

So if you're looking for a great neighborhood to reside in Amsterdam, I highly recommend de pijp. The only downside of my new place is that it's temporary - 3 or 4 months max (the owners will most likely sell it after that time). When I have to move out of this place, I'm going to try as hard as possible to not move out of the neighborhood. My new commute to work takes me through the museumplein, how could I give that up?

I plan to spend the next 2 weeks in a state of domestic bliss, and then head off on holiday (finally!). Holiday plans step one: 6-day sailing trip around the Croatian Islands to southern Italy. I can hardly wait... but in the meantime, I'll get to know my new neighborhood in Amsterdam. Oh, and as always, I moved with the help of friends and the White Van Man, who provided excellent service.

July 8, 2009

New apartment, new residence permit, same city

Ah, July in Amsterdam. There was a beautiful period where I was wearing summer dresses, covering my tattoos in sunblock when I left the house, and even dared to complain once or twice about the heat. Now we're getting back to normal, with freak thunderstorms during the day which abruptly change to blue skies with sun and then back again, all in the same hour. It's my 2nd July in Amsterdam, and I am feeling the "must take a summer holiday NOW" feeling bigtime. The cinemas I go to on a regular basis are all getting ready to close for their summer breaks. My office is emptying out with everyone taking vacation. I am eagerly looking forward to the 19th of August, when I get on a plane bound for Dubrovnick, Croatia. I'm meeting a group of friends in the city and then spending the next 6 days sailing around (weather permitting) and eventually crossing the Adriatic sea and ending the trip in Bari, Italy. From there I'll go to New York City for a couple days to see some friends, and then to California for 4 days to attend my brother's wedding.

Since I last updated, I've been on the search for a new apartment. My current apartment is beautiful and in a great location, but I'm in need of a 2-bedroom place. The idea of moving into a one-bedroom apartment was to live on my own, but I've never actually done that - I always end up with long term guests or temporary flatmates. My current temporary flatmate and I decided to make our arrangement official and look for a 2-bedroom place to call home. This prompted the great apartment search. Neither of us were too picky about location so we could keep our options open - we didn't consider Amsterdam Nord or anything too far off, but we did search the whole city using every resource we could think of. Using a broker (makelaar) was not something we considered doing - while paying someone to help you find a place will most likely result in finding a place quickly, we couldn't afford it (they typically charge what you would pay in rent for one month). We told everyone we knew, we searched Woningnet in the Vrije Sector, Marktplaats, craigslist, and a bunch of other places. We sent a million emails, made a million phone calls, and saw some really shitty places and some really beautiful places. In the end, we found a great place on the south end of the Overtoom, in the oud west neighborhood - the location is amazing (right next to Vondelpark!), the landlord is great, and the apartment is in really nice condition. Because everyone wants to know, we're paying 1150 Euros for a 2-bedroom place, which is all-inclusive. There's plenty of storage space, a small balcony that overlooks a courtyard, a great kitchen with a dishwasher (!!!!), and it's right next to a tram stop. It's about 15 minutes by bike for me to get to work and there are tons of stores, bars, cafes, and restaurants nearby. I'll be closer to a lot of my friends and really close to a lot of the places I like to hang out.

There was no big secret I can share about finding the apartment - yes, it's a very hard city to find a place to live, but it's possible. It just takes luck and perseverance and the knowledge that it's not going to be easy or fun. Yes, landlords are willing to compromise on rental prices, and yes, there are still some good landlords out there.

My application for my residence permit renewal is still with the IND - I don't foresee any problems, since my work contract was renewed. It cost 188 Euros to apply for the renewal, but fortunately my company reimburses me for that. Bureaucracy can be expensive. And once I move into this new apartment, I'll have to de-register at my old apartment and re-register at the new place, which I'm hoping I can just do online. All of this stuff starts to become routine after awhile, but again, I wouldn't ever say it's enjoyable. It's just part of living abroad, and part of living in The Netherlands.

Right now I'm anxiously awaiting a giant tax refund from The Netherlands. in 2008, I worked in Amsterdam from June through December, but I was taxed as though I had worked a full 12 months. This amounted to a nice sum of money that my Dutch accountant told me would get refunded. I asked around to my friends and colleagues, and they told me that the refund typically comes in July, as long as the taxes were filed on time (which they were). So, hey, Dutch tax authorities! It's July, go ahead and feel free to put that money in my bank account any day now.

Coming up this month: a long weekend in Berlin, but mostly, packing up and moving out to apartment #3. I'm absolutely sure this will not be my last apartment in Amsterdam, so I won't make any claims that I'll never move again. I'll miss my current place - I'll miss riding over the Amstel every day and drinking beer at the Kriterion - but apartment #3 comes with a lot of promises for happy times ahead.

June 5, 2009

Another new beginning

The past few weeks have been pretty amazing.

First, there was Ascension day, which I'm linking to because I had no idea what it was celebrating. Ok, ascending, so it must be when Jesus goes up to heaven, right? But doesn't that happen around Easter? So did he come back down and then go up again? Whatever it is (you can google it if you care), it means all businesses are closed in the Netherlands, so it quickly became one of my favorite holidays. It was a Thursday, and man, there is just nothing like having a random weekday off from work. During that day I saw a piece of impromptu theater in Vondelpark, had a 3-hour lunch with friends followed by an amazing dinner with different friends and a documentary screening at a former squat in the oud west. I felt like I was on vacation in my own city, except it was even better because I knew how to get everywhere.

The days are very long now. The sun doesn't set until about 10.30pm, and the sunsets are long and beautiful. On the flip side, I'm getting constant reminders about how late I tend to stay up, as the sun wakes me up every morning around 4.30am.

There was another public holiday just a few days ago, on 1 June - Whit Monday, which is celebrated "seven weeks after Easter Monday, marking the day the Holy Spirit entered the disciples left behind and the beginning of their ministry." Another holiday I never knew existed before, but granted me the day off from work. This time I celebrated by going on an overnight trip to Maastricht, the southern most city in the Netherlands (very close to Belgium). The weather was absolutely amazing, so I spent most of my time in that city just walking around outside, happy to be in the sun. It's a beautiful city and very different from Amsterdam, definitely a place I would recommend visiting.

I went to the huge Damoclash party at the ADM. It was a comeback party, described as "The comeback is as it should be: on a huge squatted terrain, away from the hectic city-life." The journey out there and back was almost as fun as the party - the bike ride took about an hour each way (from the center of Amsterdam to the party). Me and my party companions rode out there at sunset, passing by huge windmills the entire way there. We drank and sang songs and somehow didn't get lost. It took a lot of motivation to get on our bikes and go - none of us are used to having to cycle for more than 20 minutes to get anywhere, so the idea of cycling way out past the city limits of Amsterdam at first seemed daunting. But the fabulous weather and the promise of a fun party got us out, and it was worth it.

So, okay. I've been to some new places, I saw some new things, and I'm planning some great trips. But on a very selfish note, my favorite part of the past few weeks was last night, 4 June - my 30th birthday! I'm a big fan of birthdays in general, especially my own. On the night of 3 June, I stayed up late baking so I could have something to bring to work with me on the 4th. This is a Dutch tradition - the birthday person always brings in the treats on their own birthday. My colleagues happily ate up the chocolate-chip banana bread I made in the morning, and then we toasted in the late afternoon with a bottle of red wine. When I was done with work, I went home, put on a party dress, and sat down to dinner with 11 good friends in my apartment. It was absolutely perfect - my friends were all running around, cooking, blending, and stirring. I was totally overwhelmed by how loved I felt and how perfect the night was. I heard three different languages going on at the dinner table at any given moment and the last guest didn't leave until after 1am.

My favorite birthday greeting came from my friend Kate in New York City: You put the "daaaaamn" in Amsterdam.

Bring on thirty! I think I'm ready. The official birthday party is this Saturday night, and is actually more of a party for my friend Fabio, who was actually born on 6 June. I'm just tagging along because I like parties (and it's at my house). If you're reading and you're a friend of mine here, get in touch if you want to join!

May 14, 2009

Amsterdam, Year Two - officially begins now

I think that for as long as I will live in the Netherlands, there will be one sight I'll never get used to. There's something that I just don't think will ever, ever look normal to me.

Wednesday afternoon: It's lunchtime, and I go to my favorite sandwich shop and wait my turn. There are 4 very well-dressed Dutch guys ahead of me, fancy haircuts and tailored suits and stylish shoes. Ages about late 20's to early 40's. They order their sandwiches and then place their choice of drink on the counter - all four men choose the same thing: milk. Milk! I know this whole drinking-milk-with-lunch thing (and even dinner) as an adult isn't limited to the Netherlands, but it's my first time seeing it on a regular basis. It doesn't matter what lunch is, it could be pizza, a roast beef sandwich, a salad with salmon - a Dutch person will accompany this meal with a 1/2 liter of milk.

I suppose it doesn't help that I've always disliked drinking milk, even as a little kid.

However much I never ever ever plan on joining the Dutch in this particular aspect of their lives, I am incredibly happy to know that I can continue to observe the adult-drinking-milk-with-lunch phenomenon for at least one more year. My work contract has been renewed! So I can breathe a sigh of relief for a million reasons, but here are the top three:

1. it's a horrible time to be out of work right now, which obviously isn't news to anyone (though this article mentions that there has been no rise in unemployment in the Netherlands - the overall unemployment level of 4.4% is the same this year as it was last year).
2. I really, really like my job. This is very special, and I know how lucky I am to be able to say that, I remember that every day.
3. I really, really love Amsterdam, and staying in this city (legally) is dependent on having a job sponsor me.

When I went climbing last night, everything seemed just a little bit better, a little bit happier, because of this renewed contract. My climbing partner is a very good friend, and last night as we sat outside watching the boats go by, I realized I had known him for an entire year. In the grand scheme of life, that isn't very long. But for my life here in Amsterdam, it's forever. When we left the gym shortly after 10pm, it was still a little light outside. A group of people sat in a grassy area on a canal around a large campfire. I'm sure that campfires aren't legal within the city of Amsterdam, but I see them all the time in parks and little grassy areas tucked away somewhere. it's such a strange thing, that this city can be so densely populated but it's still so easy to find quiet areas and out of the way spots. This particular fire went on for at least 2 hours, uninterrupted, with a gang of about 8 people hanging out, and it didn't seem to be in any danger of being stopped anytime soon. As my friend and I left the gym, we crossed the bridge that takes us back into the city, and he said "This is very special, this scene right here - it's so amazing, and so hard to put into words why it's amazing, and is so completely indescribable to anyone who hasn't lived here." He's also an expat, but has lived in the Netherlands for about five years.

So yes, big sighs of relief all around. I'm still happy here, and I have a good feeling about Year Two in Amsterdam. The next big thing on my horizon is looking for a new apartment! My sights are set at a 2-bedroom place (I have a great new flatmate), my ideal neighborhood would be de baarsjes. I have no complaints about my current apartment (which I have always called "the Castle"), it's in a great location and it's huge. But 2 bedrooms will make all the difference, and I'm excited for the change. Not so excited to actually look for and find a new place, but fortunately I still have time for that. My first 2 apartments just fell into my lap with no effort... maybe I can get lucky a third time.