Thursday, March 19, 2015

Weekend in The Netherlands

After hoping to for much of my life (since first reading Anne Frank's diary and Googling to see what I could learn about this city), this past weekend I was able to visit Amsterdam. It was a such a great weekend, and so wonderful to see a city that had always interested me for myself. For the most part, other than the basic layout and look of the city, I had very little knowledge of what it would be like, and hadn't really heard impressions from anyone either.

So here's what I found: Amsterdam is incredibly beautiful, full of historic and amazing buildings, but (at least its downtown area) is also full of people that would make living in the city intolerable for me. I just kept thinking as we walked around that this city was so gorgeous, with such an awesome feel to it, but flooded by tourists. I had previously disliked this aspect of Stockholm at times, but seeing how Amsterdam was during just a random weekend in March makes me realize that even at its peak touristy time in July, Stockholm can't even hold a candle to this level of annoying tourism. I suppose it's a combination of less people and -- how should I say it -- less odious hobbies. Nevertheless, walking around such a gorgeous city with so much going on was fascinating no matter which street we turned down or where we went. That was most definitely the best aspect -- there was always something new to find around each corner.

When we arrived on Friday, the weather was absolutely perfect. The sky had barely a few clouds, it was warm (for March), and after leaving the airport, I headed for the hotel -- but not before an awkward Uber cab ride.

When I got in the car, the driver asked me where I was from (which is always a strange question these days, because I have come from Sweden but am not what someone would expect from Sweden, and he could hear it in my English). So I explained and told him I was American. I asked him if he'd lived here all his life, and he answered that it'd only been five years. I could work with that though, so I asked if he had any personal favorite suggestions for things we should check out while here, but he wasn't from Amsterdam, only drove there and didn't know. To break the awkward silence, I asked him how learning Dutch has gone for him, and we laughed about both learning new languages in this part of the world and how annoying it can be. I was relieved to have the conversation back on a nice track. So then I asked where he was from and why he moved there... The answer? He was from Afghanistan and was able to claim asylum for his move. Being American, it was one of those, "Oh... great... I'm going to just hop out this window now..." moments. It wasn't the first time this has happened and won't be the last. I tried not to let it affect the way I spoke and told him Afghanistan has always looked like an incredibly beautiful place and that I'd really like to visit there someday (I debated specifying my wishes to see Kurdistan, but stayed away, in case he wasn't a fan, I didn't need to worsen the situation.) And his reply was not what I'd hoped for either, as he said, "Well, I wouldn't go anytime soon. It's terrible there, with so much war." I don't remember where the conversation went after that, but I thanked him for the ride as I left and gave him a high rating through the Uber app, hopefully helping to get more business in the future.

After dropping stuff off at our hotel, we headed out to get some lunch, happening upon a Spanish-run cafe where we had a delicious meal of a bagel with cream cheese, mozzarella sticks and a panini (all things we haven't previously seen much of in Stockholm and had to have, given the chance), we continued on our way to the sight I'd most wanted to see, Anne Frank's House. As we hadn't been able to pre-buy tickets to get in and hoped that a Friday afternoon would mean a slightly shorter line to get in, and while the line was quite long and wrapped around the block, it moved quickly enough and we were in after a 30-45 minute wait.

Left: the building as seen in Anne's time (source) // Right: my photo from this past weekend
The museum was very well done. While I was disappointed at first that photos were not allowed inside, I quickly understood why. It was quite a somber walk through. And while it was fascinating to see, each realization of "this is the room where she slept ... ate ... wrote" was followed by also realizing how it all ended. Of everything, I would have to say that two moments stand out the most -- first, climbing up the stairs that Anne and those hiding had done, which I'd read about so many times, past the bookshelf, up into the attic. They were so narrow, we nearly fell. Second was seeing a newspaper clipping at the end of the museum -- an ad placed by her father, Otto, once the war was over and he'd returned to Amsterdam, searching for his scattered family, with their names, where they'd gone, and his current phone number. It's hard to imagine just how painful this wait must have been, so much unknown. Next to the newspaper clipping was a letter Otto had received from a friend of Anne's sister, asking if he had heard back from Margot, and if so, to please get in touch.

After leaving the museum, I snapped this picture, of the view as seen from Anne's house at sunset:
Unfortunately, missing at this point is the tree Anne often mentioned enjoying to watch.

After that, we walked around town quite a bit. The canals were seemingly endless, occurring almost every other block or so, with both normal and house boats everywhere. One thing that stood out to me most was the way many cars were parked along it, barely allowing the driver to step out of the car without falling into the water, as there are often no railings on the side. (This idea of falling into a canal was in the back of my mind all weekend, and I'm relieved to say, I never even came close to tripping in.)

As we walked further and the sun began to set, we entered some new areas and saw some more unusual things (for us, at least). Last fall, I'd read about the issues with unsuspecting tourists dying after taking a different substance than what they'd expected, it was interesting to see the notices about it in person as well -- and they were hard to miss, as they were everywhere. White posters (as shown on right below) as well as electronic signs flashing warnings were all over the city. I was most impressed by the text in the back box on the white poster below though, which reads: "You will not be arrested for using drugs in Amsterdam. Call 112 for medical assistance and ambulance. While you wait, keep the victim awake by walking or pinching the shoulder muscle." I think this attitude would surprise most Americans, but it's so phenomenal to see their commitment to public safety, realizing that many people are sadly too afraid to call for help in a serious emergency, fearful of subsequent punishments as well.

And so our walking around and observing the sights continued. The street above (and at bottom left) was one of my favorites -- super narrow and many of the buildings looked almost like the they were tipping over onto each other. It reminded both of us of Diagon Alley quite a bit.

Another fun aspect of the weekend was checking out a lot of small, new restaurants as we went. Most places were pretty cheap and all were very delicious. Once we knew where we were headed, we'd find something on Yelp with high ratings and a low price. It was wonderful to eat for around €10 often, which is essentially impossible in Stockholm most of the time. Over the weekend, we had some really excellent Thai, awesome Chinese food, lunch at an Italian place (photo at top right), lunch at a brasserie, and last, enjoyed some hot chocolate outside at a cafĂ© near the bus back to the airport.

On Saturday, we also visited the Van Gogh Museum (also no photos allowed) which was very nice. I've always loved his work and each time I get to see one up close, I find it so fascinating to be able to see each brush stroke he took so long ago.

We also visited the Flower Market, which wasn't quite as spectacular as I thought it would be -- but that was probably caused by a combination of it being cloudy and dreary, crowded, and that the things each booth were selling appeared to mostly be the same. I did grab a couple of small, cheap souvenirs and gifts at one of the shops though, so it wasn't a total loss.

A cat waiting on his coffee?
Street party we stumbled upon, which seemed to be related to an art show in an old parking garage next door
Our hotel room (here) was quite nice  //  The cleared tiles -- we walked, a lot!
And last, the scene departing Amsterdam. I love the view above the clouds, it really never gets old.

I hope to get back to The Netherlands someday soon, ideally to visit some of the Dutch friends I have from the US who have now moved back there. It was an incredibly beautiful city, and just walking around and seeing all the sights was wonderful. I was pleasantly surprised to see I could read much of what was written in Dutch, using my combined knowledge of Swedish and English, although it did feel a bit crazy at times to listen to things and have no idea what was being said -- I'm not used to that anymore!

PS: One last thing I wasn't expecting, Amsterdam is nowhere near as card-friendly as Sweden (which accepts and prefers cards absolutely everywhere)! Yikes, we had more than a few issues paying at times, and one place would not accept Visa or MasterCard, only Maestro. Who does that?! Odd. So, let this be a warning to others!

Friday, March 06, 2015

Life Lately // Week 10

So here's what I've been up to lately outside of the normal work / life routine...

In January, Stockholm hosted the 2015 European Figure Skating Championships and I was lucky enough to be able to attend a lot of it (pretty much anytime I wasn't otherwise busy). All of the competition was wonderful, but the Mens Freeskate and Closing Gala were certainly my favorites. Javier Fernandez of Spain continued to earn his title as "absolute favorite" in my book. His gala program was just phenomenal. It was awesome to see it all in person.

Then towards the middle of February, some friends and I went to an L.A. Galaxy (USA) versus Hammarby (Sweden) soccer game at the Tele2 arena (which is happily just a few minutes by subway from our place). It was at this event that I realized soccer is a very reasonable spectator sport when compared with baseball, basketball, etc. There are no absurd clock practices. The game is 90 minutes and that's that. Yes there are very, very minor additions to that, but really, it's 90 minutes and you're done. There was no time to get bored, I didn't even think of sneaking out as I've done at off-ice sporting events in the past, and I genuinely had a great time.

Perhaps the only downside (though really, it was mostly funny) was the trash talk going on from all the Swedes around us, hating pretty intensely on America for the moment. In particular, I heard (translated from Swedish), "Go home, f***ing Yankees!" and one old many constantly referred to a US player with a bleached yellow mohawk as "Donald Duck Mohawken" each time he yelled something at the guy. Mostly though, it was just funny. And in a situation like this, while I didn't really feel like standing out by wearing all red, white and blue clothing, I never worried about safety, as can be a concern elsewhere in Europe at soccer games. Even if one drunk diehard did seem like he was going to target our small group for supporting the US, it's a safe bet that the person's friends or those around us wouldn't have allowed it to get very far.

End of February: an alt-J concert with my husband that was equal parts musically awesome and visually beautiful. I went to see them just before we moved out of Boston last, and while much smaller and less technically advanced, that was a very great show also. It was pretty packed this time around, but the view was great and we even got seats in the balcony, instead of having to standing the crushed floor area below.

Joey loves laundry ... Luna loves competitive diving?
As always, there's been much hanging out with the cats.

Into the oven...
...and done!
And while we certainly do love our favorites around here, occasionally trying out some new recipes, and homemade pizza in this case. It was delicious, and given the cost (200kr / $25+) for a large pizza here, far more reasonable. For the first try, I went simple with sauce, shredded and fresh mozzarella. It was a pretty big hit, and quite easy, so last night at the grocery store, I grabbed some feta, spinach and olives to make it again, but an American/Greek edition.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Imports List

In less than a month, my mom will arrive for a visit! I'm looking forward to her seeing our new place, watching our end-of-year skating show, and generally just showing her my life. The last time she came, only a bit more than a month after we arrived in Sweden, I didn't have much to show her yet and was only just learning things like the subway system for myself. So, I'm really looking forward to this visit.

Along with her visit comes some extra suitcase space for all the miscellaneous things I either want from the US but am too cheap to bother shipping here otherwise or are just so much cheaper in the US than in Sweden. So here's my weird list of things, straight from my order history:

A jumbo sized bag of peanut butter M&Ms, to last as long as possible, since I have yet to see them here in Sweden (outside of the ridiculously expensive American candy store).

New sneakers for the summer! Last year, I had these same ones but in white and I wore them nearly to death. They were so comfy and perfect, but the white canvas is pretty dirty at this point. So this year, I'm going to grey in an attempt to keep them looking clean a bit longer. And they're half the price in the US as in Sweden.

Okay, this seems stupid as Sweden surely has reasonable strainers, but I promise I can explain... I wanted one that was exactly this diameter (15cm) to fit perfectly in the smaller half of our sink at our new apartment. The one we have now is quite a bit larger and is also a hassle to wash because of that, since I rarely strain enough things that need a full size one anyhow.

Cheap(er) razor replacements! No need for explanation on this one, I assume. The same ones are available here for double the price, it's small, I'm ordering a bunch of other stuff anyhow, so why not toss them in?

After going through quite a few wallets over the years, I finally did some research here and found this one strongly recommended, so I thought I'd give it a try. My husband is a far more impressive wallet-destroyer and following that advice, I got him a Saddleback bifold for Christmas that has yet to show a single sign of wear.

Yes, a cat toy. But it's $2 and Luna's favorite thing in the whole world. We call it the "trash wire" because it's just a wire with cardboard on it. But she loves it so much. So I order a couple each time I have the chance.

Also coming in the additional suitcase that Icelandair will allow my mom to check for free (one of the best things about them, if not the best) is a small pile of stuff ordered by others here in Stockholm, and some specific snacks and candy she offered to pick up for me as well... which reminds me, I need to send that list soon!

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Keeping Connected

This post falls under the category of vague things people don't quite understand about expat life... so I hope I can both clear up questions I've had in the past from non-expats and help those who are.

Staying connected with pop culture abroad has always been something I've done quite a bit of. (I can still hear the moans from my mother and sister as I attempted to put in a CD full of songs from Germany or Spain as we drove out of the driveway.) Some of my favorite songs were not in English, suggested by friends far and wide, the majority of which I'd met through skating over the years. Logging in and out of my account to check out the iTunes charts in each different country was something I tried to do regularly, grabbing all the tops. To me, it was reasonable to assume that if a whole country liked that song, then it was probably quite good, regardless of my ability to understand.

When we moved to Sweden, I realized that now I'd be doing the reverse, but to a much greater degree, being that it wouldn't just be music, but really all media. So now, at the same time as I delve into the Swedish world, learning the movies referenced in jokes or who sings this song or that by ear, I also try to keep up with things in the US, at least to some extent.

I thought about this tonight as I rode the subway home this evening and noticed I had a (spam) email from NBC promoting what they wanted me to watch this week. I get this same email each week with their latest stuff, yet unlike most spam, haven't bothered to unsubscribe to this one just yet. Glancing through it before hitting delete is just enough to make sure I catch note of the SNL 40th Anniversary or something similar.

To add to this, I also have the ability to watch The Today Show most days with lunch. As my current IT work has me at home most afternoons, I get my lunch ready for 1:00pm (7:00am in NYC), flip on the projector, which is connected to a Roku, and tune in live to NBC through the USTVNOW app.

Side note: this site is phenomenal for anyone living outside the US, and probably deserving of a post to itself. It offers more channels than we paid $80/month for in Boston for almost nothing by comparison (basic service is free but we pay $30/month and get access to their DVR service as well).

So most days, I have my lunch and catch up on the latest ongoings that way. iPhone popups for breaking news are helpful as well, and when I get a new phone or restore an existing device, I have to remind myself to add back the WHDH app (my preferred Boston local news) among other things. This, combined with my non-expat American blogs in my RSS reader (Feedly), do quite well. There are certainly still occasional things the pop up that I don't know about, but most stuff doesn't slip through the cracks. But, one thing that does is slang. Not only can I not keep up with that, I also have no real desire to. If something sticks, I'll find out about it eventually. If it doesn't, then no loss for me!

Now to the flip side of all of this: keeping up with the Swedish counterparts is far easier, though took some figuring out early on. For reading, I subscribe to the RSS feed from Swedish Radio and sometimes listen to their news programs while commuting if I'm not in the mood for music. For TV news, we like the evening 9:00pm broadcast of Aktuellt on SVT. (For those newer to Swedish, 8 Sidor is an awesome resource that we used a lot in our early days as well -- both their written articles and podcasts are made for people with limited Swedish comprehension and therefore very easy to read after some basic knowledge.) And last, and most easily, Twitter, Facebook and any other social media are always helpful as well. In particular, our local police station keeps a very active Facebook page which they almost constantly update with the neighborhood happenings and notices, which is one of the most locally helpful things of all.

Regarding the ease of local news and getting off topic a bit, I really had never given this much thought prior to living abroad. It wasn't until I could see events going on outside our window, but didn't have the resources to figure out what was happening or why, that I realized this is a key aspect to a satisfied life that needed to be re-established here. Though, it was always my hope early on that if the end of the world was coming to Stockholm, a Swedish friend would at least drop me a text with a heads up. But at the same time, I knew it was best that I figure out how to get this information for myself as well, which was definitely a huge aspect in my work to learn the language faster.

It wasn't until this realization of lacking quick access to news that I realized how valuable an institution like Telemundo in the US is. My husband and I discussed just this recently and he mentioned how, given our experience, he can understand how some Americans can say the Spanish-only language programming is not helping its viewers to "be American" but in reality, it is KEY to giving them a small window into the country they're now a part of. With so many more Hispanic immigrants going to the US, I can only imagine what a wonderful relief it is to them to have such a network. It's anything but isolating as some claim, but rather, I can attest to it instead bring incredibly inclusive. Being connected to the world around one's self allows a sense of belonging, which everyone working to live in a new place most certainly deserves.