Category Archives: Amsterdam

On my 1,000th Geocache

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A little over four years ago, while killing time before class in my M.Sc. days in Cleveland, I was looking around for new apps for my iPhone and remembered a thing I’d heard about called geocaching.  It was the idea that a person would hide a box somewhere (the geocache) and upload the GPS coordinates to the Internet, and then other people would find them in a bit of a scavenger hunt.  It was an idea that I found interesting when I first heard of it in college, but a GPS was too pricey for me as a student (and I had no car, making me a lot less mobile) so I promptly forgot about it.  But a search that day revealed that in the smartphone era one could go geocaching via a smartphone’s GPS, and there was even a free app, and hey there are a lot of these things around Cleveland!

I promptly went out that weekend to start finding a few of these things and the rest is history, as it turns out geocaching is a great thing to do when searching for an adventure.  The thrill of the hunt aside (and occasional swag to trade), they tend to be hidden in interesting locations that someone wants to bring you to, so a little research before traveling to an area on popular geocaches there rarely disappoints.  So far geocaching has taken me to extraordinary viewpoints from Italy to Tanzania…

IMG_2173girl-at-ngorongoro

Re Teodorico, Verona and NgoroNgoro- A Big African Caldera Continue reading

An Impromptu Dinner Party

amsterdam-twilight

So.  Earlier tonight I was working rather late- I typically meet with my adviser Tuesday mornings, so Mondays never seem to end when I want them to- so by the time I cycled home via the grocery store it was 8:45pm.  As I was gathering my things a young Dutchman approached me and said something I didn’t catch, I responded with my best “sorry, mijn Nederlands is niet goot,” and he switched to English with one of the more unusual things I’ve been asked lately.

“Sorry, but my friends and I are at the restaurant next door, and we’ve ordered too much food.  So we were looking for someone to join us for dinner to share it- might you be interested in joining us?”

Now when getting home from work near 9pm on Monday night things in my world are often more uninteresting than I’d prefer, and the following came to my mind:

1) Said Dutchman did not appear, at first glance, to be a serial killer,

2) I know the restaurant in question- it’s a few doors down, so nothing crazy is going to happen there, and

3) Most important, it is 8:45pm and I have yet to start making dinner and have nothing else going on besides catching up on TV shows, so why not say yes anyway?

“Give me ten minutes,” I promised- I had ice cream to put in the freezer and flowers to put into water first- and then headed down to the cafe to meet Stijn, Liz, and Mihkel for the first time and have dinner with them.  They were students who worked in the cafe part-time, and what a dinner it was: samples of the kitchen’s best, from venison steak to salmon quiche to horsemeat brisket, with several matching beers to each little sample, all while discussing our various travels and studies and adventures.  They were delighted because they had someone new to hear their stories and had always wanted to try randomly inviting someone to dinner, I was delighted because a lonely late night had turned into something extraordinary, and we all parted with exchanged hugs and phone numbers and promises to do it again in the future. (It’s funny, I think, how this will be a good memory even if it ends with an “and then we never met again” or an “and then we stayed friends for decades in the future.”)

Cheers to ordinary nights becoming extraordinary ones- and may I never become a woman whose first reaction to such an invitation is to turn it down.

So, tell me: would you have said yes to an impromptu dinner party like I did?  Or invited someone like this yourself?

Amsterdam, Two Years In

amsterdam-canal-viewIt is a rather incredible thing to stop and think how I moved to Amsterdam two years ago.  In many ways two years is a long time: long enough to graduate from a beginning PhD student in your department to a senior one, to learn the rhythm of the seasons at a European latitude where sunset times range from 4pm to 11pm, to master the chaotic intimacy of an Amsterdam bicycle commute.  Two years of living somewhere is plenty of time to move twice, try a long distance relationship, learn enough Dutch to realize you know what people are discussing at the next table, learn how to do improv comedy, learn all the shortcuts and secret haunts, know the one place in town that sells chocolate syrup, and a myriad of other things you deal with in daily life but only learn with experience.

In the past two years I have visited about 20 countries.  How, dear reader, did that happen? (Ok, there is an answer: mainly weekends and an expert manipulation of short distances and cheap fares from a major center of European transport. But geez, that’s quite a few.)

But anyway.  Since most of you likely don’t know, the reason two years is a particularly noteworthy thing to mention is it means I am halfway through my time in Amsterdam because my contract is for four years total, and they are fairly strict about making you graduate on time in the Netherlands (you might extend a few months, but that’s it).  If I can tell you anything about the coming two years compared to the last two it’s it will be dominated less by exploring life abroad and more with “OMG I need to write a thesis,” as my friends who have done it seem to all disappear for at least six months when preparing to submit.  But there’s a reason getting a doctorate in astrophysics is supposed to be hard, right? As a final note, in honor of this halfway through my time in Amsterdam occasion, I thought I’d take a moment to answer the three most common questions I get from people who want to know how things are going.  In no particular order: Continue reading

The Trials and Tribulations of Bluey the Bicycle

dutch-bicycleThis is Bluey the Bicycle.  Bluey and I first became acquainted the week when I first moved to Amsterdam and ended up purchasing her at the giant Albert Cuyp Market (which I have promptly never returned to since).  Bluey is a good old classic Dutch oma fiets- literally “grandma’s bicycle”- which is the name given to these sorts of cruiser bicycles in the Netherlands.

Now Bluey has been a great bicycle, and it is really not her fault that she got me as an owner as I tend to not be the best caretaker… and I don’t just mean the memorable first few days when I tried to remember how to use a pedal break for the first time since I was ten, or the many rust spots on the frame from hitting her with the heavy bicycle lock during parking (the picture above is a rather old one).  No, so far the following things have happened to me since I’ve been a Dutch bicycle owner, in roughly chronological order:

- The first trial was a few weeks after I’d arrived in the country and after returning to Amsterdam Centraal from a train journey I noticed my bicycle was missing and no longer parked where I had left it.  On the one hand a stolen bicycle is mildly exciting because it’s one of those things everyone must allegedly have happen to them in order to be a real Amsterdammer, on the other hand Bluey and I had only known each other few weeks and it was upsetting to think of our relationship getting cut short.

Luckily it turned out Bluey was not stolen by a crack addict who promptly threw her into the canal but rather the city, who routinely clears out all the bicycles parked illegally in front of the station (the problem is legal parking is often chock-full with abandoned bicycles, so if you’re running late like I was cycling there isn’t a great idea if you want to find a spot).  When this happens they take your bike to the bicycle depot and you have to go retrieve it and pay a 10 Euro fine, but the real punishment is losing a half day of your life going out into the middle of nowhere on a bus that rarely runs to a place presumably many people would want to go.  And the depot itself might as well be renamed “Where Bikes Go To Die,” as they’re required to keep all abandoned and illegally parked bicycles in Amsterdam for six months in case someone comes to fetch theirs, but most are never claimed-amsterdam-bicycle-depotLuckily Bluey and I were quickly reunited, and got the hell out of there!

- Moving along, Bluey has also gotten a flat tire twice.  This is a fairly normal thing in this country of course, but the first flat tire was due to a thumb tack that was lying in the middle of a road, and it was mysteriously near a bicycle shop that agreed to quickly fix the flat, so I never quite shook off wondering if there was a sinister motive for there being a thumb tack in the middle of the road in the first place.

- Speaking of sinister motives… last month when I moved I spent the first two weeks parking Bluey in front of my new house along with all the other bikes that were there.  After two weeks Bluey’s back tire had once again gone flat, but not due to a puncture- somehow the air had just been released.  Which would’ve been a weird minor thing, except for the part where the very same thing happened just two days later.

Now the first time you take a bike to the shop with a tire like this they just look at you funny, the second time they ask you if you have a problem with your neighbor.  Turns out someone in my subdivided old canal house started a personal vendetta to have bicycles no longer parked in front of our place, and poor Bluey got caught in the crossfire.  Bluey now gets parked down the street, but my Dutch friends all found the entire affair hilarious because I live in one of the nicest, safest areas of the city (the last time something violent happened it was when some Germans marched through with uniforms and guns), and I still managed to get into a turf war which I promptly lost.

- The final transgression against Bluey happened just last week, when I did something very stupid and lost my spare bicycle key which I kept meaning to make a copy of ever since I lost the first one but never had.  In the walk from down the street to my apartment which is maybe 100 meters of road.  Let’s just say people are not always very attentive on the final stretch home when it’s late at night.

Now the real issue here is what on Earth do you do when facing a formidable Dutch bicycle lock and no way to unlock it, but very much in need of your mechanical stallion? (Fun fact: the Dutch word fiets for bicycle is thought by linguists to come from an abbreviation for a German phrase for “mechanical horse.”) Consultation with a mechanic on duty at a nearby bicycle shop and the fact that I hadn’t actually locked Bluey to a bike rack, just the front weel to the frame, meant I was advised to steal my own bicycle and bring it over (and because he thought I was cute he agreed to cut the lock off for free if I bought a new one there).  I just had to awkwardly bring the thing a few blocks over from the current position to the shop.

By the way, it turns out I now know why bike theft is so common in the Netherlands- even when it’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon and you are stealing your own bicycle by carrying it several blocks, not one person will bother to stop and ask what on Earth it is you’re doing!

So goes the life and times of my experience as a Dutch bicycle owner- I’m not sure if I’m a particularly good one, but Bluey has yet to complain personally about her situation.  I will say though that at each of these stages someone has told me “don’t worry, you’re not a real Amsterdammer until that happens anyway!”, and based on the other bicycle related mishaps two things still need to happen to me.

The first is at some point I need to get my wheel stuck in the tram tracks and fall over.  If this is the price to pay I refuse to ever become a real citizen of this city, as that just sounds far too painful.

The second is Bluey needs to be stolen for real, and I never see her again.  I hope this never happens either- we’ve just had too many memorable experiences together!

 

 

 

In Which I Reveal I’m a Writer, Am Judged Insane

science-magazines

So imagine this.  I was in the lovely American Book Center in the heart of Amsterdam (our flagship English language bookstore) about to buy an arguably trashy read I found in the bargain section.  The counter is right next to the giant news stand and while the clerk was ringing up my purchase I did a sudden double take when I saw what you see on the left.

I pulled the magazine out to confirm, with my heart beating rapidly- yes, this was the Astronomy magazine for which I wrote the cover article, sitting innocuously on the news stand with all the other magazines!

By this point the clerk wants the four Euro for the book and is giving me an odd look, so I feel obliged to explain.  “Sorry, but I wrote this cover article!” I say proudly.

“You wrote the cover.” He says this with a Dutch accent and a tone I’m not entirely certain of, but is very similar to one I hear if my native English pace of speech gets too fast and excited about something (which, let’s be honest, happens a decent amount).  So I explain.

“Yes, I’m an astronomer and I write, and I wrote this cover article.”  And I put the Astronomy magazine back on the newsstand- fun as it would be to purchase I have copies of the magazine already, and this is encouragingly the last one they have.

“I’m sure you did,” he says, with a funny look on his face.  It’s then I realize that the clerk’s tone is not the “I don’t understand” tone I assumed but rather one far more impossible to deal with- a tone that doesn’t just say “I don’t believe you” tone but downright “this girl is nuts!”

“The door is that way,” he says with the same tone and look as he points helpfully two meters behind us at a doorway that any sane, rational person can spot seeing as you have to walk past it to get to the counter.  And I realize at that moment you can’t actually tell someone you’re not crazy when they already think you’re making up being a scientist and writer for your own odd, perverted reasons.  So I go.

The funny thing though?  Though my pride took a hit the writer in me doesn’t really mind, as for the rest of my life I have a good story from it.

My Dutch Television Debut… With David Sedaris

In a curious quirk of fate, I happened to hear and get tickets to a filming of a Dutch television show called College Tour.  It’s quite a fun program where they get a bunch of college students together to ask a famous person (Desmond Tutu to Susan Sarandon to the guy who kidnapped the heir to the Heinekin fortune) pretty much anything under the sun… and the show I got tickets to involved the American comedian David Sedaris!

Edit: embedding does not seem to work well with the Dutch news site, so the link to the video is here.

Naturally I had to ask a question if I was already sitting there, and you can see it at around 19:50 in the show itself.  Note that this is a Dutch television show that airs on Friday nights so while my part is ok the entire show not exactly safe for work- for example, at one point they have him read from 50 Shades of Grey

All told my Dutch television debut was also interesting just because it was also a simple introduction to the world of TV editing- my question went as far as the segue into American politics and that part came afterwards, yet I’m still mysteriously shown as standing and nodding the whole time!  So that was interesting in itself, but all in all quite an enjoyable experience and I don’t think I embarrassed myself too badly on Dutch national television debut.

Aan de Amsterdamse Grachten…

The title of this post comes from the name of a lovely old Dutch song, “On the Amsterdam Canals.”  The sort of old song you will hear sung by people in the wee hours of the night, but anyway, the first bit of the chorus roughly goes:

On the Amsterdam canals
I pledge my heart forever
Amsterdam fills my mind
The most beautiful city in our country…

Indeed.  I’ve been here nearly a year, and am fairly convinced that this is not just the prettiest city in the Netherlands but maybe even the entire world!

But anyway, one of my most favorite things about Amsterdam is the view from my apartment, namely sitting out on the little balcony and watching the world go by.  In Amsterdam, this translates into a lot of boats- big tourist boats, little old wooden ones, and pretty much everything in between you can imagine. (This boating is not at all like the sort one does in the USA as you’re not allowed to have a wake- instead it’s more of a cruising while enjoying drinks and snacks with friends sort of boating.) Some of the boat traffic is particularly amusing for various reasons, necessitating a picture, so here is the best of the canal traffic I’ve seen over the past year for interested parties-

The legendary clog boat!  Which I saw once just after I moved but didn’t think to take a picture, was kicking myself for several months that I hadn’t taken said picture, but finally spotted at the end of May.  Whew!

The living room boat- this guy actually keeps his boat one canal over, I’ve seen him several times.

This picture was taken in the middle of winter and I’m not sure what it’s about- I suspect the group needed a picture for something?

Lots of strange boats on Queen’s Day filled with revelers…

And part of a regatta of boats- a very long one actually, they caused several traffic jams- which was about who knows what, but things like that happen quite often in Amsterdam.

All those people in Amsterdam
All those lights late at night on the square
No one can wish for more
Than an Amsterdammer!