Category Archives: daily life

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.

“Home” For the Holidays

key-west-harbor

Key West, Florida, 2012

Going back to the USA is one of those things that happens to me in gradual stages of recognition.  For me, they can be summarized as follows:

– The “Americans are really loud!” stage, which more or less happens the same time as the “everyone is talking with my accent” stage- that is, while waiting to board the plane to the USA at the airport.  Suddenly the banal conversations of how Aunt Reba is doing or your theory on why the US dollar is about to undergo hyperinflation is suddenly very loud and un-ignorable and often even bringing in surrounding strangers into the conversation.  I’m not sure if this exclusively because Americans talk very loudly together or I tune out all the Dutch I don’t understand, but suspect it’s a healthy dose of both.

– The “you expect everything to be the same but life of course goes on without you” stage, which of course happens in most places you re-visit after some time elapses but is somehow more unsettling when it’s the country you were born in.  For me this moment happened this time upon landing at the Newark airport for my connection, seeing a bunch of skyscrapers on the horizon and idly wondering what city they were, and realizing with a start it was the New York City skyline now dominated from New Jersey by the Freedom Tower.  Which yes, I knew they were working on in my absence, but it is somehow unsettling to realize you don’t immediately recognize the New York City skyline.

– Somewhere during the course of the trans-Atlantic flight, by the way, one reaches the delightful stage of realization that you can have random conversations with strangers and no one thinks strangely of you for it.  I know this isn’t a language thing because the Brits never do it either- instead all of European culture doesn’t encourage random idle conversations that I know of- but now I’m back in the land where if I don’t have a few random conversations with those around me in the course of a few hours I’m the odd one out.  It’s great!

– Reverse culture shock stage.  America is big- our buildings are big, our cars are big, a meal in a restaurant is usually lunch and dinner in other countries, and we sprawl out our cities to make them bigger and require use of our cars to manage them.  The size of the country also leaves me quietly happy because when you grow up knowing you can fly several hours and still be in the same country the Netherlands always seems a bit stifling.

The other thing I always enjoy in the USA by the way is nature- Holland is an amazing place to live for urban life and culture and all that jazz, but I’m still fairly convinced every square inch of the nation is cultivated (even the national parks have fences).  Nature is one of the things America does best, and you don’t really realize it until you don’t have easy access anymore.

– Then if you’re heading to visit parents in Florida like me, there is the “it’s December but 80 degrees out and I managed to get sunburnt” stage.  It’s frankly a little strange to arrive down there and realize all the cold and dark from northern latitudes does not apply to people’s daily lives, and it’s rather tempting until you remember that in exchange for this you must live in Florida.

– Then finally the last stage (which, if this was a stages of grief thing, would be “acceptance”) which is the odd realization that while I love the USA I have no plans to move back for a few years at least.  I wonder how much this opinion would change if I had ever lived in a New York City or San Francisco in my life instead of Pittsburgh and Cleveland, but too much familiarity strikes me as a little boring in my day-to-day life.

Put it this way, I love to roam around the USA whenever I’m here, but when I lived in Cleveland meticulous planning of multiple round the world trips seemed like a reasonable and rational thing to do.  I still do plenty of trips now, but at the end of the day they always assume my return to Amsterdam.

Until then, I’m home-but-not, enjoying a few weeks in the country of my birth.  Merry Christmas!

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!

On Dual Passports and Secret Agents

I can’t quite recall if I ever officially mentioned it here, but a few months ago I finally officially received my Hungarian passport.  This statement probably confuses many people who know me in the real world who always just assumed I had it (Hungarian isn’t one of those languages you just pick up usually), but the long and short of the situation is when my twin brother and I were born in 1986 all male Hungarian citizens were required to enter the army.  At the time no one thought the communist government was going to topple in a few years, so what was the point of registering two American-born children for their Hungarian citizenship with a nice requirement like that looming over one of them?

Fast forward about a quarter of a century, and it turned out that one of those twins was getting tired of paying exorbitant visa fees on her American passport, and both of those twins were considering moving to Europe.  So I decided to get that ball rolling, which turned out to be a mess of a process that dragged on for well over a year due to a mountain of paperwork one would expect from a former communist country. Lots of forms in Hungarian that at times made even my mother pause to understand their meaning (to give you an idea, my favorite was one just to confirm I wanted my name spelled “Yvette” instead of the traditional “Ivett”), all of which disappeared into the consulate… and while the process was supposed to take six months, it dragged on to over a year.  Klassz!

But in the end it all worked out, I finally had the Hungarian passport itself in hand in November, and it’s around this time that I discovered my new travel hobby.  Because you see, I now have a passport from a former Soviet Bloc country that is as yet not scanned or marked in any way, on a citizenship that a few months ago did not yet exist on paper…

That’s right, now when I go to the airport I alternate between my Hungarian and American passports when asked for identification to ensure the bad guys can’t trace me.  And I’ve been pretty successful shaking them off so far, except of course for that one gun fight on a speedboat racing through the Amsterdam canals that I don’t like to talk too much about.

Plus hey, my flirtations as an International Woman of Mystery aside, the visa fees to many a country just got a lot cheaper and the E.U. can now never kick me out. Win! As for where it may take me, I will just refer all curious folks to the cover of my passport holder:

Skating on the Amsterdam Canals!

It’s been a rather crazy winter in the Netherlands this year.  Two weeks ago I distinctly recall photographing daffodils along the Amstel River, today we’re one week into the longest cold stretch in a decade and people are walking and skating on the canal outside my apartment!

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The Strangest Coincidence EVER

Daffodils blooming on the Amstel River in Amsterdam- taken Jan 21, 2012

Now imagine the following for a second.  It’s Saturday night in Amsterdam, and due to my birthday party the night before I’m too tired to do anything crazy but a low-key drink sounds like a good idea sort of thing.  No worries, there are a bunch of little cafes around here that I haven’t checked out yet and one is hosting a CouchSurfing get-together, so I head to said cafe to see what I see.

The place is busy, but there’s a spot next to a cute fellow with a German accent who is asking intelligent questions about my research, and it turns out he’s a Physics PhD student in a town in Lower Saxony six hours away from Amsterdam, in town for the first time this weekend to help a friend move.  A geek running into another geek unexpectedly is always a relatively rare occurrence so we spend ten minutes discussing our respective areas of study, and then he mentions offhand that he used to study in Auckland.

“Wait, New Zealand?”  I am momentarily confused, then have a flash of recognition.  “Johannes!  Professor LW’s E&M class, the first half of 2007!!!”  He in turn recognizes me and much hugging and squealing ensues, not all of it coming from me, and we chat nonstop into the wee hours to catch up. (So much for a low-key night!) Because you see it wasn’t just that we were in the same class, we actually did problem sets together- which Johannes recalled in much greater detail and fondness than me, he’s the theorist after all- but I never grabbed his contact information before leaving, so I hadn’t heard a thing about or from him in five years.

Let me repeat this again so we are clear on this: I went into a random bar and sat next to a random guy who was randomly in town… and it was one I last met five years ago, half a world away!  I believe we have now passed from “it’s a small world” to The Twilight Zone– or as another friend put it, I have now officially traveled enough that the entire world is my neighborhood.

What’s the strangest coincidence that ever happened to you?  I’m sure I’m not the only one with such a strange story!

The University of Auckland- taken February 15, 2007

Photo: Map of Where I’ve Been

I hosted my birthday party earlier this weekend, and because my friends are awesome they knew just what to get me- a towel so I’ll always be a frood who knows where her towel is, a gift certificate to the outdoors shop, and a scratch map where you can scratch off where you’ve been like a lottery ticket.  I finally recovered enough from the merriment to tackle the map with a guitar pick (more precise than a coin), and the resulting picture above is a generally good idea of where I’ve been on planet Earth in my 26 years here.

My only comment (beyond thanks again guys!) is geez, nothing like the Mercator projection to make a girl consider traveling to Russia, Greenland, and Antarctica!  When that happens, I’ll be sure to take the towel.