Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Copenhagen vs. Amsterdam

Copenhagen is just like Amsterdam!


With far better restaurant service
More expensive (7 euros for a pint of Carlsberg beer, 3 euros for a cup of tea at Starbucks)
Better dressed

Like Amsterdam:

Cold and dark in the winter (though Amsterdam is slightly less cold and less dark)
Known for great design and architecture
Has canals
Has a word equivalent to "gezellig" (hygge), which means more than just "cozy"
Has a word equivalent to "lekker" (lekkert)
Has frikandel ("frikadeller")
Lots of bike lanes and bicyclists (though not as many as Amsterdam, and their toddlers on bikes have helmets!)
Loves herring and licorice
Everyone speaks English
Imported TV shows and movies are subtitled instead of dubbed
Has a museum similar to Kruller Mueller called "Louisiana" (but even better and with a view of the water)
Has very limited shopping hours (but even more limited than Amsterdam, with shops closed early on Saturday and closed everywhere on Sunday)

Monday, April 27, 2009

What Visitors Should Do in Amsterdam

I've been having a lot of visitors lately, and they always want to know where to go and what to do while they're in town. In my opinion, these are the places and things to do that make Amsterdam unique, listed in no particular order. Yeah, it's biased as hell, but if you disagree, make your own list!

I recommend that you don't show your visitors this list, especially if they are only in town for a few days. It will just drive them crazy, thinking of all the things they won't be able to fit into their trip. It's kinder to ask them probing questions about what they like and don't like and then tailor their experience accordingly. For example, if they prefer beer over cocktails, then take them to the Brouwerij 't Ij and don't even mention Door 74. If they prefer impressionist art over realism, take them to the Van Gogh and confide to them that the Rijksmuseum is overrated. Then they can leave Amsterdam with the comfortable feeling that they saw everything worth seeing (although of course we locals know better!) and having had an amazing time doing only the things they most love to do. They will also have had a real vacation, having being freed from the need to race from museum to museum in a mad attempt to cram in every "must-see" in their guidebook. I'll bet they'll then remember Amsterdam as the highlight of their multi-city trip across Europe. Well, except if it rains during their entire visit, which alas could easily happen.

[] Febo, preferably in the middle of the night after going out drinking.

[] Foam, if there's a good exhibition

[] Wynand Fockink combined with a walk around the Red Light District

[] Brouwerij T'Ij (the windmill brewery)

[] Belgique or Gollem or de Elfde Gebod (if they are not also going to Belgium during this particular trip)

[] Door 74 for pricey cocktails and a priceless entrance

[] Maoz, if the visitors don't live where there's already a Maoz (i.e., Philadelphia, London, Barcelona). My favorite Maoz is on Ferdinand Bolstraat: they have tables, good music, and sometimes even my favorite salad bar item, roasted cauliflower!)

[] Doner kebab or Turkish pizza

[] Anne Frank Huis combined with lunch or dinner at the Pancake Bakery (definitely order a savory pancake & try it with stroop)

[] Van Gogh museum, preferably on Friday night, combined with restroom stop at the Cobra Cafe (remember to lock the doors!)

[] Night out at Boom Chicago, preferably for half-price (keep checking www.lastminuteticketshop.nl)

[] Bike trip to Java and KNSM island for futuristic architecture, combined with a stop at the cafe at the top of the public library

[] Heineken Brewery

[] Rijksmuseum, but only if the visitors are into old Dutch masters like Vermeer, Rembrandt, Jan Steen, and Pieter Brueghel

[] Rent or borrow a bike!

[] Bike to Broek in Waterland, Marken, or Monnickedam (Marken is 40km away, so a 8-10 hour bike ride; have done it on an electric scooter, rentable from the American Hotel, which was easy and fantastic. If you make it to Monnickedam, be sure and watch the clock tower on the hour. The angel in the blue short-shorts alone is worth the trip. If you make it to Broek in Waterland, be sure to eat at the pancake house.)

[] Bike along the Amstel and stop along the way in Oude Kerk for an appeltaart

[] The Dampkring coffeeshop, if the visitors smoke weed and are into Brad Pitt or Oceans 11, combined with trip to the Belgian frites shop a few doors down

[] Bouchon du Centre, the French restaurant across the street from me, during lunch on a nice day when you can sit on the terrace

[] The Paradiso main room for a concert

[] Zaanse Schans, by train or car (best bets: visit the first Albert Heijn supermarket, buy real Zaanse Schans mustard to bring home, taste cheese at the cheese store, and visit the clog museum)

[] Raw herring at one of the herring stands on the street, with pickles and onions. I heard that a very Dutch way to eat this is to bring it home and have it with old jenever (Dutch gin) that you keep in your freezer, but I haven't tried this myself yet.

[] cTaste blind eating, but only if they don't mind paying 40 euros for their meal and they don't live in a city where cTaste is already available

[] High Tea at the Amstel Hotel (gorgeous setting but it's very expensive, so only if the visitors have never had the high tea experience & love sweets/tea)

[] Droog (design store, especially rolling around on the dish plates by the front door), Beestenwinkel (if they have kids), and Puccini's (yummy chocolate bonbons)

[] Pianola museum: definitely one of a kind. Especially good during Museumnacht.

[] MC Escher Museum in Den Haag

[] Bakkerswinkel, specifically for scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam.

[] New King in Chinatown

[] Any Amsterdam Beat Club event in town, especially if it's at Maloe Melo or features the West Hell 5, the Anacondas, the Phantom Four, or burlesque side acts.

[] Sex Museum on Damrak 18

[] Casa Rosso live sex show

[] Koan Float

[] Moeders, especially if your mother is in town. If you bring a framed photo of your mum, they'll hang it up on their walls for the next time you visit. Your mom will love it. The food's good too, and you can order a Dutch version of rijsttafel.

[] Gartine, for a pleasant breakfast or lunch with organic Dutch ingredients by the Spui

[] Turkish breakfast at Bazar: it's served all day and it's yummy

[] Kruller-Muller museum, sculpture garden, and biking in the Hoge Veluwe national park around it

[] In-line skaters: Friday Night Skate, part of a worldwide network of Friday night skates, yet unlike any of the other skates

[] Snowboarders and Skiers: Snowworld in Maastricht, the largest indoor snowboarding dome in the world, according to Wikipedia

[] Sailing on a boat built around the 1800s around the Markenmeer or around the islands up north (sorry, not that easy to arrange if you just drop into Amsterdam as a tourist, but it's worth mentioning because it's such a unique non-American experience!)

[] Hikers: mud walking up north

Places/Things I Think Visitors Will Enjoy but I Haven't Tried Yet Myself

[] The Vodka Museum

[] Mike's Boat Rides (via Boom Chicago)

[] Red Light walking tour

[] Amsterdam Marionetten Theater

[] Flower Auction

[] Maurithuis

[] Delft

[] Bikers: biking the dunes at night on a full moon between Haarlem and Bloemendaal

[] An hour of canal biking (an hour's probably good enough!)

[] Bike to Durgadam & have lunch at the brown cafe

Special Times of the Year:

[] Museumnacht (November 8)

[] Queens Day (April 30)

[] Pluk de Nacht (usually in late August)

[] Silent movies outside at the Filmmuseum (summer)

[] World Pillowfight Day

[] World Press Photo exhibit (May)

[] Keukenhof (April), preferably on a sunny day and biking first through the tulip fields from the Leiden train station

[] Sail (every 5 years, next one is in 2010)

[] Torontotunnel rave: they prohibit traffic into Amsterdam for the Dam to Dam every year and a few clever promoters decided that this would be the perfect time to hold a rave in a traffic tunnel. Note that Dutch DJs are world famous, so this is a pretty good party right in the middle of a Sunday afternoon.

[] Rocket Cinema Festival (last weekend in October): what an absolutely brilliant concept. Take a famous older movie, have a live band create a new soundtrack for it, and show it in a venue appropriate to the subject of the film rather than in a movie theater. I saw King Kong vs. Godzilla in the City Archives Building, with a surf rock band playing along and then Jaws, while floating on a tube in an indoor swimming pool, with a DJ who snuck in snippets from the Beach Boys, the A-Team theme song, and the Titanic love theme at just the right moments. It's hard to do justice to the festival in writing. Trust me. Just go.

Overrated, in my opinion:

- Floating Flower Market (skip it and go to Keukenhof or the flower auction)

- Wagamama (AVOID at all costs; absolutely terrible place)

- Indonesian rijstafel or Surinamese food (it just never seems to taste as good as dim sum or Thai, sorry!)

- Stedelijk (I love modern art museums, but this one always disappoints me)

- boat tours in the glass-covered boats (do the Boom Chicago open boat tour instead)

- any Japanese, Mexican, or Indian food here (it just can't compare to what's available in the major coastal cities of the US)

- Keuken van 1870 (yes, it's traditional Dutch food, but it's so bland; I think it gets written up a lot because it's cheap)

- d'Vijff Vlieghen (love the name of the restaurant, but it's just not a good value; would recommend Van Vlaanderen instead for contemporary Dutch cuisine, which is a lot like French food except with slightly different ingredients)

- Vollendam (full of overpriced kitsch and tourists)

Amsterdammers: feel free to weigh in with your suggestions!

Saturday, March 14, 2009


I always thought they looked phallic, both in color (maybe J Crew would call it "Engorged") and shape. Amsterdammertjes are the metal posts that are used to block cars from entering pedestrian areas. Also very funny for me when I first arrived (though I'm used to it now) are the triple-Xes that appear on them. XXX is apparently symbolizes the City of Amsterdam, and has a very very long history that predates Jenna Jameson.

Anyway, I was recently amused by an article I just read in Het Parool, which described the City of Amsterdam's history in press relations. Here's an excerpt, roughly translated:

"San Francisco (2005). In 2005, Amsterdam politicians and artists traveled to San Fransciso, with the intent to represent themselves there as hip and creative. Unfortunately, the mayor of San Francisco could not attend the reception. Therefore, in his place, his press secretary accepted the traditional gift from the visiting city: a half-transparent Amsterdammertje with a light inside.

'The woman tore the paper open and stared right at its little head,' wrote [the Het Parool reporter] 'As if there were 220 volts on that thing, she pulled her hands off. The presenter tried to explain that these poles stood everywhere in Amsterdam, but the woman looked at it as if she had just received a giant dildo from the mayor of Amsterdam.'

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


The Matterhorn

Electric cars ensure that the air is not just cold, but clear.

Zermatt is a playground for the rich. This huge poster was one of many that we saw while waiting in lift lines, or above ski runs. Most posters advertised expensive jewelry and watches. We blended in just fine, even though we were mostly a group of teachers, designers, and IT administrators. Everyone looks the same bundled up in snow outfits from head to toe. But sometimes I did feel like I was air-dropped on to another planet. It was a true escape from Amsterdam, in both scenery and spirit.

Another example of conspicuous consumption. This champagne bar is off one of the narrow ski runs that feed back down from the main trails into Zermatt. A perfect stop for a PRE-apres-ski drink. The small wooden deck benches were draped with animal skins, and they served the champagne in real glasses, not plastic, which you would expect when each glass sets you back 12 wet and wrinkled euros.

The ski-in, ski-out bars are among the best features of Zermatt. Besides the champagne bar, we stamped into a tiny two story medieval-looking hut that specialized in gluh wine. There was another bar that reminded me of grass-roofed gazebos that you find in the tropics. And a set of igloos to which we hiked for 10 minutes through the snow from the train station to have fondue dinner.

In the Iglu-Dorf: before dinner, we were given a tour of the hotel rooms. The hot tub looked nice, but everything else looked cold, especially the toilet.

My favorite photo from the whole trip.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Les Menuires

We found some great off-piste runs in Meribel, even though it hadn't snowed in a few days.

Les Menuires through rose-colored goggles!

I couldn't stop laughing when we did this as a group activity one night -- about 40 of us, taking off at once, and careening into side walls and each other.


My fantastic flatmates: Alex, Brian, and JJ.

What I love about this photo: that the shower rod was rigged with a broomstick (before that, every time we showered, the water went everywhere) and that Brian actually brought a brand-new shower curtain with him on a snowboarding trip. Zomaar. So random.

WRONG! This French breakfast treat was in the cupboard of our flat when we arrived. It seemed to go along perfectly with the motto for the week: "Too much sick for your head." We finally gave it a try on the 4th or 5th day of the trip; turns out that it tastes like a very rich thick hot chocolate.

And a few other good memories of Les Menuires (among many): fresh bread and croissants every morning, the picnic table jam, talking about music and Dutch/American culture, "wil jij een ei?", and learning that goggles in Dutch is "google" and singular as in "my google is fogged".

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Porte Puymorens

We did a quick trip to Porte Puymorens in the French Pyrenees for my birthday, by flying into Barcelona and renting a car (though later we found out that flying into Toulouse would have been easier).

Porte Puymorens is surprisingly great for snowboarders after a fresh dump of snow. Short runs, but it doesn't take much effort to hit run after run of freshies. And there was a rock field that provided endless opportunities to do small jumps and spins along the way.

Our quirky hotel was ski-in, ski-out, but hardly what you'd call luxurious. It looked like every stick was built by hand, including all the furniture inside. There was an old microwave oven built next to the main entrance, which the hotel used for collecting mail. The town below offered no nightlife, so we spent every night eating dinner at the hotel restaurant and then shooting a few games of billiards in the hotel bar.

The boys and I spent half of our lunch break trying to figure out how to take a photo with all of our reflections appearing in my friend's ski goggles.

The other thing I remember vividly about this trip is the Sandwich American. It was basically a giant steak and french-fry submarine sandwich. Yes, they put the french fries in the sandwich. Once again, I was confronted with the funny ideas Europeans have about Americans!

All in all, a relaxing and fun getaway long weekend.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

On Community

I'm stuck at home sick with the flu today, which is so frustrating, because Saturday is the only day that most of the shops are open on the weekends, and it's actually sunny. I consider it a great sacrifice to stay at home, because now that I found out my friend has Sudafed and is willing to deliver it, I could go out and get my errands done without anyone realizing that I am secretly infecting them with my germs. Ugh. But no, I'll be a good citizen, stay indoors, and write in my blog.

Anyway, today I have been thinking about community. Yes. Community.

I'm someone whose mother is Japanese and whose father is Taiwanese, but who was born in the United States and thus grew up mostly only knowing English. I'm someone who went to high school with kids who were predominantly black, Jewish, and Korean. I'm someone who has changed addresses at least 20 times in her life, lived in 8 different states, and now in 2 different countries. I'm someone who has never belonged to any church. In other words, for most of my life, I have never experienced real community. In fact, for most of my life, I've been an outsider, a tourist, an observer, a visitor.

That is one reason I appreciated snowboarding so much. Previously I had only experienced community in small doses -- during freshman year in college, a fall internship in D.C., the summer after college, in graduate school, and during a 4-month internship in Atlanta. Though I made some good friends during these years, these communities were built mostly on proximity and dissolved quickly once its members moved to different locations.

Snowboarding was my first taste of real community after 4 years of living in California (I lived there 8 years in total), and the only time I've experienced community based on a shared passion. Every season a group of us would rent a house in South Lake Tahoe, buy season passes, and then spend most weekends from December through April in the Sierras. It's not as luxe as it sounds. The whole season usually cost me about 1500 dollars, which is not that much more than a week's holiday here in Zermatt. The fun usually began ahead of the season, with gatherings to meet new house members, and with excursions to the latest Warren Miller film, pre-season sales, and Icer Air. Then during the season, there were carpools, group meals, parties, and of course, snowboarding and skiing together on the slopes. You get to know people really well when you spend 4-12 hours in a car with them, and all day riding the lifts with them. There's lots of time for conversation, and you also become familiar with their various little quirks when you share a home with them, just as you become familiar with the quirks of your housemates or live-in significant other. We were all usually quite different from one another, but because we shared a passion for winter sports, often that was enough to bridge our differences. And year after year, the circle of friends and acquaintances grew wider and wider, until spending a day on the mountain was a bit like taking a stroll down Main Street in a small town with all its plusses and minuses, where you are constantly bumping into people you know and where conversations revolve around the latest doings of other people you know.

I didn't really think I would ever experience a similar sense of community here. It's not that I don't appreciate the great things about Amsterdam, such as the pretty canals, the centuries-old buildings, the bike culture, and the legality of a lot of things that I feel should also be legal everywhere in the U.S. I just don't have a strong sense of connection with the majority of people here, however nice they are. We are too different, or maybe I've just lived in California too long. I think there's some truth to the idea that nature can shape your personality. Here, the elements are so harsh. There have been days with hail, rain, snow, and sun appearing in sequence and then starting all over again, the wind blowing each of the weather patterns through the city faster than you can say "mijn godverdomme paraplu is kapot" (my damn umbrella is broken). We're closer to the North Pole than I've ever been in my life, which means that on the longest day of the year (fast approaching on the 21st of December), the sun will rise at 8:48am and set at 4:29pm. By comparison, on the same date, the sun will rise over the Berkeley hills at 7:22am and will set over the Golden Gate Bridge at 4:55pm. Daily life here occurs 5-18 feet below sea level, depending on which internet site you would choose to believe, with most Dutch aware that if the dikes holding back the North Sea were to break, then we would all be swimming in ice cold water and rusted bicycles. And many of the Dutch have also seen Al Gore's movie "The Inconvenient Truth", as it aired on television here a few weeks ago, which showed that if current global warming trends were to continue, many Germans would have beachfront property and most of the Netherlands would be no more. On top of it all, the Netherlands is among the 25 countries with the highest population density in the world; and of those 25 countries, only South Korea and Bangladesh are larger in size.

So it's no wonder that the Dutch are generally stoic, practical, and cynical. They believe in honesty and hard work. Given their lack of natural resources and especially space, they are gifted at making the most of what they have. They, more than any other group I've met, seem to prize the virtue of "keeping it real", and I'm not just saying that because they are generally credited with (or blamed for) inventing reality television. Among their most commonly used expressions are "doe maar gewoon" (just do it in the usual way) or "doe normaal" (be normal). This is quite different from the California way of life, which encourages weirdness...(cough, cough)...I mean, individuality. Great dreamers, entrepreneurs, and inventors come from California. Everyone I knew there had ideas under development, if only in their brain; everyone had a plan for early retirement, even if they were too busy snowboarding, rock climbing, creating puzzle hunts (ex-boyfriend), challenge square dancing (ex-coworker), building an airplane in their garage (ex-housemate) and otherwise indulging in their grand passions, to put it into action. On the other hand, great designers, engineers, and financial wizards (making money from money is probably bred into the population when you come from a small country)come from Amsterdam. To put it in Myers-Briggs terms, I've arrived in a land of mostly ISTJs and I've come from a land of mostly ENTPs.

But back to the idea of community. As I sit here typing and coughing away, I await my friend who has offered to drop off some NyQuil from the other side of town (NyQuil, DayQuil Sudafed, and Extra-Strength Tylenol are all hard-to-get commodities here). Last night, I ordered in some Thai food from www.thuisbezorgd.nl, which I discovered via a tip from another expat friend. The expats here are unbelievably supportive of one another, and there are a lot of us (almost one-third of Amsterdam residents were born outside of the Netherlands). We notify each other when we'll be in the States, so that we can place special orders for things expensive or hard-to-find in the Netherlands (last time, I brought back Halloween costumes and Trader Joe's chai latte powder mix). We care for each other's pets. We lend our couches to other expats in need of temporary housing or to visiting friends of friends. We give each other tips on where to find English-language books and American-style pancakes with crispy bacon and real maple syrup. Via the expat grapevine, I found out how to register to vote overseas and even how to check whether my registration actually went through. On November 4, I went to an all-night election party, where the singing of the American anthem actually brought tears to my eyes for the first time in my life, because I really wished I was back in the States to see Obama elected, but at least I was with fellow Americans who felt the same way. Again, I feel as though I'm part of a close community, held together by our shared experience of being foreigners in a country that let us in, but keeps us at a distance.

So, these are some conclusions after almost 2 years of living here. I've made some sweeping generalities throughout this post, so feel free to comment if your experience was different. And now, maybe I'll take a NyQuil-enhanced nap. It's 3:56pm, the streetlamps will soon be lit, and this ENTP is hoping that she will be well enough to enjoy seeing the Gotan Project tomorrow night.