Saturday, December 15, 2012

Things that are different here:

I thought that I'd do a post about the big and little things that make living here exciting and different.  Just so I never forget! Here we go...

  • Banking!  In order to do online banking or to buy anything online with your dutch bank card, you have to put your card in this weird little machine called an "e.dentifier," and then input codes back and forth to authorize everything.  We can't get over how strange it all is.  Also, paper checks are a thing of the past here.  If you owe someone money, you get their bank account info and just do a transfer online.  That's how we pay tithing here, too. We actually really like it. Another random thing: when they mailed us our dutch debit cards, we both had to get three separate letters, all sent a few days apart, before we could activate it.  One had an activation code, the next letter had the card itself, and the last letter had our assigned pin.  Pretty elaborate compared to the one letter Wells Fargo sends with your new card back home! 

Our trusty, high-tech e.dentifier. 
  • Chip cards!  If you've travelled in europe before, you might remember that most (or all?) european cards these days are "chip" cards.  You don't swipe them--you stick the front of the card in and the reader reads the chip.  I know in England they still let you use your swipe cards from the US most places, and maybe they do in other places too.  But here: no way.  If you're in a hotel or something they'll let you, but pretty much all stores only take chip cards or cash.  The grocery stores in particular are finicky and will only take maestro (a european type of debit card) or cash. As you can imagine, we were pretty relieved to finally get our dutch debit cards up and running.  
  • Garbage! We are assigned to take our trash out on wednesday and saturday nights at 6 PM.  If you take it at 6:30, you might be too late.  There's an assigned dropping spot about a block away.  And--get this--if you drop your garbage at an unassigned time or place, they will go through your garbage looking for something with your address on it and will send you a hefty fine.  Crazy, huh?  We're considering ourselves lucky that we've never been fined, especially since we dropped our garbage at the wrong place and time the first 2 months we were here. :)
  • Schooling! Since I don't have a child in school, I don't have it completely figured out, but here's what I've pieced together.  Kids start going to school full-time at age 4.  They don't have to wait until the September after their fourth birthday either; they literally start going the day they turn 4.  Most kids are in a half-day school at age 3. 
  • Daycare! People are always surprised that Andy isn't in any day care (or "creche" as it's called here).  Most moms here work 2-3 days a week while their children go to creche. I even know a lot moms who don't work at all, but their children still go to creche for a couple days a week.  Sometimes that sounds pretty nice! :)  Creche is expensive: our friends just had a baby and said it will cost them 1500 euro a month for their daughter to go five days a week.  
  • Child birth!  This is drastically different from the US.  Home birth is very highly encouraged here; the home birth rate is roughly 30%.  Once you're pregnant, your insurance will automatically send you a home birth kit.  Everyone sees midwives here.  Most heavily encourage drug-free deliveries and pregnancies.  Epidurals are the exception.  Anti-nausea medication is virtually impossible to get.  One amazing thing they do here: after you have your baby, someone comes to stay with you for 10 days (!!!) to cook, clean, and help you take care of the baby.  I don't know what they're called, but they're trained women who know what they're doing!  I can't think of anything more incredible after having a baby.  How about we pick that up in the US?  One other thing that surprises me: a nurse at Andy's well child visit was shocked I nursed him for a full year and told me that is very rare here.  I would think that since they're such a holistic country, they would be into nursing their kids until age 4. :) 
  • Manners! I don't think I know any Dutch people that will read this, so hopefully I can get away with saying this...people here are rude.  Tourists always notice it.  Cam and I especially noticed it on our recent trip to London when we realized everyone there was just so polite.  People here talk to you like you're stupid.  If you make a mistake, they'll point it out.  They cut in front of you in line.  (This one happens to me almost every time I stand in a line.  I'm still not brave enough to say something to the cutter, but I'm getting closer!) They bump into you and don't say a thing.  At home, I'm used to people opening doors for me, letting me go first, etc. because I'm pushing a stroller.  Here, people seem think, "Oh, you've got a stroller?  You're going to be slow, so I'm just going to jump ahead of you."  It makes things like maneuvering around the grocery store or getting on and off the tram really difficult because people just don't let you go! Okay--all that being said, I think Dutch people are wonderful people and if you get to know someone, they're very kind.  It's just the day-to-day interaction with strangers that they seem to struggle with.  
  • Laundry!  I know I already did an entire post complaining about this, so I'll just summarize by saying that each tiny load takes 4.5 hours and it's not exactly my favorite thing.
  • Language!  They speak Dutch here, obviously.  One reason we were particularly excited to come to Amsterdam is because they're known here for speaking the best english in europe.  Because of that, I naively didn't expect language to be a barrier at all. I know I should do a better job with trying to learn Dutch, and I shouldn't expect people here to speak my language perfectly.  But--it's been more difficult than I thought it would be. Yes, most of the time I can find someone to communicate with on a basic level, but I have to choose my words carefully and stay away from idiomatic phrases.  It's different to not understand any of the conversations people around me are having.  And it gets old to be spoken to in dutch and then have to say, "I only speak english," about 10x a day. Cameron says people at work speak really good english, though.
  • Health! I guess I've said a few negatives in a row, so let me give a huge positive one here.  I am so impressed with how healthy people are here!  The lifestyle in general is very active, with all the bike riding, walking, etc.  I'm still so impressed every time I see a elderly person on a bike, which is really common.  Obesity is basically non-existent.  People eat so fresh.  Portion sizes are much smaller than in the US.  Cameron and I have both loved this aspect of living here so much.  
  • Walking!  Here's another positive one.  I absolutely love how I can basically walk to anything I need.  Of course this isn't the case for everyone in the Netherlands, but we lucked out with our location.  I can walk to the grocery store in about 2 minutes or to the bigger grocery store in 10.  I can walk to Hema (kinda like Target) in 2 minutes.  As far as clothes shopping goes, we're right in the middle of it all so there are literally hundreds of stores all around us.  Same with places to eat out.  (Oh wait...we have a toddler, so that doesn't apply to us. :)  There are tons of museums within walking distance.  Even the places I take the tram to, I could probably walk to in 20-25 minutes.  Everything feels so accessible.  I miss having a car in some ways, but I feel so free without one.
  • Customer Service! This is the common one everyone knows about europe.  It's proved to be completely true here.  What cracks me up is when you have to call the customer service dept. of a company here, there's an extra charge! It's like 15 cents a minute or something, but I still find it hilarious.  Any time I have to call a company in the US, I'm always so impressed by how kind, attentive, and professional they are in contrast to all my experiences here.  
  • Pot & Prostitution! This is probably the item everyone is expecting, but if you're envisioning the streets here full of pot smokers and prostitutes on every corner, you couldn't be more wrong. Though it feels like most people here do smoke cigarettes, marijuana smoking is mostly reserved for "coffee shops," so you really only get a whiff of it once or twice a day unless you're in the wrong area.  And I think it's mostly tourists who are smoking it anyway.  Still, I'm not used to it and can't stand the smell.  Cameron likes the smell, so go ahead and tease him about that.  As far as the red light district goes, it's really pretty close (5 minute walk), but you never see any semblance of it if you're in the right areas.  One thing that is pretty different is all the sex shops around.  They're much more heavily concentrated in the red light district, but they're scattered around a bit, too.  And in nice areas!  Our friends live in a very nice place, and live a few doors down from one.  There's one I pass almost daily on the way to Rembrandtplein.  I don't really notice it now, but I suppose that's pretty different from living in Bountiful or Round Rock. :) 
  • Grocery shopping!  I feel like shopping here is so different.  Obviously, everything is in Dutch so that makes things tricky.  There are lots of things you can't get here.  Or at least I don't know where to get them or don't realize what they are because they're in dutch.  It basically means I use a lot more produce because I can actually see what it is!  Some of the more common items you can't find: baking soda, vanilla, and chocolate chips. They don't have most of the processed, boxed items we'd have at home.  All this has actually turned into a good thing, I think.  We cook a lot more fresh and healthy.  We have soup 2-3 times a week, which I love.  (Cameron, not so much.)  I literally go to the grocery store every day.  I know that probably sounds crazy, but it really has to be that way because I can't carry too much back to my place.  Plus--it's only a 2 minute walk!  I hated daily shopping at first, but now I really like it.  I love not having to plan a week's worth of meals in advance.  I love that we just buy what we'll need that day.  Everything is so fresh and we hardly waste anything.  We walk by the store all the time anyway, so popping in for 10 minutes each day isn't a big deal.  The only downsides to the stores here are that the aisles are incredibly narrow and were definitely not designed with a stroller in mind.  Also, I'm not a big fan of the "bag your own groceries" thing in europe.  It's a lot to juggle when you're trying to entertain a toddler, pay for everything, and bag your groceries at the same time.  And you feel like you have to hurry really fast or you're holding up the people behind you.  You have to pay for bags too, but we just bring our own, so that's alright.  
  • Online shopping!  I used to do so much online shopping at home.  I haven't bought a thing online here!  I miss it.  I don't know of a good online Netherlands marketplace?  I think you can buy things here from amazon uk, but I can't handle the prices.  I would order from the US, but then you have to pay customs charges on top of shipping and it's not worth it.     
  • Floor Levels!  This one's random.  I'm always pushing the wrong buttons the elevators here because it's different.  The ground floor here is "0," whereas in the US it would be "1."  So I push "2" in the elevator and go up two floors when I meant to only go up to the first floor.  It's confusing.  
  • Doors!  I never know whether to push or pull doors because a lot of times they're the opposite of what they'd be at home.  
  • Stairs!  It would be more appropriate to call them ladders.  The stairs here are so narrow and steep.  I'm so surprised I haven't fallen yet. 
Our slippery stairs.
I come across differences all the time, but I really love it.  It's interesting to learn how others live, and it's a fun adventure to find new ways of doing things!  We feel so lucky to live in such a beautiful, unique place.  

Thursday, December 6, 2012


Cameron and I spent a perfect two days in London this past weekend.  Claire was generous enough to watch Andy for the weekend, so we got to enjoy it without carrying a stroller up and down the tube stairs.  We loved every second of it.  (Especially the parts that included Galaxy Chocolate, Marks & Spencer mint truffles, and Marks & Spencer white chocolate chip cookies.)  It was, in my opinion, the best trip we've taken so far.  Granted, I'm a bit biased in my love for London: for those who don't know, I did a study abroad there for four months way back in 2004.  But I think Cameron loved it [almost] as much as I did.  It was his first time in the city, so it was fun to be able to show him around.  He loved it so much, he's going back with his brother next week.  (Jealous.)

We flew out friday evening.  Considering it's only an hour flight, it took us a surprising amount of time to actually get to our hostel.  We even opted for the faster journey from the airport to the city:  The Gatwick Express.  We received a prompt reminder of how expensive London is, since our return tickets cost $54 each.  (?!?!?!) We stayed in Bayswater, just off Queensgate, which is a five minute walk away from where I stayed on my study abroad in the Notting Hill area.  The perfect area, in my opinion.  We paid a pretty penny to stay there.  We got a private room in a hostel for $150 a night.  Pretty pricey for a trashy hostel, right?!  I'm now kicking myself for not taking a picture of our deluxe hostel room, just so I could demonstrate how non-deluxe it truly was.  First of all, we had bunk beds.  There was a green light that stayed on once the main light turned off all night long.  My personal favorite feature was the shower.  I'm not sure what the technical term is, but it's the kind of faucet you push down and water comes out for about 10 seconds.  Then you have to push again for more water to come out.  Also, the light in the bathroom was on a timer, so we had to open bathroom door every minute or so to keep the light on.  To sum it up, each shower consisted of about 30 faucet pushes and 10 door openings.  It was pretty entertaining.  Also, we forgot we needed to bring our own towels, so we had to use Cam's sheet as a towel.  Funny enough, I would still stay there again.

On to what we actually did!  We got to our hostel about 10 friday night.  We enjoyed being in a city where everything doesn't close down at 6 PM (ahem, Amsterdam) and headed out to see Big Ben at night.  Beautiful, of course.  
Cam's 1st tube ride!

Saturday morning, we visited 27 Palace Court (my study abroad residence) on our way to the Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill.  After all that, we went and got our half-price tickets to see Wicked that night.  (More on that later.)  Cameron's boss, Steve, lives just outside of London, so we met up with him and his wife and son after that in Hyde Park to peruse the "Winter Wonderland."  Cam absolutely loves Steve, so it was great to meet them in person!  Afterwards, we headed to the Borough Market for some lunch.  This isn't really a big tourist attraction, but it was something I loved when I lived there.  It's an incredible food market.  My plan was to have an ostrich burger and a brownie from Flour Power.  The market has gotten so much bigger!  It was amazing to see how many new stands there are.  Sadly, Flour Power isn't there anymore with their "best brownie in the world,"  so I had to settle for a different bakery's brownie.  Thankfully, the ostrich burger stand is still there, but they weren't serving ostrich that day, so we opted for a reindeer burger which was equally amazing.  After lunch, we headed Buckingham Palace and then walked back to Westminster to look at things again in the light of day.  We walked to Trafalgar Square after that to go to the National Gallery, my favorite London museum.  Cam loved it, too.  Especially seeing the great Van Gogh, Monet, tons of Rembrandt and other dutch painters, and the famous Jan Van Eyck Arnolfini Portrait.  We took a long walk after that through Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Oxford Street.  It was insanely busy and beautiful with Christmas lights everywhere.  We loved how festive it felt.  Even Cameron didn't mind the wall-to-wall crowds because it was such a magical atmosphere.  We grabbed dinner at a cozy pub on Carnaby Street before we headed to see Wicked.  We got our tickets for only 18 pounds (a steal!), but we were disappointed when we got there and they were on the second-to-last row.  I think I made some sort of joke about how I was moving up in the world, since last time I saw it in London I was on the very last row.  However, our disappointment was short-lived because an employee came over and explained they'd double-sold our seats and needed to move us to other seats.  These new seats were amazing!  We could see everything so well!  65 pound seats and we only paid 18!  I'm a sucker for a good deal, so I was thrilled.  It was Cameron's first time seeing Wicked, and he loved it.  I think it was the best Elpheba I've seen.  The "Defying Gravity" before intermission was electrifying.  It was the perfect end to the perfect London day.  

Palace Court 
Portobello Road Market
Borough Market
Green Park, on the way to Buckingham

Buckingham Palace

Westminster Abbey 
Trafalgar Square, from the steps of the National Gallery. 
Piccadilly Circus
Regent Street, on the way to Oxford Street
Pub Food!  Fish 'n Chips for me, a savory pie for Cameron.
Sunday was great too.  (Although, I was already bummed to be leaving that night.  And Cameron was pretty tired from all the walking.)  We started out with an english breakfast at Cafe Diana, again, right by where I stayed on Palace Court.  We walked through Kensington Gardens after that and enjoyed the glorious sunshine.  Have I mentioned how incredible the weather was all weekend?  Yes, it was freezing, but not a drop of rain!  And we saw so much sun!  Amazing.  Anyway, Kensington Gardens is my favorite park in London.  Again, probably because I lived right next to it, but I think it's absolutely beautiful.  We walked down High Street Kensington afterwards and then headed over to see Tower of London/Tower Bridge.  We were too cheap to do the Tower of London tour (has it always been $30 a person?), but we enjoyed walking around and walking across the beautiful bridge.  We made a quick stop at the British Museum after that so Cam could see the Rosetta Stone and Parthenon in person.  We quickly headed to the Tate Modern afterwards (via the beautiful Millennium Bridge), which is my second favorite museum in London.  To my surprise and delight, Cam loved it just as much as I do.  We both wished we had lots more time to spend there.  Our plan was to finish up with evensong at St. Paul's, also a favorite of mine.  The choir there is stunning.  And it's a great free way to see the beautiful cathedral.  We loved it, but started getting a bit antsy because it lasted longer than we'd anticipated because it was the first day of advent.

That began a string of events that made us almost miss our flight.  Needless to say, it was a very "exciting" couple of hours.  We raced to grab our luggage from the hostel, waited for the circle line for forever (that darn circle line!), made it to victoria station to have just missed a Gatwick Express, took the next Gatwick Express (after I ran over a lady with my luggage), raced to take a tram to the North Gatwick Terminal, and made it to the airport 40 minutes before our flight was supposed to leave.  We were literally running by this point.  We got to check-in and they told us it was too late to check our bag.  Trouble is, it was too big to be counted as a carry on and they were going to make us paid 40 pounds once we got to the gate--even though we'd already pre-paid to check it.  Plus, I had all sorts of expensive liquids that were too big to be taken through security.  We ran to security.  As expected, my bag had to be inspected, which of course took a good five minutes.  Thankfully, all the generous security officer threw away were some cheap cosmetic scissors.  We took of running again.  Poor Cameron was carrying our huge suitcase up and down a million stairs, escalators, etc.  After ten more minutes of running, bright red and dripping in sweat, we got to our gate.  It was...empty.  No plane there, no people there.  We were pretty confused/worried.  Apparently, our plane was running late and they just barely started allowing passengers to walk to the gate from the main airport area.  We were pretty embarrassed when we realized we'd just run needlessly that entire distance and all those people we'd just run past were also passengers on our flight, who I'm sure thought we were completely clueless and insane.  The gate agent didn't make us pay the 40 pounds to check our bag, after all, so I guess it all ended well.  We made our flight, got in a great workout, and only lost a $3 pair of scissors!  An exciting end to a great trip.  
English Breakfast 
Kensington Gardens

You can see Kensington Palace in the back.
Tower of London 
Tower Bridge.  Cameron kept trying to call it the London Bridge; don't worry--I promptly corrected him.

British Museum 
Beautiful St. Paul's Cathedral
St. Paul's from Millenium Bridge 
View of St. Paul's from the Tate Modern
I was pretty young (19) when I went to London on my study abroad.  I chose London because I wanted to go somewhere in europe but didn't want to learn another language.  Mature, right?  I've been back to London a few times since then, but this past weekend was special because I realized that despite my shallow reasons for choosing London eight years ago, London was the perfect place for me to go.