Monday, June 30, 2008

Bored at work.

I currently work as a Network Engineer... but get paid to be a travel agent. Work has been a bit slow this week. So, I've started planning my three week vacation I'll soon be taking with my mom. Today I've narrowed down the cities we'll be visiting. Tomorrow I will start looking at places to sleep, whether it be a hostel, B&B, or hotel. Then after the go-ahead from the 'Mother Figure' in regards to the days I've chosen for each location, I'll start booking the rooms. Needless to say, planning my vacation has kept me pleasantly occupied. So, I've decided to share my tentative travel schedule with the internet world.

day and location of our 3 week adventure:

1- mom arrives/Amsterdam
2- Paris (my birthday)
3- Rotenberg, Germany
4 - another city in Black Forest (Germany)
5 - Interlaken, Switzerland
6- Interlaken, Switzerland
(overnight train...)
7- Cinque Terre, Italy (Italian Riviera)
8- Tuscany
9 - Florence
10 - Rome (mom's birthday)
11- Rome
12- Venice
13- Venice
14- Vienna, Austria
15- Vienna, Austria
16- Prague
17- Prague
(overnight to ...)
18- Berlin
19- Berlin
20- Bremen
21- Bremen
22- Amsterdam
23- mom leaves

The other travel times from one location to another (besides the times I stated overnight train) are too short for overnight trips, so we'll be taking the early morning trains. It may seem like a lot of places in a short amount of time... and I'd have to agree. Thankfully I'll have a weekend to recover before heading back to work (which will again consist of sitting in front of a computer for 8 hours doing absolutely nothing). At least I'll be keeping myself occupied until then.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Oh happy day!

I was approved for the 30% ruling!! I can actually afford to live here! Yay!

For those of you who are not familiar with this ordeal (yet one more amongst the many since I've decided to move here), let me start from the beginning.

I knew coming out here that the government takes out a lot of taxes... I just didn't realize how much. In Holland they take out between 47-52% of taxes from your salary. When I received my first paycheck and saw half of it gone to taxes, I was dumbfounded. However, I took courage in the fact that expats receive a tax break where 30% of your salary is tax free... that is if you are qualified.

So, soon after receiving my first paycheck, I filled in my qualifications (ie. why it was essential to hire me as opposed to having hired a Dutch person) on a template letter the company wrote for the tax authorities. Around this same time, I was in the process of acquiring health insurance. Thankfully, the health insurance company requested my residency permit which I knew I needed (so I wouldn't be shipped back to the States -- and was also necessary to provide to the tax authorities), but didn't know when/how I'd receive it. After requesting the assistance of my HR representative, we found out that the government sent an invitation letter to pick up my permit to the apartment that I was scammed out of. (Ugh!) They faxed another copy of the letter to me, and I saw that I had exactly 5 more days before I would no longer be allowed to pick up my permit, since they put a time limit on it. Once I picked up my permit, (heaving a sigh of relief for not having to move back to the US so soon), I then had all the necessary documentation to send to the tax authorities.

A few weeks after the request was sent in I received an email from the third party corporation who is the go-between to the tax authorities. It warned me that I may not receive the tax break because I was lacking in a few necessary requirements. A) I only had 2 years of experience in the field instead of 2.5 and B) I didn't make the minimum salary requirement. I was utterly discouraged. I didn't know how I'd survive here without it... there was no way I'd be able to travel, which was the number one reason I came out here.

The very next week I received my health insurance. I received a letter along with it stating that Dutch law requires all residents to have insurance from the moment they arrive. They further stated that I have to send them a back pay for the past 3 months of living here, although I didn't have insurance until the day I received that letter. At that point I started second guessing if moving to Amsterdam was the right decision to have made. I thought back upon every rocky event that had transpired from the moment I decided to come out here, and realized that I needed more than two hands to count them all. I was beyond words at that point. Discouragement was a happy emotion in regards to how I felt.

So, you can somewhat sense my elation as I read the letter from the third party vendor saying, "We are pleased to inform you that the Dutch tax authorities have granted you the 30% ruling." I put down the letter and started dancing my "I'm so happy I can't contain myself dance". Glad I was alone in my apartment, since I have two left feet and would have been quite a sight to see.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Uphill BOTH ways!"

As I've been riding my bike this week, I've thought a lot about the times my dad would talk about having to walk uphill to and from school each day. I think everyone's parent at one point in time or another has used that line. I, however, will never make up a story such as that one to prove whatever point I'm trying to get across. Instead, I will use a different story... a TRUE story, and one that I've experienced first hand.

There is a lot of wind in Holland... which is why we have a few thousand windmills. But, there are the days when we have gale force winds. When the wind is that strong, you have to peddle hard, otherwise you'll be going backwards instead of forwards. Funny thing is, no matter which direction you're going in, you're always going against the wind. Of this I do not lie! It's quite comical to watch the people in front of you peddling as hard as you are, and moving only 2 inches in 30 seconds. It's like watching a clip of a movie where they're showing someone running in slow motion.

When the wind is that strong, it takes twice the amount of time to get to your destination than normal. Only problem is, you never know when it's going to start blowing. Today it was so strong that small branches were snapping off of the trees. I was lucky enough to get hit... not once, but twice by some. And I can't fail to mention the particles of dust flying around just itching to get into your eyes.

Someday I'll tell this story to my own kids, and if they don't believe me, I'll ship them off to Amsterdam to experience it for themselves.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Unique Personality

I’ve been lucky enough in life to have lived and travelled to a number of places. I’ve been exposed to a number of personalities. There have been few, though, that I have qualified as unique. To fit this qualification in my book, one has to have a number of strong qualities that normally would never mesh well together, but oddly enough do.

In my mental dictionary I’ve added Amsterdam to the definition of unique. It’s quirky, sophisticated, risqué, easy going, charming, over-bearing, outgoing,… and the list could go on and on. But without those qualities, the city just wouldn’t be the same. With them, it makes the city an extremely enjoyable place to live. You never really know what to expect when you turn the corner.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

One of these things is not like the other

Take a good look at the picture. Now can you tell which one's Catholic? If you chose the hand in the middle give yourself a pat on the back.

The other day when I was talking to my co-workers who sit on either side of me, I noticed that both had their wedding rings on their right hands. I then abruptly changed the topic of our conversation to discuss my new discovery. Unlike in the US, unless you're Catholic, you wear your wedding band on your right hand. I mentioned that in Brazil they wear the wedding band on their right hand when they're engaged, and on the left when their married. Apparently that's because it's a predominantly Catholic country... so I realized at that moment. Catholic's do the same here as well.

I then turned around and saw a co-worker who had a wedding band on the left hand. So putting two and two together I stated he must be Catholic... but was told it was either that, or he's engaged. Thus, non-Catholic's wear their wedding band on the left hand while engaged and switch it to their right once married, I so learned. Although after asking we found out that he is in fact a Catholic.

I stated that it's all a bit confusing, to which one co-worker replied "Yes, it is. But just remember: those without a ring at all are the happiest."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dutch country pride

We are now in the beginning of Euro 2008 football (soccer) championship games. For an American understanding, the Euro is bigger than the Super Bowl, or NBA finals ...if you're into that instead.

Before the games began there were people walking around in hilarious orange outfits. Stores began selling orange t-shirts, banners, flags, and any other orange object they could come up with. The country was definitely gearing up.

The last time the Netherlands won the championship was in 1988. I was told the whole country was orange in celebration of it all. Houseboats started sinking as hoards of people jumped onto them while a boat carrying the country's team floated by, after they had returned home from the big win. There was non-stop cheering and celebrating the team and country. It was an event greater than Queen's day.
Monday night they played against Italy. It was the first match in the finals for the Netherlands. I wasn't watching the game, but I know the approximate time of each goal made, thanks to the cheering I heard in surround sound. And I knew we won when a party broke out on the streets at 11:30 that night.
I was greeted by people in extremely happy moods when I got to the office on Tuesday... last thing on their minds was work. Some hadn't slept due to the evening celebrations that lasted until dawn. Today there was a cake with orange frosting for all of us in the break room, as a result of a bet between an Italian fan and a Dutch fan on our floor. Obviously the Italian fan lost.
So, if this is a prototype of how things will be if we win the championship on the 20 year anniversary since the last win... I'm definitely going make sure I'm in town.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

With one accord

For the past few weeks at church I've been using the Dutch hymn books to sing, to learn the pronunciation from following along with the people singing around me. I'm not completely sure how much I'm retaining that way, but I figure it doesn't hurt. However, it really takes a lot of effort to sing in a language you don't know, and I find myself tired by the time the hymn is over.

Today we had stake conference via satellite broadcast from Salt Lake. I felt lazy and decided not to search for a Dutch hymn book since there was an English one right in front of me. So I sang in English while everyone else around me sang in Dutch for the opening hymn.

But because of the broadcast, the words to the intermediate hymn were displayed on the screen... in English. Although the others could have picked up a hymn book and sing in Dutch, they didn't. The whole congregation was singing in a language very familiar to me. I couldn't help but smile. This has been the first time since I've arrived 3 months ago, that everyone at church was singing English. Quite a nice change from the norm.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A moment of rejoicing

I used to be in a book club when I lived in North Carolina. I was a completely devoted member and dutifully read the designated book for the month and once that book was done, read whatever other book I could fit in. Right before I moved, I had my fellow members promise me that they would continue sending me the monthly invitations to book club, because I stated I would read the book and be at the meetings 'in spirit'. However, I have failed miserably at my part of the bargain, although not to any fault of my own.
Surprisingly... or not so much, finding books in the English language, isn't an easy feat here. It's not that books in English are non-existent; the problem is the English section of the bookstores only consists of a few shelves, not leaving very many books to choose from. And Amazon, my once favorite online bookstore, won't mail to my address. So I have been left stranded in a sense... with no way to read the past 2 months books. The guilt has surmounted as the weeks have gone by as I have been forced to turn to the one British bookstore I had found when I first arrived here. I'm cheating on my fellow members! When they read "Bird by Bird", I read a few books based in England. While they read "These is my words", I've been reading a book based in Ireland. And although I adore the UK accents, music, dry humor, culture, and beautiful landscapes, their books just don't seem up to par with the ones authored by an American. I may just have had poor judgement in choosing books in the British bookstore, but I still yearn for the books of my home country. So imagine my joy, my exhilaration, my utter delight when I found "THE AMERICAN BOOK CENTER"! It is the European version of Barne's and Noble... and it couldn't have been a happier moment for me that day. Four stories of books, all written in English by American authors! As I walked around I could contain my excitement and had to take pictures. The other customers gave me quizzical looks, but I just kept snapping away at my camera. I now may be able to keep up my end of the book club bargain, thanks to the American Book Center. Item number one on my to-do list this weekend is to see if they have the book “The Goose Girl” by Shannon Hale. Count me in for book club this month.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Water, please.

This weekend my friend Annelies (from work in NC) came to visit. She's originally from Belgium and is in Europe visiting her family for two weeks. She made a special trip up with her husband on Friday to see me.... and the guys here at work. She even brought a 10-15 lb package with her that my dad had put together for me - talk about friendship.
The three of us went out to dinner and then met up with a few of the guys from work around 9ish at a traditional Dutch bar. I toasted everyone at each round of drinks with my tasty and refreshing spring water. What can I say, I'm a cheap date. We then moved on to the next "EVEN MORE traditional" Dutch bar, thus commemorating my first, and probably last bar hopping experience. To those readers out there who are asking: "What? You're 27 and have never gone bar hopping before?"... my response is: "no, no I have not."
Bar #2, called The Two Pigs, was quite the experience. You were allowed 2 inches of breathing room before you'd bump into the person next to you. They had Dutch music playing, and everyone, I repeat, EVERYONE was singing. Well, except for me and the one other American who didn't know the songs. Unfortunately it was too dark to video, so I waited until the next bar. Bar #3 was much lighter and also had Dutch music, for those much to drunk to realize that they can't carry a tune at all, to sing along. The out of tune drunks were mainly my colleagues. So, I dutifully brought out my camera to record how... ahem, "well" they sang. Now you too have the pleasure of listening to their musical abilities. Enjoy....