Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The horse menagerie

When we were in Vienna, my mom and I had a strong desire to see a performance from their world famous Spanish Riding School. A) It's famous, B) the horses lift their legs up in such an awkward position - a must see in real life, and C) it all takes place inside an old and beautiful building, which had to equal success. Unfortunately fate was not on our side. We visited Austria a week too soon, because the riding school was on vacation and the first performance of the season would be given a mere 7 days after we left.

So, you can imagine my surprise as I was looking in my "to do in Amsterdam" guide on Saturday (since I actually had a few free hours to go exploring) and I found that there's a Spanish Riding School in my city too. It was inspired by the riding school in Venice, it started in 1882, had a picture of a horse lifting it's leg in an awkwardly high position, and was inside a beautiful building. Again, all those qualities had to equal success.

I decided to give them a call to see if they, by any chance, had a performance that day. Once more, fate was not on my side, since the next performance won't be for another two weeks. That being said, hope was not lost, because I was told that students are always practicing and visitors are welcome throughout the day to watch.

After hanging up the phone, I jumped on my bike to experience true Spanish Horse Riding.

Instead, I got to watch a bunch of kids riding horses in a circle. Granted, they were riding in a beautiful old building, but there was not a single moment when any of the horses lifted up their legs in the extremely awkward way-- which is what made Spanish Horse Riding famous in the first place.
Guess I was out of luck this time. Who knows, maybe I'll find myself back in Vienna someday and see the real deal. Sometimes you just need to let fate run its course, instead of trying to take the reins.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Dutch lesson #1: Gezellig

Pronunciation: heh-SELL-ick (make gurgling sound with the initial syllable)

Definition: cozy, warm, enjoyable, inviting, sociable, savoring the moment... there really is no exact translation.

Gezellig was one of the first words I learned after arriving here. I've ended up using it countless times to describe moments such as: a group of friends sitting around a table laughing, clearly enjoying each others company or a man lounging on a pillow inside a row boat, while reading a book on a warm summer's day. The Dutch have mastered the gezellig way of life through their kindness, friendliness and welcoming attitude.

And gezellig is the only word I can use to describe how the Dutch celebrate their birthdays. This past week I've been to two. As you walk into the house you not only greet the birthday person with a congratulations, but you also congratulate their family members, and even their friends. You then proceed to greet each person in the room with either a kiss on the cheek (if you know them) or a hand shake. (The Dutch actually kiss three times in greeting). The birthday person will have set out hors d'oeuvres and cake, which is actually what Americans know of as a torte. The evening is spent sitting in a circle, nibbling on the appetizers, eating cake, drinking juice/tea and enjoying one another's company while getting to know new people.

Gezellig: forget your cares, decrease blood pressure, make the most of the moment, and enjoy the company that surrounds you.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The quirks of a 119 year old apartment

It's hard to imagine that my one bedroom, 700 sq. foot, apartment used to house two families a few decades ago. Like most homes in Amsterdam in the turn of the 20th century, my one bedroom apartment was actually split in two. Each family lived in a large room and shared a small kitchen and bathroom, which acted as a room (or "apartment") divider. Most kitchens of the era only had a stovetop to cook on, due to the size constraint. I'm constantly amazed at the number of homes I've entered that still don't have an oven. I can live without a dishwasher, but I'd never compromise on an oven.

I truly enjoy living in such an old house, but I have to admit, I am grateful it was recently renovated. I have a spacious bathroom, a nice modern kitchen and a great overall layout. However, even though it was renovated only 3 years ago, it still has some of it's old world charm. Take the hidden openings that allow mice in, for example. Or, we could discuss the plumbing. See, there are times when my upstairs neighbors flush the toilet making my bathroom smell... quite unpleasant. Needless to say, I was excited when I found a diffuser to place inside the bathroom to overpower the unwanted smell.

But the most prominent old world feature of my apartment are the windows. I have 6 large, absolutely beautiful windows which grace either side of my apartment. On days when the sun is shining, my entire apartment is filled with sunlight. Just like the hidden openings and plumbing, the windows are the final things in my apartment that are original. Meaning: they are single paned. In the summer I drew the blinds during the day to keep some of the heat from the sun out of the apartment. Now that winter is in full swing, I find myself drawing the curtains yet again, but for an entirely different reason. When the temperatures dropped below freezing, it didn't matter how high I turned up the heat in my apartment, the thermostat wouldn't budge any higher than a crisp 66 degrees.

The only way I could make my apartment a bit warmer was by baking (again, extremely glad I have an oven), or making soup. Thankfully the frozen canal days are over, the gaps between the windows and frames are now filled, and the blinds are drawn- providing a bit of insulation- helping bring my apartment back up to a comfortable 72 degrees.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Why wait in line?

In efforts to reduce the amount of men who decide to whip out their... ahem... 'thing' and relieve themselves on the street corner or into a canal, Amsterdam has implemented the outdoor urinal.

I first saw the urinal on Queen's Day. The tube like openings where men's ... ahem... 'things' enter were full of trash, and I couldn't quite figure out what the contraption was. Later that afternoon, as I was walking around, I heard a British voice behind me saying to a friend, "... that is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen. They smell so bad! I swear, if I see one more man peeing in that thing...". I wanted to turn around and exclaim, "SO THAT'S WHAT THAT IS!" Instead, I mentally concurred with what she had said, and hoped that I wouldn't have to witness the urinal in use.

Well, months have gone by since my first encounter with the urinal, and needless to say, my hopes were in vain. I've seen more than my fair share of guys who aren't at all embarrassed to relieve themselves in front of a sea of people. So, despite my sister's protest, when we happened upon a urinal in use, I couldn't help but take a picture since I actually had my camera with me. Take heed men: before using the outdoor urinal, think twice --because you never know who's going to imortalize you on the web-o-sphere.It's a given to say that urinals are gross and quite smelly... but mostly they ruin the beauty of Amsterdam, since they stick out like a sore thumb. Then again, ... in the 2 or 3 times I've passed by men who think we live in a third world country and 'just can't hold it any longer' (peeing on the side of a building), I've not only wanted to knock them upside the head, but I found myself wishing there were more urinals around. Moral of the story: always settle for the lesser of the two evils.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The sun'll come out...

after 8:45 am. Bet your bottom dollar... that it'll go back down by 4:30 pm. Ugh. Winter seems to drag on forever when it's mainly filled with darkness. Sadly, the dark and dreary season has only just begun. I can vaguely remember the long summer days, stretching from 5:30 in the morning until 10:45 at night. Sometimes I wish the sun felt like showing off in the winter as well, but apparently it grows weary of hanging out in the north... either that or the moon wants its share of the limelight.

Just thinkin' about... when the sun'll come out... it's only (quite a few) days away!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

After 12 warm years...

... the record broke, and Amsterdam is now experiencing a mighty cold winter. I sure am "lucky" to have my first full winter here be the coldest in well over a decade! My fingers freeze, my nose freezes, and my toes used to freeze until my sister brought me Uggs. Earlier this week I couldn't ride my bike into work because it too was frozen over. Brrr.

The bright side of the freezing temperatures means that the canals turn to sheets of glorious ice for kids young and old make into a winter playground. And after 12 years, the locals couldn't be happier, and are taking full advantage of the free outdoor ice skating.

But Mother Earth, now that the locals have had their fun, can you please bring us warm weather?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Discovering my roots

Genealogy (or family history) is a very important thing in our church. Although I've always felt an underlying guilt for not doing my part in searching for my ancestors, I never really had a desire to start the research. However, a fire has started to burn within me since I've moved to the Netherlands. It's one thing searching through microfiche for a name and story, and quite another to live in the land of your forbearers. Plus, I am lucky enough to have a wonderful grandma who not only loves to research our genealogy, but takes the time to photocopy information and ship it out to me.

A few months ago she had mailed me a packet with pages worth of information and photos on a castle in the southern part of Holland which used to belong to our family. So, instead of immediately being a good granddaughter and hopping on the next train down, I decided to wait and be a good sister as well. It wasn't until Ava came out to visit that the journey was made to Deurne, since she wanted to see it too.

Deurne is about an hour and a half away by train, near the Belgian border. It's an extremely tiny town that only people who have a specific purpose would go visit. Meaning, after we stopped by the castle, there was not a thing to do, so we left soon thereafter.

The Great Castle, as it is called, was built between 1350-1460 by the Van Doerne family (my ancestors). In the 700 years since, it's lead quite a traumatic existence. It was burned down in the beginning of the 1500's and quickly rebuilt, only to be destroyed again by Spanish troops in 1599. In the middle of the 1600's it was rebuilt and turned into an inn. A few years later the castle was sold, and the new owner enlarged the building. In 1750 the castle was downsized, only to be bought 9 years later and completely rebuilt. During the liberation of Deurne in 1944 the majority of castle was destroyed by fire. The remains, now fortified, date back to the 17th Century. (All except for an extremely unattractive glorified port-a-potty placed inside the walls, since the castle is now a two roomed youth hostel).

Friday, January 2, 2009

Call me crazy!

49 years ago, a single man decided to celebrate the new year in an extreme way. It soon caught on among his friends, and today nearly 10,000 people across the country in various locations jump into the North Sea on New Year's Day. The New Year's Dive, as it is called, is sponsored by Unox, a food corporation. Those who jump in the water get a free hat and split pea soup to warm them up afterwards.
A friend and I went to Zandvoort aan Zee where about 2,000 of the total 10,000 people participated. It was... well, I'll let the video tell the rest.

Definitely a once in a lifetime experience. And now I can check that off my list of things I never knew I wanted to do, but did anyway.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Gelukkig Nieuwjaar 2009!

After midnight strikes the streets go wild! Amsterdam turns into a war zone, where you have to dodge one firework after another. What a 'blast'!