Thursday, October 27, 2016

No bike? No boat? Walk Amsterdam instead.

Now that the twins are back in school, I've had a bit more time to explore Amsterdam on my own. As I mentioned in a previous post, Dutch bicycles and I aren't getting along at the moment. But I prefer to walk--it's the best way to get to know a city. Meandering the souks of Marrakech and the ruins of Rome allowed me to spot small details I never would have noticed otherwise, allowed me to discover places that would never have been mentioned in a tourist's guidebook. The canals of Amsterdam are no exception.

Seen in Amsterdam
Creepy toy heads are hard to notice from a bike.

On Tuesday I walked to Albert Cuypmarkt, a famous street market that's surprisingly close to where my cousins live. (I always forget how small Amsterdam is--it's not even three miles from my cousin's apartment to the IJ.) While Albert Cuypmarkt is definitely a tourist's destination--tulip-bulb umbrellas, tacky marijuana tchotchkes, and 10-for-5€ postcards abound--locals also come here to shop for everything from fresh fish to bicycles to fabric. Also, Sensodyne toothpaste. For some reason, there were boxes upon boxes of Sensodyne toothpaste. Go figure. The day I visited it was overcast and chilly, but that simply meant the market was less crowded than usual--more space for me to browse as I pleased. 

Albert Cuypmarkt Amsterdam
Gray skies over Albert Cuypmarkt.

Today, much like on my recent trip to San Francisco, I focused on bookstore tourism. I researched literary life in Amsterdam, and all my sources pointed me to one place: Athenaeum Boekhandel--which just so happens to be celebrating its fiftieth year in business! The many rooms of this bookstore are connected by winding staircases and sharp corners that almost seem to be placed at random, but don't worry--the thorough signage prevents customers from getting lost. They have a large selection of books in several languages, including English. Upon my arrival at the Athenaeum, I was ashamed to realize that I couldn't name a single Dutch author. Painters, sure. But writers? Not one--not that I could read them in Dutch even if I could name them. Fortunately, I found a copy of The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, which features mostly pieces that have never before been translated into English. I look forward to my Dutch literary education. 

Athenaeum Boekhandel Amsterdam
Many floors of Dutch literary goodness.

Where in Amsterdam will I walk next? That remains to be seen. But with the lovely fall weather we've been having, I'm sure I'll be doing plenty of it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Dispatch from the Couch

First, a message to stay-at-home moms and dads and gender-nonconforming parents: while I respect your decision to make raising your kids your primary work, I cannot say that I understand your decision. Kids are adorable, sure. But I've just spent not-quite-a-week taking care of my little cousins while they're on their fall break, and I've never been so exhausted in my whole life--even though their father is home, too! Two of them are sick, and all three scream a lot, whether it's in glee or anger or sadness. I've basically been drinking tea nonstop because I'm almost constantly dozing off. I love them, and I'm glad to be spending time with them and watching them learn, but it's tough having a job that you can never stop doing, 24/7. At any rate, this week has reminded me that household chores and childrearing is real work, and stay-at-home parents should probably be paid for it. Can't we just fund the military less and institute a universal basic income instead?

Though they are across the ocean, I can see my conservative parents shaking their heads in disappointment.

Anyway, my brain is frazzled enough that I can't remember in what order things have happened lately. I'll try to share some anecdotes. 

I crashed my cousin's bike into a wall, wounding only my pride. There were tears in my eyes, but only from embarrassment. I suppose it could have been worse--there were merely two tall beautiful blonde Dutch people working on their picturesque boat in the picturesque canal (of course) to witness my shame. What's more, they were really nice, and rushed over to make sure I was okay. Heartless laughter would have been infinitely more bearable--then at least I could have laughed with them. I knew that breaking on fixie bike would be tough, but I didn't realize that steering would be this difficult. Hopefully I can muster the courage to try again...

On Saturday night I went to a storytelling show at the Volkshotel. I arrived ten minutes early, and the bar was completely dead. I figured I had either stumbled into a hugely unpopular event, or that Dutch culture doesn't stress promptness. Luckily, the latter seemed to be the case. As I watched the tables filling around me, I considered how to project an air of confidence while simultaneously projecting a desperate "please talk to me!" message. Then I remembered my travel tattoos. I can't get people to stop talking to me when I show off my tattoos. I removed my sweater, and within five minutes I was talking to a group at the table next to mine--who turned out to be a bunch of gay dudes from Andersonville in Chicago. Really breaking out of my comfort zone there. Later I started chatting with a Dutch woman named Wendy, and now we're friends! By which I mean Facebook friends. I owe her a drink, so I'll have to contact her soon. 

This year I finally volunteered for the VIDA count, and our work started this week. Essentially we go through the TOCs of major literary magazines and count how many women and gender-nonconforming people are represented as opposed to men. Later in the year they'll publish the statistics. So far the results that I've encountered are disheartening. And yet I'm not surprised. 

We've been doing lots of fun things with the kiddos. The other day we took them to a little carnival downtown in Dam Square. We were going to ride the ferris wheel, but then W+H both had their own special meltdowns. On the bright side, downtown Amsterdam is absolutely gorgeous. 


Today we took them to see a T. Rex skeleton at a museum in Leiden. I wish I'd had time to take pictures of the town. It was beautiful, full of old buildings, with a giant molen (windmill) in the middle. Then we met one of their friends, Lukas, and his parents at a pannenkoek (pancake) restaurant. Dutch pancakes are more like crepes--they come in both sweet and savory versions. And they're gigantic. Mine had mushrooms, onions, bacon, and cheese. Observe:

Pannenkoek is lekker.

And...yeah. There's probably more stuff. I don't know. I need to go to sleep. Dinner first, though. 

Oh, and good luck to all my my UNLV friends with the presidential debate tonight! Wish I were there to witness the chaos. Very jealous of all your Anderson Cooper sightings.


EDIT: I forgot that one of my flash fiction stories was published in Helen this week. That's another thing that happened. You should probably read it. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

Dispatch from Cafe Hesp

Greetings! I'm writing this (by hand--to be typed later) from Cafe Hesp, an over 100-year-old bar on the banks of the Amstel River. It's also down the street from Erin & Rembert's place. I read the menu online in English before I came, so now the waiters think my Dutch reading skills are A+, even though I can't speak for shit.

Lekker bier at Cafe Hesp.

It's my first night alone in the great city of Amsterdam. Erin's at a conference in Boston, and Rembert took himself and the turkeys (5-year-old twins Willem & Hendricus and 21-month-old Matthijs) to visit his parents in Hoorn, so I have the apartment to myself. The first thing I did was take a nap--it's difficult to rid oneself of jetlag when one's tiny cousins are jumping into one's bed at 7 a.m. every day. But I figured I ought to go out and do something. No sense in coming to Europe if I'm just going to hide inside. Depending on how I feel after this, I might head to another nearby bar--but I don't want to get too wild. 

As I mentioned in my last post, I flew from Milwaukee to Philadelphia, Philadelphia to Orlando, Orlando to London, and London to Amsterdam. Honestly, it wasn't that bad. I'm a fan of airports--they're great for people-watching. And the only major disaster was that I spilled ketchup on my white sweater. There was one nerve-wracking moment when I was checking in for my flight to Amsterdam; the attendant told me that the UK requires non-residents to have a return ticket, but because I was immediately leaving for the Netherlands, it was okay. If I'd needed to spend the night in London, we may have had a problem. At any rate, it all turned out well.

I arrived in Amsterdam at about 5 p.m. on Wednesday, and I was greeted by the most adorable welcoming party I've ever seen.

Rumor has it Rembert made the signs while the twins slept, but it's the thought that counts.

Henry had a mild meltdown over a balloon he couldn't have, but we eventually made it back home. Erin and I picked up some Indonesian food, and we all sat down to a family meal of delicious foods we couldn't identify. 

I have to say, for two people who just moved back to Amsterdam with their three small children, E&R are doing an amazing job. Their poise is laudable. That said, some things are understandably chaotic--cardboard boxes full of clothes in the hallway, half-built IKEA cabinets. I'm hoping I can be the extra hand they need to get properly settled in; my first goal is to organize the pantry. Maybe I'll do that tonight, while there are no turkeys in the house to plow through the food I pull out. 

In other news, it turns out that E&R's neighborhood is hip now. On Thursday morning, after Erin had biked the twins to school, she and I went to work at the Volks Hotel, which has a trendy cafe and a giant (free!) workspace on the first floor. They also have yoga classes there 3 days a week (think they say "down dog" or "naar beneden hond"?), as well as an event space/bar in the basement. There's a storytelling event à la The Moth there tomorrow night, which I may attend. Hopefully it's at least partially in English? Their advertising is in English, and according to Erin, the Volks Hotel draws an international crowd, so maybe?

Today Erin left for Boston, and Rembert had to take some online tests for his current job applications, so I brought the twins to the park while Matthijs napped. It was a lovely walk along the Amstel, passing by all the houseboats. 

Woonboten. (Houseboats.)

W&H may be a tad rambunctious--as is the wont of 5-year-old boys--but overall they're remarkably well-behaved. When I ask them to hold my hands while crossing busy streets, they readily comply. Henry is adamant about my pronunciation when I ask him to teach me phrases in Dutch. 

At the park, W&H befriended two Italian bambinos, and they promptly began to throw dirt at one another--gleefully, of course. Italian dad and I tried to get them to stop, with poor results. I suppose a little dirt never hurt anyone. 

The boys are off school this week--Fall break--and Erin doesn't get back until Thursday morning, so I imagine I'll be on au pair duty a lot for the next few days. Erin left me her bike, but I'm not a particularly confident biker, especially on a fixie, which is just how they do things here. (Hand breaks get tangled together too easily.) I have so many questions. Are there bike left-hand turn lanes? Are hand signals a thing? Perhaps I'll take a ride around the block tomorrow. Baby steps. 

Actually, training wheels may be a more appropriate metaphor.


EDIT: I tried to go to Bar Bukowski for a nightcap, but it was so crowded I was afraid I wouldn't even be able to get in the door. Got intimidated by all the cool Dutch people and left. Pantry organizing it is. 

Monday, October 10, 2016


Tomorrow's the day. I'm boarding a plane...and then another plane...and then another plane...and then another plane...and sometime on Wednesday I'll end up in Amsterdam! Wish me luck--I need the travel gods on my side for this one. It's going to be a lot of connections. On the bright side, I should get plenty of writing done.

I have been to Amsterdam before--almost eight years ago exactly, as a matter of fact. Here is visual proof:

Twenty-year-old Becky on the back of Rembert's bike.

That brief vacation involved lots of touristy things--biking around Vondelpark, visiting the Anne Frank House, browsing the Albert Cuyp Market, and so on. Also, a trip to the delightful suburb of Hoorn for a karaoke party at the house of Rembert's childhood friend and breakfast with his parents. This was long before my cousin Erin had even married Rembert, and my cute baby cousins did not yet exist.

I suspect this visit will be very different, both in terms of the amount of cute babies and in terms of how well I get to know Amsterdam. I'm looking forward to it.

I would write more, but I must at least attempt to sleep, as I have a poor track record of dozing off on planes. I'll catch up with you in the Netherlands!