Monday Travel Memory: Amsterdam

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Over two years ago now (which I cannot believe), I choked out a tearful goodbye to life as I knew it in the United States. With one way tickets in our sweaty hands, my husband and I boarded a flight to our new home. Amsterdam. Stepping on that plane was a turning point. I’m forever changed because of it.

I reflect on our time in Amsterdam often. How in love with it I became (and still am). Yet the way that I think about it is completely different from the other cities and countries I merely visited and took vacations. When traveling, I was always looking for the extraordinary. The fabulous. The unexpected. The downright thrilling. For those reasons and so many more, I continue to travel.

But for Amsterdam I have a different sentiment. Why? Initially it was all those things. Extraordinary. Fabulous. Unexpected. And yes, downright thrilling. But as I settled in and became more comfortable, what I truly appreciated was the ordinary. It was everyday life. So wonderful and pleasant and… normal.

That’s what makes this memory different from all the others. It wasn’t the grandiose whirlwind of museum-browsing, guided tour-shuffling or extravagant dining that I remember so fondly. It was the falafel from the shop down the street that we would eat messily as we walked the half block home because we just couldn’t wait. It was the cheap wine we would drink as we sat in our window, legs dangling. It was going on dates by riding those rickety, old cruisers. Sometimes rather that ride my own, I would sit on Jaro’s rack, one arm casually draped around his waist, watching the cobblestone whiz by under my feet. It was the predictable weekend market where we would get the same lunch every single Saturday. From the same two dudes that ran the booth.

It was all the things we had to explore, learn and discover that only could have been done by actually living there. Like any seasoned traveler would tell you- Ask the café server what they order. Ask the store clerk where they go for nightlife. Always ask a local. In my own way, I became one. 

The way I came to appreciate Amsterdam has changed my view of the world. For the better, I would think. My gratitude for the way other people live their ordinary lives is something I have taken with me and carry in my heart. I may have left Amsterdam, but Amsterdam hasn’t left me. It never will.

(These are some photos from our final days there.)

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

xxx

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On Friendships

Picture this: Two young women are walking down the sidewalk, looking at their phones and accidentally bump into each other. They apologize and smile at the same time, then realize they are carrying the same purse. Want to be friends? one of them asks. Yes! is the answer. Then, they hook arms and head into the nearest coffee shop and a beautiful, meaningful, real friendship blossoms. 

THAT DOES NOT HAPPEN.

I just moved to a new city where I don’t know anyone. How on earth do I make friends? Anyone who has moved can probably relate in some way. I would like to think I’m outgoing, personable, even funny sometimes, but it’s not like I can walk into a bar and be like, hey, I like your shoes, wanna be friends? Or interrupt girls dining at the same restaurant as me  and say, hey, you guys remind me of my friends back home, can I join you?

We have now been in Portland for a month and I’ll admit, I haven’t made any connections yet. Unless you count the barista at the cafe across the street. We’re real tight. I’ve let myself be consumed by this house hunt. The only way I can try to change this is by getting active in Portland and getting out. I have to “put myself out there.” Which can be really uncomfortable, even for a social person like me. It’s like… dating. Yuck. It’s intimidating. I think especially so since we’re back in the U.S. where everyone always appears established. Comfortable. Not with a sign on their back saying, hey I want new friends, come talk to me. 

When we moved to Europe, it took awhile to find friends there. I would pass little pow-wows of hip women having drinks together or shopping together and sigh. I want that! It took… four months to finally meet people. That’s a long time. I ended up stumbling into a group of other new ex-pats (none were American, interestingly) and we formed an instant bond over that commonality. Jaro once said that being an ex-pat is like being on a deserted island. You make do with what you have. And he’s right. We ended up forming unlikely friendships with people that we may not have been friends with if we were back in our cozy bubble of Chicago. I now treasure those friendships even though I may never see those people again. Isn’t that interesting?

The other thing about those ex-pat friendships is that somewhere in the back of my head, I knew it was temporary. And so rather than fully immersing myself into the group, I held on more closely to my friendships back in Chicago. This was a delicate balance that I think, in retrospect, I tipped too far. I gripped my life back in the States so hard that it was really difficult to focus on my life in Amsterdam. Most weeks, I had at least five or six skype dates, always an hour or longer. Always varying times, and varying days. It was like a job. It kept me tethered to my apartment. And, unfortunately, it prevented me from really putting myself out there in the city where I lived. That, combined with all the travel we did (I traveled a solid 1/3 of the 14 months) and wanting to spend quality time with Jaro (which was never enough), I never really got settled. I don’t have regrets, but moving forward (pun absolutely intended) I’m going to do things differently.

Now that we’re in Portland, I can’t act like this is temporary. We just bought a house for crying out loud. We are going to be here for a long time. Maybe forever. This is my life. Here. In Portland. Time to start acting like it.

With Jaro’s work schedule (he was traveling this entire week and we spoke maybe twice, for instance), I will need to focus on myself. I’m proud to say that I’m starting! Here are some things I’m going to try and where I hope I’ll meet some new friends:

  • I joined a yoga studio, CorePower Yoga.
  • I signed up to volunteer with the Oregon Humane Society.
  • I’m going to take photography classes. (started researching some options)
  • I bravely stuck my name on a sign up board at Powell’s to join a writer’s group here in Portland. (and already got one response!)

And that’s just the beginning. I’m also thinking about language classes (would love to be fluent in Spanish and eventually French), possibly a book club (’cause this girl loves to read) and maybe, just maybe, I’ll work. That’s a whole different story in itself as that would also include a career change…..

Any tips? I’d love some insights from others that have gone through a move and needed to create a new life for themselves. I admire anyone that has had to go through it. It takes so much courage.

xxx

P.S. An insightful article about making friends as adults. Anyone think I can spearhead a Portland social club?

An Expatriate Guide: International House Hunting

Let me preface this by saying it is WAY overdue. I had started writing it back when we were apartment hunting in Stockholm and things… well… things changed and we didn’t end up there. I think it could still be useful, and so I’m sharing it anyway.

Amsterdam

In case you’re new here… hello. My husband and I went through the process of moving abroad once (almost twice) and it was a HUGE learning experience. If you are faced with the same opportunity to move abroad, God help you. Kidding, guys. I’ll help you! Moving to a new country, in the mix of all the excitement, can also be stressful. Having survived a major move from Chicago to Amsterdam just over a year ago (which I excitedly documented here and here), we were totally naive, but stumbled through the process and ended up with a great result. We want to share what we learned, so that maybe we can be helpful for someone else. Here be my tips:

  1. Understand your perspective. It is much different to visit a place as a tourist versus a soon-to-be resident. It’s important to distinguish the two. Don’t focus on being close to the tourist attractions necessarily, but rather areas with livability based on your lifestyle and interests. Sometimes that overlaps with touristy stuff and that’s okay too.
  2. Do your research. Learn as much as you can about different neighborhoods by reading through online expat guides, local blogs, etc. Know someone that has lived there? They are probably your biggest resource. Even if they don’t share your taste, it’s helpful to talk with someone who is living there and understands the area from a dweller’s perspective. Expat bloggers can be especially helpful, provided the writer is responsive.
  3. Get an “overall feel.” This is kind of vague, but walk around. Drive around, if walking is not practical. Go to as many distinct neighborhoods as you can, see if they match up to what you researched. Eat local food. Check out some shops. Grab a drink at a neighborhood pub. Turn down that residential street. Can you see yourself living here? What are you liking about it and also not liking? Hopefully, you can do this in a visit before the actual move, so you have time to reflect on what you experienced.
  4. House search all over the city. See as many as possible. Even though we initially preferred one specific area, we saw apartments all over the city. You know why? So we could say with confidence that we were focused on the right area for us. As much as cities are different, they are the same. Most cities have a touristy area, as well as a high rent district, a hipster-ville, a downtown, and just plain old undesirable areas. What did you like/not like about where you have lived previously? Is that still relevant to your current life stage? Living priorities might be different if you are young &/or single or older &/or have children. We happen to like “hipster-ville” so that’s where we ended up.
  5. Think about your surroundings. You know what they say in real estate: Location, location, location. As an expat trying to settle into a new country, this is especially important. You need to feel comfortable and safe. How important is it to you to be within easy walking distance of bars and restaurants? What about public transportation? Or the grocery store? The bank? Does that park on the corner look safe or full of drug addicts? Seriously. Imagine yourself walking home at night.
  6. Know what you need versus what you want. Say you find an area that seems to fit you & your lifestyle. You’re halfway there! With the homes in that area, be flexible on dropping amenities down the priority list. When we attempted to move to Stockholm (which ended up not happening after all), we thought we “needed” a dishwasher. Guess what. Many places in Europe, even those with brand-spanking-new kitchens, don’t have them. You know where I’m going with this. As we were house hunting in Stockholm, it quickly dropped down to a “want”. Besides, Jaro can be dishwasher (but seriously, how do people survive without a dishwasher?). Same for gas stoves, closets, large bathrooms, etc. Be open to living simply. You might even find it surprisingly refreshing. …Unless you are sacrificing A/C in a hot climate. In that case, I feel sorry for you.
  7. Be firm with your agents. Relocation rental agents, as we learned, have a job. It’s not to guess your preferences, it’s to get you settled as quickly as possible. Don’t cave in if you don’t feel good about it! When in Stockholm (again, a blessing in disguise that we didn’t get a place), we almost went with a beautiful apartment in a neighborhood that just wasn’t right, but caught ourselves and realized we’d regret it. I know this depends a lot on your situation and whether you have guaranteed temporary housing, but be honest and direct with the rental agents to keep them focused on your needs.

This method worked for us and we find ourselves following it as we attempt to buy our first home back in the U.S. After reading back through this list, it is not necessarily specific to moving abroad. Is this helpful? I’m curious, what are some other tips for helping others house hunt abroad?

xxx

{image of Amsterdam taken by me}

Stockholm Here We Come

Woo wee! Man, it feels good to finally let the news out that we are moving to Sweden. I wish Jaro had more time to contribute to the blog. What a sweet post, right? He is the best. That’s why I married him.

This has been in the works for months. To be honest (because I always am on here), it was a slow, painful process that kept us wondering if it really was a good idea. Most of the time, we were frustrated by delays and problems that were out of our control. The rest of the time, we were frustrated with our own anxiety about this decision. Now that it’s all over and the contract is officially signed, we feel a huge relief. Time to get excited.

It looks like we’ll be moving around the beginning of November. In the meantime, we have already begun the torturous process of immigration and all the paperwork that goes with it. Yuck. It’s all too familiar as we were faced with this mountain of to-do’s just one year ago. As with our move to Amsterdam, this is another permanent relocation. And by permanent, I mean we’ll stay there until another opportunity presents itself. We don’t know how long that will be. And we’re okay with that.

Like I said in my homesick post, Jaro and I are a team. We share all our excitement and hesitations, talk through every decision (big & small), and chose this new path together. There was a lot to consider, trust me. Making this transition will hopefully be much easier than the first time around. We’re pros at being expats or “foreign migrants” now.

However, having each other is good and all, but also having an amazing support network is helping us tremendously. We know we have the unwavering support of our families and friends. As cryptic and vague as we’ve been for the past couple months, everyone has been so patient and understanding as we’ve navigated our next step. Thank you. This decision has not been easy, but all of your support has helped us be less frantic.

And yes, we did visit Stockholm in July. Obviously, I have LOADS to say about it. And I have loads to say about wrapping up this year in Amsterdam. So many thoughts, you guys. I’ll be sharing that soon.

Right now, we are setting off on an epic road trip. We decided this… yesterday. We don’t know where we’re going (though we do have some ideas). We don’t know when we’ll be back (though we know it will be within 2 weeks). All we know is that we’re cranking up the Stones, throwing caution to the wind, and hitting the road. We’re off on an adventure. Yet another.

Onward.

[photo credit]

A new home.

After a long stretch of uncertainty, the setting for the next chapter of our adventure has finally been decided, officially bringing a conclusion to this first year of life in Europe.

We are moving to Sweden.

In a little over a month we’ll be packing up our Dutch life and moving north, to the beautiful city of Stockholm – home to picturesque Scandinavian landscapes, IKEA and some of the world’s tallest (and most attractive) people.

We paid the city a top secret visit before our trip to Italy and found it suits us very well. We know we’re going to miss Amsterdam but we leave knowing we’re going to love Stockholm. It’s another beautiful European city with it’s own unique character. And though the people are a wee bit shorter and the population is just a tad smaller, Stockholm certainly feels BIGGER than Amsterdam. And in many ways, it is. It’s spread over an archipelago of 14 islands and much of its architecture is based on the grand buildings of Paris. Julie said it reminded her of Vienna. We both felt that some parts even reminded us of sweet home Chicago.

So what is taking us there other than the meatballs? I’ve accepted a new opportunity with Nike as Running Brand Manager for Stockholm. Working on running will be a great new challenge for me as it is the sport at the company’s core. But I’m probably more excited about that last part, Stockholm. Notice it’s Stockholm and not Sweden. For now, I’ll get to focus on a city. Not a territory, not a country, but a city! And a great one at that. But the best part is what it means outside of work.

Julie and I have had an unbelievable but difficult year. We had the perfect wedding followed by the perfect honeymoon then we uprooted our lives in Chicago to start our life together in Europe. I spent half the year in Ukraine, most of that without Julie. I won’t get into how stressful it can be trying to get things done in Ukraine. Add on an ambitious personal travel schedule and you’ve got one year that takes the toll of five. Though we did a lot together, Julie and I had very different experiences. We spent a lot of time apart. I never had a chance to settle in and really feel at home.

The new job is, more than anything, an opportunity to take a deep breath and slow things down. Sure, I’ll work just as hard as I always have, but I’ll be in one place, dealing with first-world problems. I couldn’t be happier that for the next indefinite period of time I will find myself, very comfortably, located in a city, with my wife. Exactly where I want to be.

Kiev: Final Reflections

1st annual anniversary photo
Kiev, Ukraine

We are now finished with our brief stint in Kiev, Ukraine. <Insert choirs of angels singing “Hallelujah!” here> In the final weeks there, we celebrated our 1st wedding anniversary (picture is on our crappy apartment balcony… complete with chairs that stained your butt green, but we later went to a beautiful terrace dinner at Concord). I helped Jaro photograph The Chance final week. We feasted on varenyky at Pervak one last time. We got to enjoy a live concert from Elton John in the Fan Zone (fo free!). We found an incredibly chic and modern lounge/restaurant a few blocks from our place called Sad and went twice in three days. We went to the European Championship Final (and watched Spain embarrass Italy), any true football fan’s dream come true.

Espana vs. Italia

 

And now we’re home. When I sit down and think about it, living there on and off (more off for me than Jaro) was an interesting challenge…

Looking back on this year, not only did we have to adjust to a new life in Amsterdam, but we also had all this other incredible change: A new marriage, my decision to stop working, adjusting to occasional life Kiev… the list goes on. Out of all these big changes in our life, Kiev was our biggest challenge by far. I enjoyed our transition to Amsterdam and our Dutch life. Our new home. Our new friends. Hosting visitors. I have enjoyed not working. Instead, I’m working out. Learning to cook. Learning to take good photographs. Learning Dutch. So, what did I find so difficult about living in Ukraine?

1. Jaro worked all the time. All. The. Time. This was part of the deal though, right? I mean, someone has to pay the bills! Initially, I didn’t (couldn’t really) predict how lonely I would be.  After my first trip in September (which I wrote candidly about here and here), I avoided going back to Kiev until the April visit when his family would be there to keep me company. I couldn’t stand to be alone, in a tiny apartment and once you see #4, it will make even more sense. Avoiding it may not have been the best idea or most courageous, but I rationalized it by remembering how much milder the winter was in Amsterdam. (Kiev, according to Jaro, was like this) Jaro continued going there regularly, which meant I was home alone in Amsterdam for much of the year. Sad face. Remember this pathetic dinner? Yep. Did that more times than I care to admit. But, being apart taught me to be self-motivated, keep myself busy and stay optimistic.

2. No one speaks English. And I don’t speak Ukrainian. Or Russian. See a disconnect there? I realize that is my own fault. I wasn’t there enough to take consistent language lessons. Or make friends. Living there without knowing the language was next to impossible. Thankfully, Jaro’s Ukrainian and understanding of Russian is what carried us through. He handled all the communication really. Over time, I became more comfortable winging it. Admitting I didn’t understand when people were talking to me. Trying to communicate anyway. Lots of hand motions and nervous laughing. This was a challenge!

3. The food. I go back and forth on this one. But really, it made things difficult for me. I LOVE varenyky as much as the next warm-blooded Eastern Euro (I am 1/2 Polish after all), but you can’t eat that every day! And as much as I tried to embrace cooking there, our cheap (provided) apartment utensils made it all but impossible. So did not having a dishwasher. I managed to “make the best of it” toward the end and just suck it up with a sink full of dishes each day. Jaro would often chip in with that. What a guy.

4. Our constant internet problems. I can’t even really get into it; I’ll have a hysterical fit. In short, for the last two months we didn’t have a connection at all. After multiple phone calls and technician visits, we gave up. (Sidenote: What did people do before the internet? Watch TV?) Oh and CNN, our only English TV station, stopped working too. So what the heck would I do? Go for walks. Slow ones. Read. Sit outside and enjoy the sun.

5. The fashion. Women of Kiev, take note: There is NOTHING chic about wearing stilettos with exposed nails in the heels that make that horrible clicking sound as you wobble around. Also, there is nothing chic about you stepping on my foot with said exposed nail at a concert and causing it to bleed. I may hang onto that grudge for awhile… at least until this cut heels heals.

Again, the list goes on. For someone (i.e. me) used to western comforts, it’s just a tough place to live. I found myself sighing a lot. Taking deep breaths a lot. Crying a lot. However, as I reflect on my time there, I realized the impact it had on me.

I am so proud.

I’m proud, firstly, of my husband. He did some tremendous things over there, including this for an underprivileged community in Kiev. With the well-known corruption and other problems in Ukraine, I am just so proud that he made it happen along with everything else that he worked on this year. He made friends and bonded with a lot of talented, wonderful people. He is inspiring in so many ways. And to be a loving, thoughtful and romantic husband as well? As frustrated as I got with his demanding schedule, at the end of the day, I realize I’m quite lucky.

I’m proud also of myself. It’s not easy to give up a career, move abroad and spend so much time in a country where standards are not as high. It’s actually really hard. But you know what? The lessons I learned there will last me the rest of my life. To be more positive. To be more patient. To be more kind.

…To still laugh at some of the outrageous fashion. And cringe at the heels.

I’m thankful for my time in Ukraine. Now it’s time for the new challenge.

xxx

P.S. I might miss the mad scientist door across the hall from us. Just a little bit.

Weekend Wrap Up

Hi there. I’m feeling under the weather today, so I’m sorry if this post lacks my normal enthusiam. “Under the weather” couldn’t be more appropriate right now. Our weather in Amsterdam has been AMAZING the past two weeks. Actually amazing. And I’m certainly not feeling amazing so I suppose I am, indeed, under it. But let’s talk weekend, shall we? I had a friend visiting from the U.S. and it was good to talk about how everyone is doing at home and share how things are going over here.

On Friday when she arrived, we took a nice long walk around Museumplein, over to Leidesplein and up & around to Rembrandtplein. Lots o’ pleins (which really just means square in Dutch). All this walking just means we earned our dinner at Bazar, one of my faves, and then we rolled home.

On Saturday, it was another gorgeous day, so we hopped on a Canal Bus Tour (my third time, but who’s counting?). As much as I love the architecture of my city, it was also the perfect day to stare up at this:

But also see our crazy juxtaposition of these:

Het IJ.

We, of course, also stopped in the Lindengrachtmarkt for lunch, so I could say hi to my favorite Hot Meat men.

After a long day in the warm sun, we thought there is no better way to end it than with this:

Enjoying my roof with a friend.

And after considerable chatting up there, it continued down here:

Evening stroll

Sunday rolled around and we took another walk. This time through Vondelpark and around the Pijp, stopping for lunch at another favorite haunt, De Duvel.

Sometimes, quiet weekends are just what you need. And, sometimes, they are even just what I need.

xxx

An Expatriate Guide: Travel

When I first moved to Europe, having only made three trips here previously, I was full of wonder and excitement. I was READY TO TRAVEL. And why not? It’s okay. I’d even say it’s expected. I’ve always considered myself to be adventurous. But, I was also a wee bit naive (like my Why aren’t those eggs in refrigerators? moment). And that’s okay too. There was, and still is, so much to learn, discover and explore.

Since our move seven months ago, I have racked up visits to 10 countries. Not too shabby. That is absolutely, without a doubt, hands down (or up, waving wildly) the biggest perk about being an American living in Europe. The possibilities for travel are endless. After planning that many trips in a short amount of time, I’ve learned some stuff. Here are my top three revelations:

  1. Living “like a local” is unique and cheap. We realized early on that we want to have a local experience while also looking for deals. Whether it’s risking our life in a tin can taking advantage of the discount airlines, finding a reliable hotel bargain, or shopping for meals rather than eating out, there are plenty of ways to save cash. Saving cash = more money for more trips. For housing, we started using rental sites like Housetrip and Airbnb to book our accommodations and finding that we very much prefer it to hotels. It’s never quite the Four Seasons, but that’s not a priority for us. We want to be OUT of the room as much as possible. If that’s your jam, go you. For us, staying in a home, we can make our own coffee and meals to save a bit of cash (bonus: you get to poke around local grocery stores which I love). Every property has pictures, so you know exactly what you are getting. And, I don’t know, there’s something nice about coming back to a home rather than a hotel room. So you can have this for dinner without a shred of guilt:For meals, same thing. While it’s always lovely to dine in Michelin-star restaurants, why not try the street food from the cart in the square? We have had some of our most memorable meals that way. In a good way! It also scores you points with the locals when they see you are willing to give them a chance. So go ahead, try the snails! (Whether you survive or not is your problem.)
  2. Try off season travel. I stress try. This has good and bad qualities. When it comes to traveling during the winter, it’s just not my fave. I don’t prefer to sight-see when everything is dead.Because you know what I always say? Ooh, I need to come back when the weather is nicer. I don’t like being completely bundled a la Randy from A Christmas Story when walking around a new city. Does this mean I won’t travel when the weather is less than perfect? Of course not. A cold trip is still better than no trip. Depending on where you go, this could work to your advantage. Sometimes this means that hotels and airlines have reduced rates, or maybe you get attention from local restaurant and shops owners and end up getting some great personal advice about what to do and see (it’s happened to me and was great). Then again, hotels might be closed up altogether or restaurants are annoyed to have to wait on you, the only patron in the restaurant, when there is a soccer match on tv (it’s happened to me and was depressing). You might as well try.
  3. Be open to unexpected destinations. While it’s natural gravitate toward famous cities (such as Barcelona Paris) or famous natural wonders (like the Cliffs of Moher or the Sahara Desert), I’m convinced that every place on earth has its charm and deserves a chance. This is what is so great about being an expat, everything is new and exciting. Even little towns around the Netherlands like Haarlem, Delft or Zandvoort are lovely. It’s important to be open to places you may never have paid attention to before expat life. Like in my case, Moscow. Moscow wasn’t high on my list of places to visit. But since Jaro had some meetings there, I jumped on the free hotel room and spent my days wandering around. Why not? There is beauty everywhere and living over here affords you so many opportunities to see it. And sometimes it’s in places where you least expect it. Like Moscow’s metro stations:

So, what do you think? Are there other expats out there that share this joy in discovering a new place and general love of travel? I feel like I could write a book about my ramblings on this subject (maybe I should!) or at least continue to expand upon it in future posts. To be continued…

xxx