Friday, May 18, 2012

Queens Day in Amsterdam and Hauke's visit

Hauke and I on Queens Day
At the end of April the Netherlands celebrates Koninginnedag, or Queens Day. April 30th was the birthday of last queen, and the current Queen Beatrix kept the same date when she took the throne. It is absolutely crazy, the whole country seems to dress in orange and get out on the streets partying. The celebrations start on Koninginnenacht, or Queen's Night, and continue the next day as people get up early to participate in a giant fleamarket all over the country - apparently one fifth of dutch families sell things, and half of the dutch population buy things every year.

Hauke in Amsterdam
Normally the Queen heads to a different town to celebrate with the locals every year, but there are organized activities in Amsterdam too, like free concerts in the biggest squares. This year, a lot of official events were cancelled because the Queen's son is in a coma after a skiing accident, but that didn't stop anyone from partying! The use of orange as the dutch national colour comes from the royal family being the House of Orange-Nassau, and people were as into it as the Irish are into green for St Patricks Day. I'd heard about Queens Day years ago from an exchange student living in NZ, and been excited about it ever since I decided to move here with the family. They were nice enough to let Hauke come celebrate it too, so he visited for five nights over the weekend.

The World Press Photo Exhibition in Oudekerk
On Friday morning I biked into the city and hired a bike for Hauke, before meeting him at the train station. We spent the rest of the day bumming around the city, doing a bit of shopping and having a picnic in Vondelpark. It was pretty cool to reflect on all of the parks in different cities and countries that we've sat and had picnics in over the last 18 months! We then visited the World Press Photo Exhibition, housed in Oude Kerk in the red light district. Its the oldest building in Amsterdam, so it's a amazing space for a photo exhibition, and the photos were phenomenal, although quite depressing given all of the subject matter. We then biked back to Badhoevedorp to have dinner with everyone before biking back to the city to go out again. Pepi and Ollie were a bit shy around Hauke for the first 5 minutes, but then they quickly warmed to him again and Pepi banished Rogier to the far corner of the table so that Hauke could sit next to him!

The old man we met in Badhoevedorp
It was a really beautiful evening so we first sat on the side of the canal by the windmill out here to drink a few beers. As we were sitting there, a old man jumped out of a car and started talking to us, eventually talking to Hauke in German for what felt like a good half an hour about Badhoevedorp and what it used to be like, and the Netherlands in general. He looked like real salt of the earth, wearing a fishermans hat, a woolen jersey filled with holes, and pants covered in paint, so I had to ask to take his photo! We then biked into the city and went to an Internations event at a club called Jimmy Woo. Internations here seems quite different from Internations in Luxembourg - people are a lot older and a lot more poncy! It was harder to begin conversations, especially because Hauke was there too, but we did talk to a group of younger people. This was also my first time in a club in Amsterdam, as my friends here normally prefer to drink in pubs or bars rather than go out dancing. It was a cool place, quite fancy and expensive, with a massive line queuing outside by the time we left. Biking home was an interesting experience, managing a straight line was a bit beyond me that night, but we made it in the end!

Hauke playing supermarket with Pepi
We were definitely feeling the effects of the night before when we woke up on Saturday, and took things pretty easy. Hauke conned Pepi into helping him get ready by drying his hair, brushing his teeth and putting on his socks and shoes for him. We didn't leave the house until after 3pm, and despite some pretty nasty weather, we biked out to Haarlem to have a look around. We didn't have so much time there, and I was feeling truly lousy, so we just had a walk around, checked out the fair set up in the main square for Queens Day celebrations, and then went to Joppenkerk for a drink. That night we babysat the kids - or I should say, Hauke babysat! Pepi doesn't want a bar of me whenever Hauke is around, so he played with Pepi and then put him to bed while I sat on the couch with a glass of wine!

The four of us up the windmill
Sunday morning we were also on duty, so we took the kids out of the house for a bit. I had planned on spending the day at the big playground out here, but for some reason the gate remained closed passed its opening time, so we messed around in a smaller park until it got boring and then took the kids up the windmill. The scraps of information I heard from the windmiller showing us around were interesting - he runs the windmill at different speeds when its raining to keep the place from flooding, instead of purely for decoration like I thought - but I spent most of the time trying to keep the kids in check. They seemed to enjoy it though, Pepi told Jacquie some crazy stories about where we'd been and everything we'd done that morning, like going to see a children's movie (probably the 10minute animated documentary on Rembrandt we saw at the windmill!).

Music stage at the Live I Live festival, the Hague
Then, we headed to the Hague to celebrate Queens Night. While the whole country celebrates to some extent, the Hague is supposed to be the place to be. Apparently years ago there used to be big riots there on Queens Night, so they started planning a lot of events to make the atmosphere more positive and put an end to the rioting. Now, they have the free Life I Live festival, which sees the whole central district shut down as stages hosting different bands are set up throughout the city and bars and restaurants spread tables and chairs out onto the streets.

Hauke and I infront of the Parliament buildings in the Hague
To get there, we biked to the airport out here and took a train, arriving in the middle of the afternoon. While I'd been to the Hague last year for a quick visit, I hadn't done more than find all of the shops, so after a quick stop at the tourist office, we set out to explore everything. I really like the Hague, its pretty and a good mix of old and modern, and seems like it would generally be a nice city to live in. Although Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, the Hague hosts the government and parliament, and the parliament buildings are pretty cool, you can walk right through the middle of them to get to the street on the other side. The palace is also located in the Hague, although the Queen lives at another residence - I don't really know what to say about the palace, I've seen so many here now and this one doesn't stand out in any way.

Scheveningen beach at the Hague
We also took the tram out to the seaside. While still part of the Hague, the district is called Scheveningen, and is a big beach holiday destination, with a huge esplanade filled with shops and restaurants and a huge pier. It is a little bit too commercial for me, and apart from the amazing Kurhaus hotel and restaurant building from the 1800s, I think the rest of the architecture there is pretty ugly. The pier is cool, we walked along to the end where people can climb a tower and bungy jump. There's several derelict builings coming off the end of the pier too, they look like former restuarants or casinos, and while I always love dilapidated buildings, I reckon these would make awesome night clubs or something similar.

Why buy one beer when you can buy five?
On the way back to join the music festival we decided to stop for a beer at one of the bars spilling out onto the street. One beer turned into ten beers, and then we were in a pretty good mood for enjoying everything. The music was all dutch, and we didn't really find a stage playing a type of music that we were really into, but we had a good time checking them all out, wandering around and getting both falafel and Febo (a dutch fast food chain where burgers and croquettes are sold vending-machine style, you enter coins and the window opens and out they pop instantly, no waiting around or dealing with queues or cashiers). I really enjoyed the atmosphere there, the streets were packed with happy people and had we not been worried about getting home early and sober enough to go out and celebrate Queens Day the next morning, we would've stayed later and really let loose.

Hauke and Anissa walking through the Jordaan
Monday morning we donned our orange gear and biked into the city. The weather was insane, after a couple of weeks of windy, grey, drizzly skies, the day was brilliantly sunny and hot, I even got a little burnt. It was a weird atmosphere biking into the city, Badhoevedorp was really quiet and empty, although Dutch flags had appeared on flag poles at many of our neighbours' houses, and there was a steady stream of orange-clad cyclists heading the same direction as us. The streets were packed so it took ages to reach Westerpark on the other side of the city - what would normally be a 40min trip took us about a hour and a half. There we met Anissa and her friend Lex from Germany and Matteo from Italy, and we spent several hours lying in the sun drinking and enjoying the free music.

Street and canal filled with orange partiers
Later, we headed into the city, walking through the Jordaan neighbourhood. The Jordaan is a really old working class neighbourhood, now really upscale and artsy. The place was truly packed, there were kids out on the street selling second things in front of their houses, people busking, stages set up at street corners with bands playing, bars spilling out onto the street, and orange decorations everywhere. The canals were fill of boats jam packing with people partying to loud music, I would love to know how many drunk revelers fell from the overloaded boats into the water!

boat party on the canals
We went to Anissa's friend's place where they had set up couches on the footpath in front of their place, in the central city next to a canal. From there, we had an awesome view of the boats going past, I bought some weird wooden parrots from the neighbour, and we passed the rest of the day drinking with her friends. Eventually, we went to get food (more Febo and our second trip to Wok to Walk so far that weekend!) and moved location to another friend's apartment just off Leidseplein, where we stayed until we finally called it a night and headed home. There, everyone started to run out of beer, and we witnessed some bizarre arguments over it akin to what you'd expect on a desert island running out of fresh water! By the time we walked back to get our bikes from the Jordaan and set off for Badhoevedorp the streets had empty and barstaff were sweeping the sidewalks. The amount of trash on the streets was horrendous; beer cans, discarded orange accessories, unsold junk from the fleamarkets, and general rubbish, however the council cleaning staff was out in full force. It was a long day, and I'm surprized we survived the 12 odd hours of drinking in the sun as well as we did!

Anissa and Lex on the canal-side terrace at Soundgarden
Tuesday we got off to a pretty slow start, and biked back into the city to have brunch with Anissa, Lex, Barbara, a friend from Hauke's university city Mainz, and her friend. From there we headed with Anissa and Lex straight to a bar around the corner, and settled down with beer out on the terrace. I also wanted to show Hauke the Tara and the Brouwerij 't IJ, so we headed back to drop of the rental bike and then I fearful perched on the back of my bike while Hauke navigated the rush hour traffic to the Tara. This was a interesting experience, as I couldn't see anything past him and he's a bit more bold than me, so suddenly he would zip through lanes of traffic or wind around pedestrians!

Hauke and I at the windmill brewery bar
After a couple of rounds of pool and a few more drinks at the Tara, we biked out to the windmill brewery bar. This time I got the hang of the perching thing and really enjoyed the free ride! Carmela came and joined us there, and we continued drinking and snacking on fries and the dutch dish bitterballen, balls of stewy meat crumbed and deep fried. Around midnight we called it a night, and after a detour for more Wok to Walk and Febo, began the ardous process of biking the 13km home with two of us on one bike. Hauke did an amazing job, and I was quite impressed with myself for managing 4km with him sitting on the back - look how dutch I'm becoming!

Pepi brushing Hauke's teeth
Wednesday morning we were up early and Hauke was off. I took the kids with me to the bus stop to say goodbye, Pepi handled it pretty well but Ollie cried and cried, it was really cute, and then the whole morning he would ask for "Hauk" and then tear up when I said he'd gone. I had a really good time with him here, but after five days of alcohol consumption and numerous trips to fast food places, I think my body was glad to say goodbye!

More photos from the long weekend are here.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

April in Amsterdam

Kids opening surprize easter eggs
April has been a bit better here.

Easter was sunny but cold. I took the kids to the park in the morning, with a detour to feed the ducks, and then gave them surprize eggs that I'd made. In the middle I put a small easter egg, and then I wound strips of crepe paper around and around, tucking other little presents into it. I didn't want to give them a whole lot of chocolate, so that seemed like I good alternative, and unwinding them kept them amused for awhile!

Houses in Haarlem
One weekend Jana and I biked to Haarlem to meet up with some couchsurfers. Haarlem is a city of about 150 000 people, and is about 13kms, or 1 hours bike ride North-West of Badhoevedorp, close to the sea. It's the centre of the flower-growing area, nicknamed 'Bloemenstad' (flower city) and used to be a major city before the growth of Amsterdam. I really like it there, the old buildings are beautiful but not tourist-clogged, there are less chain stores and more small shops selling funky housewares or clothing, and there are cool bars and cafes and a couple of markets. We went with half a dozen others around some of Haarlem's 19 Hofjes, or little almshouses build around courtyards for single women to live in, like the Béguinage I visited in Belgium and several others around Europe. Unfortunately my camera died, so I don't have any photos, but we had a really nice day and finished up with coffee on the 6th floor terrace of the V&D building (supermarket/department store).

Flower garlands in Haarlem
I went back to Haarlem a week later with Carmela for the Bloemencorso, or 'flower parade'. We went around lunchtime and spent the day looking around, checking out some of the sights that I hadn't already seen and then visiting the Frans Hals museum of fine art. The whole city was decorated with fresh flowers, building the anticipation. After some food and a few beers, we stood out in the lit-up market square waiting for the parade in absolute freezing cold! The parade is made up of floats and cars decorated solely with flowers, the smell and colours are amazing! It starts at Noordwijk, where many flower fields are located (and where I went on holiday with this family last year) early in the morning, and travels 40km to Haarlem. It was meant to arrive at 9pm, but was about an hour late, and I really cannot emphasize how damn cold it was!

Float made of flowers at the Bloemencurso
While it was pretty, I didn't think it was worth the wait or the hype to be honest, once all of the floats arrived the whole thing ended, I was expecting a bit of a party like I'd become accustomed to here in Europe, like at the Diekirch Carnival. The coolest part of it was the marching brass bands, one of which was mounted on bicycles - joining a bicycle-riding band troupe is totally now on my bucket list! At the parade we met a couple of Polish au pairs and headed out for a drink with them afterwards. One of them then introduced me to Jopenkerk, a brewery/bar set inside an old church. Its really beautiful, it still has the amazing walls, ceiling and stained glass windows, and on one side of a glass wall are the big copper tanks. There we met some french guys, which led to more bars, and eventually I managed to bike the 13km home at 4am - not the smartest idea, but I lived!

Tulips at the Keukenhof Gardens
I also visited the Keukenhof Gardens with Carmela, and another friend Patrizio from Italy. With 32 hectares, it is the World's largest flower garden, and is only open for a couple of months each year. It focuses on tulips, as well as daffodils, hyacinths, and a few others. We walked around for ages and had a picnic lunch there, and it was pretty, but after a while it all starts to look the same, all perfectly manicured beds of the same flowers, with a million tourists squashing them to take photos - I think that the Wellington Botanic Gardens have much more variety on offer!

Tulip fields around Lisse
Despite more freezing weather, we hired bikes and headed out into the countryside to see the flower feilds, and I enjoyed these much more. The huge feilds are planted with rows and rows of coloured flowers, interspersed with canals and the occasional windmill. We even biked out to the beach about 10km away, not far away from Noordwijk. Here we ate the Dutch version of fish and chips, kibbeling and fries. Kibbeling is battered and fried chunks of fish, which I much prefer to the more popular Dutch herring dish, raw herring marinated in brine and eaten on bread with onions. There are carts selling it everywhere, including one on the middle of Badhoevedorp that emits a lovely fish smell! I ate it once - while it's not terrible, the texture isn't great, and given the choice of that or something else, it isn't what I would chose to eat.

Me and Ollie at the pool
The kids have been good. I've barely seen Pepi as he's mostly at school, but Ollie and I have had a lot of fun. I've started taking him swimming on Mondays, we get an hour and a half in the pool and an instructor takes a group lesson for a little while too. At first he was terrified and clung to me, but by the end of the first lesson he was happily jumping off the edge of the pool into the water with me catching him, and he has improved a lot. Now he can "swim" with his arms, or "kick" with his legs while I hold him afloat, but he can't manage to do both yet, and he's still to scared to float by himself, even with water wings on.

Ollie 'reading' at the library
One day we took the bus and tram into the city to the big library, it has a cool kids section with english books, and for Ollie the bus and tram are a big adventure in itself! He spent the whole time pointing out "more water, more water, more water" at all of the canals - welcome to the Netherlands buddy, there's water everywhere! We also went to the airport, it's only a short bus ride away from home, and it has a huge viewing deck complete with a plane you can climb inside, and the restaurant inside has a children's playground. There's also a train station under the airport, but we didn't even get that far we spent so long watching the planes, he was really into them!

friends at the windmill brewery bar
I've been getting out in the good weather a bit, either running or going on bike rides. I've been quite a way along the big Ringvaart canal here, through several small villages, and I'm looking forward to finding other directions to bike in. I enjoy this aspect of living here, that its so easy to get out for some exercise and see some nature. I've caught up with a few friends from Luxembourg that have visited - this always equals a lot of time spent wandering around Amsterdam's red light district, and I've been out with friends from here a bit too - all in all a busy month!

More photos from April are here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

March in Amsterdam

Enjoying spring in Amsterdam
March was not the easiest month for me. As I've said, beginning again here in Amsterdam has been harder than it was to settle down in Luxembourg. On the one hand, I'm working a lot more and enrolled in a very time-consuming German course, so I'm much busier than I ever was in Luxembourg and spend less time sitting around broke and bored.

Picnic with the kids at the local playground
I also like the small-town feeling here in Badhoevedorp - having parks, the post office, shops, swimming pool and library within walking distance means I get out and about a lot more with the kids. However, being busy means I spend less time socialising and meeting new people, and I'm finding it harder to make friends here than I'd hoped. Luckily I have met a couple of cool people, and anyway I'm pretty set on buckling down, working hard and saving some money while here to continue my travels.

Ollie found my lipstick, so I let him do mine too!
My new work routine is - home with Ollie on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday until Pepi is home from school, then I've got both of them until Jacquie is home from work, and then I help with dinner, bath and bedtime. Wednesdays and Fridays I have Ollie for a hour or so in the morning, and I do a couple of hours one weekend morning, plus babysitting. I'm enjoying the new deal, while I'm working a lot more and am finding it hard to fit everything else (including this blog!) into my free time, I like being at home alone with the kids, as I can set the tone and organize whatever I like for the day, and I love having a big part of the day with just Ollie - we can do things that I can't while I've got both kids.

being a fireman at a playground
He's a really different kid now he's getting so much more one-on-one time than he's ever had before. Even after just a week with Pepi at school he'd already picked up so many more words and become much more talkative and attention-demanding, now its hard to be out and about with both of them trying to draw my attention to things and have conversations at the same time. We did have one eventful week here in which both parents were away, and I had all three grandparents in the house in stages throughout the week. While its nice that the kids see them more often now, I think it would be less stressful for me to just cope with the kids alone! This same week, Ollie decided that 4am would be a good time to start the day a couple of times - I was not impressed with him, and not impressed with the grandparents who didn't give me a break during the rest of the day either, it was a really long week!

He's started using the big-boy swing!
One of Ollie's cutest new words has been 'freckle'. He can spend ages just pointing at 'more freckle, more freckle, more freckle' on my arms. We've really spent a lot of time exploring Badhoevedorp. We frequent several different parks, the scariest of which is, in true dutch style, bordered on three sides by water, and we often pop down to the supermarket or the bookshop, or to feed ducks in the numerous canals around here. The neighbourhood is, like almost everywhere in the Netherlands I think, filled with flowers, both lining the streets and in people's gardens and homes, and spring has truly arrived here, so Ollie has also become obsessed with the word 'flower'. Again, I get 'more flower, more flower, more flower' as he points to each individual one when we walk past. Pepi seems to be going well at school, he's made some friends and has frequent play dates, and it tires him out, but his dutch is apparently much better (at the expense of his english) and he seems a bit more mature now.

St Patricks Day at the Tara
I've met some couchsurfers here, having attended a casual meet up of just a couple of people, and run a couple of events myself. Anissa, a german-born, singapore/canada/netherlands raised woman and Carmela, a spanish au pair have been awesome to hang out with, we went out with a bunch of other CSers for St Patricks Day, they've introduced me to a couple of bars that are starting to become favourites, and they both went out with me for my birthday. I'm getting particularly fond of the Brouwerij 't IJ bar, a small brewery and bar located in an old windmill, and the Tara, an Irish pub that differs from all other Irish pubs I've been in by having many different rooms with strikingly different decor, from ultra modern to vintage. We started a pub-crawl of irish bars here on St Patricks Day, and went on to visit a couple more before calling it a night pretty early. I have to say, St Patricks Day was a bit of a disappointment here, I guess the Dutch just don't have as much Irish in them as New Zealander's do and didn't see it as a reason to don green and down Guiness, with the exception of all of the tourists.

My birthday cupcake at Vondelpark
My birthday was about as cool as a birthday can be when you're in a new place! I had the day off work and biked into the city for the first time with Jana. Biking into the city itself is pretty easy, you just go straight until you hit the centre. It's a bit over 8km and takes maybe half an hour, so I'm definitely adding to my exercise regime! However this day, we also went on a wild-goose-chase for a town hall, and that, combined with not having a map, made things a big stressful. Most of the way in is on a decent seperate bike path, but in the city the roadway 'bike path' doesn't stop you from having to dodge car, taxi and bus drivers, along with trams and pedestrians. Luckily, bikers outnumber everyone else here and seem to get priority, and everyone else is pretty aware and considerate of bikers. Still, I got Rogier to get me a helmet and I put up with everyone elses ridicule and wear it everywhere - I've had enough near misses with idiots not to want to take my chances.

Out with Anissa on my birthday
We eventually made it to Vondelpark, a popular park in the centre of the city, and had a little picnic under the first grey skies of the month. Pepi had helped me bake cupcakes the day before, so we lit one for me to blow out, and then quickly biked home again in the freezing cold. Later that night I went and had an awesome home-cooked curry with Anissa and her flatmate Willem, and the Carmela joined us to go to one of the bars in the WesterGasfabriek, a former gas plant that is now a big park with different bars, galleries, cafes and other cultural and artistic businesses set up in the various old factory buildings. It's very cool, and we picked a bar with a kind of swing/jazz band playing to a lively crowd and had an awesome night.

Me on the famous I AMsterdam sign
As I mentioned, I'm taking a German course here. I'm studying with the Goethe Institut, a German government run centre that provides really high-quality courses. I'm hoping to get some basic german under my belt before I move there in September, but the course is hard - its only one session of 2.5 hours per week, but its really intense, so there is a lot to memorize at home and not much time to practice listening and speaking. The vocabulary we've encountered so far is overwhelming, but I'm feeling ok about the grammar - I think listening and speaking will have to wait until I get to German to perfect!

More photos are here.