April 25, 2010

Touchy subject

Yesterday a friend had a birthday party/housewarming at her and her boyfriend's house. As most of us sat in the living room enjoying cake and other good food, the husband of another friend happened to make note of something on the fork he was using. He pointedly asked my friend where the fork came from, but didn't say what was on it. The fork got passed around to each of us and as each person looked at it, they all took on the same shocked expression of raised eyebrows. It was a Nazi fork. It was embossed with Nazi symbols, and my friend had no idea how it ended up in her house. To top it all off, the guy who had noticed it and who was eating from it was German. He wasn't offended though and jokes were made about how the host must have planned for him to end up using it. Once the host also learned about this fork that had somehow made its way into his kitchen drawer, he joked back that the German guy must take the fork along when going to other people's houses to pin this on the hosts (plus, since the host is Dutch, he had to throw in a "you've probably stolen my bike while you're at it!") It was just some good, ol' World War II humor. I don't think anyone was truly offended, though the German guy said that when he was a student (I think somewhere outside of Germany) and he first saw the Fawlty Towers Germans episode, he was so hurt that he left the room. But he had grown up in an atmosphere where the war was a horribly shameful thing that no one talked about, and here were these English people making all sorts of offensive jokes. He said he's moved on since then, especially after living for so long in Holland.

April 22, 2010

The winteriest winter to ever winter

I know, spring is in full force and then I decide to look back on the freezing winter we had. I was afraid to make this post for awhile for fear of jinxing things and having the weather turn on us. I've seen it snow here in late April. It can happen. But considering it's meant to be sunny for the foreseeable future, and up to around 20 degrees during the weekend, I think we are safe (knock on wood).

So yeah, it was officially the coldest winter in 14 years with a grand average of just 1.1 degrees. We also got snow. A lot of snow. Perhaps not so much depth, at least where I live, but once we got it, it hung around awhile. All-in-all I felt like I was trying out being an East Coaster: getting used to all of the bundling up that was necessary to go outside, wearing warm, grippy winter shoes to work and then changing into sneakers there, walking hunched over and with a slight shuffle. I didn't mind it, though I know some people absolutely wilted every time it snowed again. But I enjoyed the true winteriness of it, the dramas it caused, and the pretty snow and ice. A recap of some of the days I captured in photos:

The main, big snow, December 20th.
My street



Icy canals in central Leiden, January 3rd
Icy canals

3 days later, January 6th, the sidewalk coated in ice and old snow
My street after days of icyness

A ton of snow fell in Amsterdam on January 6th, people left work early, and then I got home to find not even a tiny bit of snow in Leiden. This photo was taken from my office on January 13th; it showed no sign of melting, it just got more icy each day.
View of snow from work

A late-night walk in the snow, January 24th
Midnight walk in the snow

Waking up to... snow, January 30th
Wintery morning

Frozen over pond, February 14, finally the last day it snowed
Frozen Leidse Hout pond

Snail's pace

Wow, I'm onto my 3rd novel of 2010. It took me two months to get through the book I just finished (The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters). Granted, it was 750 pages long, but still, that's pretty pathetic. Today I started Special Topics in Calamity Physics; it's 500 pages long. At my current rate, I'll still be reading it when I go to the US.

April 20, 2010

Crisis tourist

On the way home from work yesterday, I decided to pop off the train at Schiphol and check out the atmosphere there. I didn't have my camera with me, but you can imagine the images anyway: empty arrival/departures screens, cleared out check-in desks, people sleeping on window ledges. There was a clump of people around the KLM ticket counters and a rather calm feeling. There seemed to be an actual exchange of information from the KLM employees there, which is in contrast to the stories I just read on the BBC website about British people stranded in various parts of the world. But maybe they were just having a chat with the people there. It at least didn't look like the travellers wanted to kill the airline employees.

On the arrivals level, I saw that there was luggage lying on the floor around each baggage belt. I wondered who all those suitcases belonged to and how long they'd be sitting there. Also, I saw a man who was maybe a taxi driver or coach driver holding up a sign like they normally do when picking up specific passengers. But instead of someone's last name being on the sign, it said "Spain 19:00". I later saw him wandering through the shopping area, I guess trying to collect anyone interested in getting to Spain.

Not that I can relate to the people who have been stranded here for days, but I was thinking of all airports to get stuck in Schiphol would probably be one of the best. On either side of immigration control, you'd have enough eating options, places to sit, and a few things to keep you entertained. If you're not airside, Amsterdam isn't that far so you can easily pop into the city (if you feel it's ok to leave for awhile) and get out of the mindset of the situation for a bit of time. I'm almost sad that Schiphol is my home airport since I never get to take advantage of what it has to offer. Unlike when I was facing a possible 3 hour wait in Stockholm in a wing of the airport with few food options, a dire shortage of chairs, and there was not-too-expensive internet, but the terminals were stupidly put on raised tables so you'd have to stand to use it.

With flights going again I feel a bit of relief, but I know we aren't fully in the clear yet. I've been wishing with all my heart that E and A get here as planned on Friday, and that I make it fine to my friend's wedding in a couple of weeks, and then to the US on schedule in June. itwillgofine itwillgofine itwillgofine...

April 18, 2010

Stockholm: The Amsterdam of the North

Photos from the trip are here.

A long holiday dryspell of 6 months was finally broken when I went to Stockholm over Easter weekend. Aside from one night in Copenhagen when I was still in college, this was my first time to Scandinavia. I usually opt for warmer places to go on holiday, so going up north kept getting bypassed, even though I would love to see fjords and the Northern Lights someday (and I had planned to go to Iceland once, back when it was just up there in the Atlantic minding its own business). I don't remember much about the tiny bit of Copenhagen I did see, and I can't say anything about the rest of the region, but I definitely found Stockholm to my liking. It was similar to Holland, but less crowded, more colorful, and with more nature and nicer people. If it weren't so cold there, I'd probably consider moving there.

I spent my first day in Stockholm walking and walking and walking a bit more, first going to the north side of the city to the Östermalms Saluhall, an upscale indoor market selling everything from meat and fish to pastries and coffee. I enjoyed checking out the different stalls, though I didn't really end up purchasing anything. After a bit of a wander through the narrow streets of Gamla Stan (Old Town), which is the area I was staying in, I headed over to the south side to go to a chocolate shop I knew of. They make their chocolates by hand and include typically Swedish flavors like lingonberries, punsch, and cardamom. I rested my legs and had a spiced chocolate tea, enjoying the Simon and Garfunkel songs they were playing. That evening I had dinner at a restaurant not far from my hostel where I had a delicious moose burger with cheese and bacon.

The next day was Easter and I decided to spend it at Skansen, a large open-air museum where they have a collection of old buildings from around the country and the people who work there dress in traditional clothes. I knew it'd be mad because of the holiday, but I prepared myself as best I could. I took a ferry to get there (Stockholm is spread around many islands, so bridges and ferries abound) and then tried to get away from children as quickly as possible. It didn't feel too crowded since the park is so large. It's part market and village, part amusement park, and part zoo. I wandered through the village where I bought some buns from the bakery and watched someone sculpting glass.

Skansen village

I went into an old house where a couple was playing traditional Swedish music. I went through a market and bought some candy to take to my co-workers. I took a lunch break and this time tried reindeer, served on a potato pancake (it was also mighty tasty). I checked out the Scandinavian animals they had in the zoo area, such as bears, seals, moose, reindeer (felt a bit guilty for just having eaten one of their kind. Well... not really), and owls. By now, the day had become wonderfully sunny, though not incredibly warm, though it's all a bit relative. It was a little colder than it had been in the Netherlands, but it was some of the warmest weather they'd had yet, as evidenced by the ice that was floating down the water in the center of the city. There were many times during the day that I saw people resting with their faces angled up to the sun like a sunflower, eyes closed and a faint smile on their lips.

I took my leave of Skansen and went to join the sun worshippers. Someone had recommended a nearby cafe that would be good for a "fika", a Swedish word describing having a coffee and cake break. It was a word I liked very much. The cafe was housed in a greenhouse, but with an area with tables outside. I sat with some tea and a slice of carrot cake and marveled at the blueness of the sky and the fact that I was warm enough to take off my jacket.

Fika in the late afternoon

The following morning I cracked the curtain to see if it was a particularly sunny day and was shocked to see it was snowing. I shouldn't have been that surprised because I had seen the possibility in the weather forecast, but still, I thought the white stuff was behind me. I didn't really mind though, it didn't snow much and it gave the city a different feel. Since it was Easter Monday, most shops were closed and I wasn't sure if it would be worth sticking to my plans to take a ferry out to Vaxholm, an island in the vast archipelago east of Stockholm. I decided to go though because I really wanted to see what the archipelago was like. I didn't regret the trip, despite things being a bit quiet on the island, but that was part of the charm.

Beautiful islands on way to Vaxholm

It's hard to describe what I did on Vaxholm, because it wasn't much, but it was very memorable, being in a little town, tromping through the snow, admiring one quaint, colorful house after another. I was only there a few hours before having to head back to Stockholm on the ferry.

I spent that evening seeing some of the southern part of the city, which I hadn't had a chance to really wander around yet. It's the cool, hip area of Stockholm and I wish I had been able to make it there when the shops were open and in the daylight, but at least I got a feel for the area. It reminded me of the trendy areas of Portland. I even came upon an upscale grocery (that called itself an "urban deli") and when I saw it, I thought "oh my god, I've found the Pearl District of Stockholm." I ended up having dinner at a little, unassuming sushi place where the only other customers were a group of students who spoke a mix of English, Spanish, and Dutch. Oy.

So, next, in less than 3 weeks, I head to the Lake District of England for a friend's wedding and hopefully some walking in the countryside. Weather permitting. And now volcano permitting. Perhaps I'm safer because the trip isn't so near, but then we just don't know. I am crossing my fingers and knocking wood and hoping and perhaps even praying that this does not fuck up these trips I've been looking forward to for so long.

April 15, 2010

Stockholm videos

Slowly working on my Stockholm stuff... Here are a couple of videos to provide a mild bit of entertainment.

This video is incredibly unexciting to watch, but it's the sound to pay attention to. One evening I was wandering around the little island of Gamla Stan, which is where I was fortunate enough to be staying, and I thought I'd get out of the mess of winding, cobbled streets and go check out the waterfront. As I got nearer to the water, I was horrified to find out that what might have been a lovely, quiet setting along the water was ruined by the absolute racket of thousands of seagulls that had come in for the evening.

Slightly more pleasing to the ear (well, it depends on your taste, but I like it), I present some traditional Swedish music played on funky violin-like instruments. I looked it up online and it is apparently a nyckelharpa, an instrument that is related to the hurdy-gurdy (which I just have to mention because its name is so cool). This was a duo playing at Skansen, an open-air museum, on Easter. The people at Skansen also dress traditionally. That, plus the little fire in the corner, made it easy to feel like you were back in the 19th century.

April 9, 2010

A couple of comments on Stockholm

I spent Easter weekend in Stockholm, my first true foray into Scandinavia. I loved the city: the water, the hills, the colorful buildings, the food. There are a lot of similarities that can be drawn between Sweden and Holland, though I found people in Stockholm to be friendlier than in Amsterdam. But the languages are similar, some of the food is the same (a love of herring for one), and, on arriving in Stockholm in the evening, I noticed that the Swedes also have an aversion to using curtains, if only to subtly show off the cozy interiors of their houses with just-like-the-Dutch low lighting.

I'm going through my photos and will hopefully get them and further details about my trip online soon. One story about the trip home though: when I checked in, I was asked if I would mind taking a later flight because mine was overbooked. As compensation, I would get 150 eur in KLM vouchers, or 75 eur cash. I decided to take the offer, which would have put me on a flight 3 hours later, unless there ended up being spots on my flight afterall. By the time I got through security though I was somewhat regretting the decision because I was feeling exhausted and a headache was growing, so I had my fingers crossed that there'd be space on the plane. When my flight was boarding and I was called to the desk to be given the compensation vouchers by a KLM woman, I was resigning myself to the fact that I'd have to hang around the airport for another 3 hours. But then they handed me my original boarding pass and pointed for me to join the line boarding the plane. I was so tired that I didn't get it at first: I got to go home on my original flight and I got the vouchers. Sweet! So it was win-win.