It's fairly ironic that the worst part of travel is, well, travel.

While it may sound glamourous to say I'm heading to Paris, London, Barcelona, Zurich, Prague all in the months of December and January....well ok, it is a bit better than Red Deer, Lacombe, and Edmonton, I'll grant you that . But the act of getting to each place is a little less enviable.

Where to begin? On the Eurostar from Paris to London, on a train made only for those under 5'6", I'm seated directly facing the world's most affectionate couple. I'm not sure what the Chinese word for Schmoopie is, but I'm pretty sure they said it every few seconds. I'm also not sure what happens when one of them has to go the bathroom, but it must be devastating. I don't think they did, actually. But after watching them, I sure had to.

Glamour also wears off quickly in places like the
Paris Metro, when you're being packed like Twinkies into Oprah's mouth, and having someone cough directly into your cornea. Or on the famed London Underground, where at 8:45am on the 9-hour day back home (see newspaper headlines above), a 30-something guy, without sound or warning, expels the most massive amount of vomit since Britney Spears' last album. Had I been standing a foot closer, I would have been wearing it the rest of the day.

So next time someone tells you, whether they're bragging or just plainly recounting, that he/she is jet-setting around various overseas locales, take heart that you may actually be enjoying a much more pleasant ride while couch-surfing at home.

London Calling


A pre-Christmas Paris-London trip wraps up - and it was possibly the least glamourous one possible, given the very unusual snowfalls in both cities and the holiday travel crunch.

I will expand on what made this trip particularly unsexy in a post later this week. For now, here are some nice images from a sunny Sunday morning in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens...

This City Keeps Calling


...and I keep answering.

I can hear the conversation with Paris in my head - "you know it'll never work"... "the age difference is too great"... "you are too high maintenance"... "I think we should see other cities"... "Your coffees are as big as a thimble and you sometimes smell like urine"... you know, all the classics.

Yet I have an irrational, addictive, unhealthy love for this city. I have been here four times in the past 17 months - a sure sign of trouble.

A few more photos of the object of my affection, taken yesterday at dusk from Parc Belleville and this evening from Quai des Jemmapes... more as I have more time in the next week or so. You can also visit any post listed under "Paris" along the left-hand side of this page - there are some nice shots from October '09 as well.

Did You Know?


  • That Dutch people love Michael Buble?

  • That there are in fact three red light districts? There's the main one which everyone knows about, and two others in predominantly residential areas. You're walking along a quiet canal-side street, looking casually at the classic walk-up apartments lit up warmly with candles in the window and maybe a cat sleeping on the windowsill...then BAM! Almost-naked woman in a window, framed by neon red lights. Oddly, a nice mix... To my urban planning geeks back in Calgary - take note.

  • That the majority of taxis in Amsterdam are late-model Mercedes? Given the rates they charge, the only surprise here is that they're not Ferraris.

  • That if you were offering the clerk a million dollars in cash, Michael Buble tickets, and a puppy, you still couldn't get an iPhone through T-Mobile here? It's insane what non-residents need to go through to get one.

  • That riding a Dutch bike is highly addictive, and helps clear your head no matter what kind of day or night you've just had?

My ride. 75 Euros - money well spent.
  • That those douchey, pouting teens from Twilight are just as ubiquitous here as in North America?

  • That "gevulde speculaas" is not an uncomfortable gynecological instrument, but rather an amazing Dutch cookie-like treat with almond filling?

  • That clicking on the ads on this page really does work? I made $12.31 (U.S.) in October thanks to you people - that's enough for several pounds of gevulde speculaas. Thank you, and keep clicking every day!



Piets on the Streets

Sinterklaas. Saint Nicholas. Or Sint, for short. December 5th sees Sint all over the Netherlands, aided often by his helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).

The Feast of Sinterklaas resembles the North American Christmas - although it is celebrated 20 days earlier, and with a few subtle differences.

First, and most commonly expressed by the naive expat from Canada or the U.S., is "Holy crap is that ever racist", upon seeing Zwarte Piet.

Dressed in blackface, with afros, and acting mildly slavish (think Santa's elves, maybe in Mississippi circa 1950), these little imps are explained in various ways, as the Devil (who is enslaved by St. Nicholas), to just straight-up slaves, to the totally benign kid-who-climbed-down-a-chimney-and-is-now-covered-in-soot. Piet throws candies to the kids in parades, hands out gifts, and causes some mild mischief throughout the month.

So we'll adopt the latter definition above, as most Nederlanders prefer to do anyhow. And there doesn't seem to be any malice nor any sinister undertones to people of all ages dressing up as Piet, so we'll move on. But the lingering impression is an uneasy one, and you won't see me or any of the expats I've spoken to about it smearing on the blackface anytime soon.

Both kids are eye-balling the gifts instead of Sint

Anyhow... back to Sint. I had the good fortune of spending a pretty authentic Sinterklaas feast with family, and the uncle provided the full entertainment as a very impressive version of the old gift-giver. Sint comes over from Spain (know why? I don't. Fill us in on the comments below - first correct answer wins a pepernote). I'm thinking it's because he prefers to spend as little time getting rained on in Holland during November and December, and it's a heck of a lot warmer than the North Pole.

Sinterklaas greets the adults as well

The tradition is to give gifts to the kids of course, and many adults do a Secret Santa gift exchange with a set monetary limit, just like back home. Often these gifts can be homemade, including elaborate wrapping for the recipient to wade through, like jello pudding made to simluate sheep guts (really, this is tough to explain - just trust me on this).

A marked difference is the more celebratory feel than back home - all the adults join the kids in singing a bunch of songs to usher Sinterklaas into the house, and poems accompany each gift - the giver needs to write a few lines to the getter, usually including some mild ribbing. On the downside, there is less of a turkey-gorging feast.

To celebrate the actual Christmas day on December 25th, there's still no turkey - European gobblers can breathe a sigh of relief while their cousins across the ocean get carved up - just nice dinner, this time sans Piet.



The ceiling of the Tuchiniski cinema

Last week, I mentioned one of the primary benefits of being in a bigger city - having the added cultural selection.

The International Documentary Film Festival ( is the highlight for a lot of the 30+ crowd in the city, and is one of the best choices I've made so far here (aside from the decision to stop mentally converting Euros to Canadian dollars - it deadens the pain) .

It is basically 10 days straight of hundreds of films, from 10am to midnight every day. From bigger-budget Michael Moore fare to small-budget French movies, it's all here, and it really is international. Most films are in English with Dutch subtitles, which is a bonus for A) those who speak English and B) those who want to learn Dutch.

I saw two films this week... and I know what you're thinking - "wow, quite the movie buff there, Jeff. - hundreds of movies and you saw two." But wait. Little did I know - and now you know, so you can prepare for next year - that most of the movies were sold out well ahead of the start of the festival.

Inside the Tuchinski theatre

The Dutch, and the large expat community here it seems, are serious film buffs. And with the ability to purchase multiple screenings online, coupled with the regular amount of dreary November weather, the site read "uitverkocht" for a great number of movies.

Next year, should you be here - check the schedule early and start clicking.

I saw "Male Domination", a scathing look at male aggression and insecurity by a Parisian director. It focuses a lot on the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, and also shows a number of first-hand accounts of domestic violence along with a small group of idiotic "masculinists", a society of troglodytes who think the way people did 200-300 years ago.

I found the movie very moving, but also limited in its scope (and it didn't help that it didn't paint a more global picture of the problem - Quebec comes off as a desolate, wintry, brutal society, and of course it is not; it's one of the more progressive ones, and there are far more severe societies around the globe). It also didn't dig deeper to see what some of the root causes are, nor the solutions.

To be fair, the director (who was there for a Q & A after the film) did say that he really could have made six films with all his footage to cover the scope of the problem.

Onto the second movie, which was "The Rainbow Warriors of Waiheke Island", a beautiful movie about Greenpeace and the story of the Rainbow Warrior which was sunk off the coast of New Zealand back in the 80s as it was protesting French nuclear tests that killed scores of South Pacific islanders and marine life, and left hundreds others disfigured or with birth defects.

It follows the people who were on the ship then, with footage of how they remembered it and of how they live their lives today. It had a particular resonance for me, having been to Waiheke Island in 1996. It's about a 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland, and is just an amazing place.

A stock photo of Waiheke Island

The movie had great scenery, great (real-life) characters, and a story that really has no parallel today. Although I'm way more on the green and the peace side of things in general, myself and millions like me wouldn't have the conviction to do what they did back then. We're too distracted by shiny things, the convenience of modern living, and willful ignorance.

The grey-haired, grizzled vets that they are today seem awfully content and well-adjusted, though - perhaps the by-product of a life lived with real meaning.

We were even lucky enough to have one of them in the audience also doing a Q & A after the movie - a definite perk of the big-city film festival.

Peace out.

Impressions of Amsterdam


After being here for a month, I'm seeing a few patterns emerge about the city and its people. What follows are a series of opinions, observations, images, and often entirely inappropriate generalizations (all men are bad for this, right?).

  • Dutch kids - toddlers and young kids between say 3 and 8 years of age - are brats. Loud, fussy, and prone to public tantrums. I'm not sure why this is, although it has been corroborated by several friends as well. More research is needed.
  • Dutch women - likely as a result of a lifetime of biking - have fantastic, er, backsides. More research is needed.
  • Dutch men often use the mantra "We're straightforward and blunt is all - the Dutch are known for being direct." To this I say: This is true, and it is often a refreshing break from North American passive-aggressiveness. But sometimes you're just being a d**k. Don't confuse the two.
  • The Water Mafia. For a country surrounded by water, it is incredibly scarce in restaurants and other public places - gyms, parks, etc. You'll regularly need to shell out a few Euros for a bottle in a restaurant or a gym, after being told there is no tap water available. This will also regularly occur while seeing the tap right in front of you.
  • The bureaucracy surrounding the work permit/legal resident process is so convoluted that the Dutch themselves have an expression for it - "van het kast naar de muur." Loosely translated, this means being sent from "the cabinet to the wall" - a metaphor of sorts for being sent back and forth with little progress.

  • While I was warned about this through a number of websites prior to leaving, I still wasn't prepared for this level of frustration (4 trips thus far to two separate arms of government - one involved an incredibly pleasant and helpful lady, 2 others that were confrontational, and the most recent one with a man who chose a blend of the twoapproaches). All had separate advice that contradicted the previous one, and the last gentleman even told me "not to believe everyone" I speak to at his office. (Including himself, presumably).
  • I liken the above process to a root canal. You know well ahead of time that it's necessary and that it is going to be unpleasant, and you try to steel yourself for it. But when the day arrives, it still sucks.

A canal route
  • The tram-attendant-as-entertainer is a beautiful thing, and should be adopted in all forms of public transit globally. Not every tram worker does it, but it's happened a handful of times - where the person, male or female, sings the information about the next stop, cracks jokes, even addresses certain people personally with things like "Hey, nice jacket" to a stylish woman, or "Veel plezier met je bier" (have fun with your beer) to a group of young partiers. This all occurs via microphone so all passengers can hear it, and everyone ends up smiling and laughing. On public transit - imagine people smiling! A revolutionary concept to be sure.
  • The fall/early winter weather can be wet, and windy, but almost every day we're provided some sun and a chance to hop on the bike, or to take photos like the ones on this posting - with an amazing light. A good little metaphor for life, if you'll permit a moment of fromage - some darkness at times, even heavy during some seasons, but light is never far away.

    Culture Club


    Firstly, an apology for the delay between posts. I have spent the better part of two weeks alternating between normal and curled up in the fetal position with a bad gut.

    I'm not sure what the Dutch equivalent is for Montezuma's Revenge (how about Von de Zuma's ?), but the cumulative effects of a lifetime's worth of bread, sugar, and cheese crammed into one month, along with small but very regular amounts of beer on an admittedly wussy constitution has caught up to me. Hence, the past week in particular has been a little low on energy and mirth, and lower still on blogging.

    Onto the latest, more palatable update... Amsterdam has more than its share of cultural opportunities, and I've been able to enjoy them more and more as I get to know people and my way around the city.

    Two recent outings of late: the Van Gogh Museum and the International Documentary Film Festival (when clicking on this link, you'll see a British flag at the top left to view the site in English). I will get to the IDFF on a subsequent post

    The museum does a really nice job of laying out Van Gogh's progression as an artist and regression as a person. You get a very good sense of what made him tick, and how unfortunate it was that he battled with his own mind. But he's not the madman that many of us think of - he had years of normal, if lonely at times, living - travelling to Paris, meeting other artists and making friends.

    His letters, mostly to his brother, are all over the museum, and his art work goes from very dark, somewhat melancholy work to brighter, more uplifting work once he spends time in Paris.


    The tour leads you to a gift shop at the end. Much has been made of the cruel fact that Vincent Van Gogh struggled financially while he was alive, but you soon realize someone is making a boatload of money off of the Van Gogh name now. You can buy everything Van Gogh here - prints of course, but also pens, notepads, backpacks, umbrellas, purses, and about 20 other products.

    I was half-expecting to see logo'd adult diapers - sold for those times when you "really have to Van Gogh". There's even an iPhone app which is pretty brilliantly done. It all strangely doesn't feel crass though - most of the stuff is very tastefully done.


    It's worth a trip for sure to the museum for a few hours at least - the entry fee of 12.50 Euros is not too steep to see one of history's most prominent artists.

    Downstairs, the work of a really impressive Belgian artist named Alfred Stevens is currently on display as well. The photo at the top of the page - taken surreptitiously to avoid the wrath of the menacing 70-year-old security guard - show the rooms where his collection is shown. Otherwise, this posting is light on photos, I know - there are no cameras allowed in the museum - sorry!



    A bit of a nerd alert here... the following post deals with a place many of us haven't visited since grade school - so feel free to fast-forward if you are not a fan of the literary arts.

    The rest of us will geek out at places like Bibliotheek Amsterdam - an architectural and bibliotheq-lical wonder located about 5 minutes walk from Amstedam's Centraal Station.

    It's part of what I see as the "new" Amsterdam (a post about the city's many contrasts is coming soon). "Old" Amsterdam buildings are the homes, bridges, and cobblestone streets from the past several centuries - beautiful, quaint, cramped, and the stuff that most of us see on postcards.

    What is less-often seen is the really cool and modern interior/exterior design that also permeates the city.

    Facing a small bit of water and the entire city to the south, the main central library cost 80 million Euros and is easily the coolest library I've ever seen.

    The ligthing and layout - 7 floors in total - evokes an Apple store-ish feel, with the same lighting and several hundred Mac displays and terminals. While it's not a university library, you will see hundreds of college-age students poring over books and glowing from monitor screens. A regular stream of older people and some tourists run through daily as well.

    Each floor has a mix of books and magazines in Dutch, English, French and a number of other languages - although the first two make up the majority. As noted in the above link to Time Out Amsterdam, the place is decidedly light on books compared to what we normally think a central library should be - but this is probably the library of the future (pause for a slight melancholic sigh, but no sense in dwelling on the past). Less Dewey, more GUI. (Huge nerd reference there - first one who gets it wins a library membership...).

    In fact, all check-ins and check-outs are done with a large computer and book bin on each level, with no librarian in sight. If they could just pipe in some of that old book smell, that would be a nice touch.

    You head up each level via escalator, providing a great angle to look down at the floors you just visited. You can easily lose a whole day here - flipping through books, researching things online, or just staring out the numerous floor-to-ceiling windows.

    And onto the seventh floor. La Place (not terribly Dutch-sounding, I must say) - a massive cafeteria that looks nicer than most of our own homes, with fresh juices, pizza made on the spot, salad bar, sandwiches, stir-frys, soups, desserts and beer and wine. (Had I gone to university here, I might still be at university here...). All capped off with a covered terrace outside as well, with pretty much all of Amsterdam in front of you.



    "Wow, there's just so much history there." This sentence is often one of the first things you hear from your non-European friends when discussing plans to travel to Europe. And it's one of the first things you mention when you come back from your voyage.

    Whether you live in Sydney, Australia or Sydney, Nova Scotia, Calgary or California, your homegrown claims to an interesting history, while valid, simply don't measure up to the Michelangelos, the Arc de Triomphes, the cathedrals built in the 1100's, the sheer story of Europe.

    That story is not always a pleasant one.

    Spending a very grey Monday morning at the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam this week quickly puts a massive amount of perspective into one's life; suddenly you feel like an idiot for even thinking about complaining about having to hang your clothes up instead of putting them in a dryer, or feeling hungry and cranky if you're running late in your daily grind and haven't had your third meal of the day yet.

    The museum (it is in fact her house, but the first few levels are laid out as a museum) is very tastefully done. Winding your way through it, and slowly upwards, there are photos and short video clips of the people involved in keeping the Frank family hidden. In all, eight people (seven for a while, and an eighth arrived for the remaining 20 months) were sharing space in the Secret Annex of the multi-level home for just over two years.

    The impression of Anne Frank herself as a thoughtful, energetic, trapped, fearful, and altogether normal teenage girl really emerges through the excerpts of her diary printed on the walls of the museum and shown in display cases.

    The curtains, dark brown and completely blocking out daylight, save for the skylight in the attic, left a very strong impression. They could not be opened even an inch for fear of being discovered by neighbors or the authorities.

    It's even more striking when you see the how nice the area is right outside the house, with the Prinsengracht canal just in front. And an even stronger contrast when you consider the ugliness that walked those streets and ultimately into that house on August 4, 1944.

    Days Like This


    As a very worthy counterpoint to the day of October 20th ("Days Like These" entry), Sunday November 8th was a banner day here.

    It was spent mostly in the Vondelpark, Amsterdam's version of the great urban park (see Park, Central, Royal, Mount, and Domain, Auckland, as well as any number of other well-planned and inspiring city green spaces). "Vondel" means walk, just FYI.

    During the summertime, it is packed with Amsterdammers and tourists alike, vegging, picknicking, running, tripping, cycling, or listening to an outdoor concert. And often doing all of the above simultaneously.

    Now that fall has arrived, the ponds and pathways are limited to a few tai chi'ers and chai tea'ers, as well as a fair number of joggers and locals cutting through the park on their way home from downtown.

    Although rain is prevalent here in November, and wind even more so, Sunday morning provided a perfectly clear, breathless, 10-14 degree day.

    Below is a walking photo album... as always, click on each picture for a bigger image.