Christmas Dag


December 25th arrives with less fanfare in the Netherlands than it does in North America, but it still manages to get pretty Christmas-y here, with many streets, businesses, and homes decked out with many of the same lights and decorations.

What you notice on a broader level, however, is a much lower emphasis on commercialism.

Yes, it does seem to be on the rise as Western cultural influence spreads (Dutch radio stations encourage you to "have a nice day" or "have a Merry Christmas" as their patter is more and more frequently sprinkled with English. Dutch TV stations broadcast cultural heavyweights like The Bachelor and Desperate Housewives). But there are still some big differences.

Two days ago, a newspaper from back home detailed stories of people sleeping outside and lining up overnight to take advantage of Boxing Day specials at various stores - a scene also happening in many other cities in Canada and the U.S. That doesn't happen here.

That same day I had a conversation with a newly arrived North American, and it struck me how much of his side of the conversation was peppered with house prices, types of cars, and job titles. It was mostly notable because I realized how little I've discussed these items in the past 15 months, and maybe how much I used to before.

These topics rarely come up over here ('over here' can also mean Europe in general), particularly when meeting someone for the first time.

This isn't to suggest that conversations on this side of the Atlantic are all deep and meaningful nor that there's not some world-class pretentiousness and consumerism here - there definitely is - but the emphasis is subtly yet noticeably different. And very refreshing.

Some images of Christmas Day near the home in the Oud West area, close to the current apartment...

I did, however, consume the *$!# out of this cake

Vinter Vonderland


We're into a second very snowy and cold winter (last year's was the worst since 1981). Why is this noteworthy? The Elfstedentocht. An 11-town, 200km skating odyssey held in Northern Holland, touring the province of Friesland.

This can only occur, however, when all the canals are frozen to a thickness of 15cm. The last Elfstedentochts ("eleven cities tour") occurred in 1997, 1986 and 1985. It's hugely popular in the Netherlands, with people and media speculating with each passing sub-zero day that it may happen - so much so that you get the sense that all 16 million people here are collectively cheering on the cold weather. This is clearly perverse.

More images and impressions from a wintry Amsterdam...

This somewhat obscene-looking fellow, peeking like a careless uncle in a bathrobe, is Dutch comfort food. It is one of a variety of "stamppots", essentially a vegetable and a meat mashed into potatoes.

Least comfortable bike seat ever.

Getting closer to freezing over! Yay! (No.)

Hot Spots II


The second sauna venture occurred this week in Amsterdam, in the unassuming confines of Sauna Fenomeen. Before getting my sweat on, I met with Rob, one of the board members of the all-volunteer sauna.

Some quick highlights:
  • It was the rare interview where the interviewer and interviewee wore only towels.
  • Sauna Fenomeen was, a century ago, a horse stable of sorts, where carriage horses received their tune-ups.
  • More recently, it was an old "squat"* - home to a small enclave of culture, with a "volkskeuken" (town kitchen), children's theater, music center and anarchist library (I was going to take a book out, but then resisted) in the surrounding area.
  • It offers a ton of natural light, one small steam room and one large dry sauna, along with a cooling tub and showers, with a sitting area for reading and an upstairs area with mats for lying down. It also has an aquatic theme - feels a little like a pirate ship.
  • All operating profits go to charity (close to 10,000 Euros last year alone). Talk about giving the shirt off your back.

Rob offered up excellent sound bites to describe Sauna Fenomeen in our hour-long chat: "Happy chaos" (a metaphor for Amsterdam too, I'd say); "Like a living room" (if your living guests room were all nude); "Like a village in the city"; "Conscious-living clientele"

In short, Sauna Fenomeen stands out. In part because of it's location - in Amsterdam's Oud Zuid, many of the surrounding homes and stores are decidedly un-hippie and relatively posh. But also because it is the most unique spot you might ever set foot in.

Vibe: Hippie. But then, actors, businesspeople, and bankers are regulars too. Rob told of the story of a South American ambassador who once fell asleep in one of the saunas here after a particularly strong, er, herbal medicine took hold.

Vibe II: Relaxed - like Hot Spot I, also not a pick-up spot. The outdoor garden is a fine spot to head to in order to cool off. You haven't experienced Amsterdam unless you've sat on a garden chair, naked, in 0-degree weather right after a sauna. It's amazing to see the places where steam can emerge from.

Cost: Dirt cheap. Less than 10 Euros to enter, along with a very inexpensive small bar to get soft drinks, tea and sandwiches. Discounts for students and the unemployed too.

Clientele: On the day I was there, it was about a 70-30 male-female mix. Other days, this ratio is reversed. Also like every Dutch sauna, it has all shapes and sizes. And all ages are welcome - Sundays see several families there during the day.

Bottom line: Doesn't matter if there are a few extra lines on your bottom. If you can't relax here, you need to relax here.

Bottom line II: It is on the lower end, so be warned. If you are more filet mignon than ground beef, or more Posh Spice than Old Spice (or whatever her name was), then this may not be the place for you.

You can see a small video of the place here. The photos on this page were provided by Fenomeen (tough to carry a camera around at most saunas, as you might imagine).

*Until very recently, Amsterdam's squatting law was essentially this: If a building was unused for a year, you could enter it with a table, a bed, and a chair, and it was yours to stay in. Fenomeen is a fully legalized former squat spot.

Global Christmas


Greetings Big City Blogians,

Want to know what they do in Italy for Christmas? Do they eat Turkey in Turkey? What's with the poo in Northern Spain?

Check out some fellow Lonely Planet bloggers as they describe some very interesting traditions around the world during the holidays.

Xtra Xmas


This weekend "kerstmarkt" came to Haarlem, and with it a huge array of Christmas items, food, and of course gluhwein, much needed in the brisk air.

It pretty much resembled a market you would see in Seattle, Toronto or any other North American city. Except for the local treats (see below) and some odd carolers (see green dude below). And of course the oustanding setting - a centuries-old public square - that seems uniquely European.

There were dozens of stalls with every imaginable Christmas-related toy or knick-knack - some of them handcrafted with exquisite precision, others apparently handcrafted with oven mitts.

The side streets were also lined with stalls and warm wine, and various bands were in fine form. The whole deal would have put even the most fervent anti-Claus into the mood.


The Dutch tell it like it is.

"Oliebollen" - like donuts without the hole

Multiple organzas

Christmas Tunes


As Groupon has the cojones to turn down a $6 billion buyout offer from Google this week, one's thoughts turn to what one might do with $6 billion just ahead of Christmas.

More travel? No doubt. A full-time personal pannekoek preparer? Indeed. A 24/7 on-call ear-hair trimmer? Obviously.

But for those of us with more modest means, an iTunes shopping spree will do. Some musical suggestions I've made in the past have been well-received. Here are a few more:

Sometime Around Midnight - The Airborne Toxic Event

Islands - The xx

I Don't Really Mind - Tame Impala

Just Breathe - Pearl Jam

Ghosts - Silver Starling

Old-school fans might like:

On The Dark Side - John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band
Turn it up and dance your whitest, Bruce Springsteen/Courtney Cox dance to this one.

Where I'm From - Digable Planets

Paid in Full (The Coldcut Remix) - Eric B and Rakim
Just nod your head and represent

Somebody's Crying - Chris Isaak

Sinterklaas Revisited


Once again, December 5th rolls around and the advanced people of the Netherlands celebrate Sinterklaas, twenty days before the rest of us get around to it.

And once again, the celebration is simultaneously fun, innocent, and mildly horrifying. Think of it as a plate of holiday goodness, with a dash of racism from yesteryear. Yes, Zwarte Piet with his dubious origins (devil/slave/chimney sweep, depending on who tells you) shows up again in streets, homes, and restaurants, delighting kids and being disturbing only to expats and tourists.

That said, it was a very nice dinner in 't Elfenbankje, a small cottage in a sprawling park here in Haarlem. It's a Dutch pannekoek (pancake) house all the way through, with dinner and dessert-style pancakes on the menu. The hospitality and warmth pulls you in as you walk by, dark brown decor and candles peeking through the windows. Hansel and Gretel, if they were Dutch, would not be out of place strolling in here.

Our servers, normally attractive young women, were covered in blackface (for this one day of the year only, mind you) and smiling bravely throughout, playing the role of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). The songs in the background were traditional Dutch sing-along tunes (if you know the words - otherwise, they would just be "tunes"), and Sinterklaas himself came by each table.

He said you can ask him anything at all. Anything? Anything, he assured. I figured now would be a good time to ask why men have nipples. He was clearly not prepared for this question.

Dinner consisted of an amazing wild ragout pancake, basically a wild game stew on the best pancake you've ever had. Dessert? I was too full. Which I guess means another visit is in order.

*Note - for those of you interested in reading more about Christmas traditions around the globe, check out this site after December 17th (or now, for other good reading) - my fellow Lonely Planet bloggers will have some great stuff for you.

Get to Know an Amsterdammer 3


In the third installment of this series, we travel to Delicieux!, a caterer and small restaurant across from Olympisch Stadion, the site in the Amsterdam Oud-Zuid (Old South) area - site of the Olympic Games in 1928.

Name: Camilla

Age: 23

Profession: Waitress

How long have you lived in Amsterdam? About 4 years

List three quick words to describe the city, the first things that come to your mind:
Exciting, beautiful, characteristic, lively (Ed. note - Camilla provided the 4th word for free)

What are some of of your favourite things about living here?
In this city you can go almost anywhere on your bicycle, just about everything is around the corner. I love going to an area that is called "de Jordaan", they have lovely little boutiques with unique things and cafe's where you can have nice lunches, or just for a cup of coffee.

In the summer it's nice to be on the water, there are a lot of canal cruises and nice buildings to see. Nightlife is pretty good, I usually go to Palladium (Ed. - cool website) for a nice cocktail and afterwards there are a lot of nice bars around the Leidseplein to go to.

What do you like the least about living here?
The weather is not always as good as you would like;)

If you weren't living here, where would you want to live?
I think I would want to live somewhere in Italy. I really like Italian people and the cities are amazing.

Hot Spots I


"Just to be sure: the use of the spa facilities is co-ed and in the nude."

It is with these friendly words of warning that I was cordially invited to the first place on my newest quest, visiting 5-10 saunas in the Amsterdam and Haarlem area over the coming weeks. And with winter arriving with full force, warming up seems like a solid plan.

Some long-time readers might recall the first time I dipped my, er, toe into the European world of saunas here.

Since that nerve-wracking first time, where I had to shed not only all clothing but also 30+ years of North American conservatism (only with regards to public nudity, I should add), it seems I have embraced my inner (and now outer) nudist.

I figure now is the time to go and feel relatively secure, before pastries, age, and Dutch cheese take their toll.

With this in mind, a number of places in the city have agreed to let me in, and in some cases interview the owner/manager.

First up, Haarlem's Sauna van Egmond.

This place is a must-visit - it provides the perfect Dutch gezellig feeling as soon as you walk in - lounge areas, a large fireplace, a movie room with plush couches, stillness rooms for taking a nap, a restaurant. All with soft lights and dark corners. Then there are the steam rooms, saunas (infra-red and regular), hot tubs, cold tubs, rooftop terrace, full salon and swimming pool.

I met with K.C, the amiable manager who has been at SvE for 22 years. He walked me through the facility and provided most of the information. "People are here for a good time," he mentioned right away. "There are no grumpy people once they walk through the doors."

Decidedly un-grumpy, and armed with a robe, slippers, and towels, I was on my way...

Pre-sauna. I exhaled shortly after this photo was taken.

Since: 1974. The building itself is not very old, but the decor has been made to look "vintage" - and it could easily double as a museum.

Client mix: about 95% Dutch, 5% tourist

Age range and gender: The sauna is for those 14+, but the vast majority are over 20 at least. During my visit - 11am-2pm on a frosty Tuesday - it was 70% female, with a few couples. Ages ranged from 22 to about 65.
Weekends and evenings bring a more 50-50 male/female split. For those trying to visualize the mix: picture your oldest aunt and uncle naked, as well as the girl or guy next door.

Cost: 27Euros for the full day, robe and towels extra but people also can bring their own.

Most interesting story: There have been several wedding proposals here, according to K.C. - in the nude, in full view of the other patrons. (I did not ask where the groom hid the ring).

The vibe: Relaxed. This is NOT a pick-up place. Most people are in couples, or mothers and daughters, or friends. Hushed conversations and only occasional chats with strangers occur. "People mind their own business here," says K.C. (Plus, what would your opening line be anyway? "Hmm, sure is hot in here?")

Average stay: According to K.C, the average visit can range from 3-5 hours. Though some people spend the full day - 10am-11pm. With movies, naps, steam sessions, reading areas, food, and drinks, it is possible to stay this long. Steam and time evaporate here.

Most interesting moment: At one point, I was the only male in a sauna with 7 women. Some outweighed me. I would suggest that this is very good practice for those looking to lower their inhibitions, as I had to walk past them all to get to the only available space to sit.

The verdict: An absolute must-visit when you come to Amsterdam. It's a short train or bus ride to Haarlem and a very novel experience for us non-Northern Europeans. It's also pure relaxation, pure atmosphere and a first-class facility. Plus, you get to keep the slippers.

(Photos below are from the Sauna van Egmond brochure)

Film Fest


The purpose of life is to increase the warm heart - Dalai Lama

I love documentaries. I love them the way Dutch people love birthday calendars in their bathrooms. The way Parisians love strikes. I love them the way Dan Brown loves italics.

With that in mind, it seemed fitting to see Love Etc as my first movie at this year's IDFA.

It's year 23 of the International Documentary Film Festival, year two for me at this great 10-day cinematic smorgasbord. The full program is immense - over 250 films, with 10 days and four locations throughout the city. Each film is either done in English or has English subtitles.

So with limited time and only two eyeballs, how does one choose which ones to see? You look for some award winners and some with topics of interest (last year's Rainbow Warriors of Waiheke Island is still clearly in my mind).

Love Etc follows a number of people in various stages of relationships in New York City. An elderly couple with the wife suffering from the early stages of dementia, a young Indian couple getting married, a divorced blue-collar single dad, a gay single man about to adopt baby twins, and a pair of 18-year olds. It's filled with the requisite NYC sights, energy and authenticity, and each profile makes you think about your own relationships. Check out the trailer here.

Herbstgold (Autumn Gold) is about several men and women from parts of Europe (Austria, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic) preparing for and competing in the track and field World Masters Championships in Finland. The catch? The youngest person featured is 84, and the oldest is 100. It follows their lives, their relationships (most of them have lost a husband or wife) and their training. It's an incredible movie - touching, funny, wrinkled, and inspiring. The trailer is here.

If you're looking to get off the couch, think, or just increase the warm heart, catch both movies and see the way Albert and Marion still treat each other after 48 years of marriage, and how a 100-year-old discus thrower spends his training time.

Bloemendaal aan Zee


A very compelling reason to live in Haarlem is the proximity to the sea.

The whole area is a unique part of the country. Whereas you can't swing a dead cat in the Netherlands without hitting a canal or a fiets, a trip to the coastal towns of Zandvoort and Bloemendaal takes you through dunes that you don't see in most parts. These big, winding (and environmentally protected) sand dunes go for miles in several directions.

An easy 30-45 minute bike ride from Haarlem brings you to Bloemendaal aan Zee - a huge chunk of North Sea beach lined with cafes and clubs. The bike ride itself takes you along a winding path through the dunes for a good 15 minutes, with dozens of stops along the way to take a breather and check out the view.

The beach is apparently packed in the summer, at least on each of the 3.5 warm days here between June and September. In fall and winter, as this past weekend showed, it is a great spot when the sun is shining for a long walk and a lunch with coffee or a drink.

These straw roofs (rooves?) are popular in higher-end neighbourhoods in Holland. This one was spotted between Haarlem and Zandvoort.

The views from the dunes

Get to Know an Amsterdammer 2


As I continue to approach strangers and ask them for a few minutes of their time (and so far no punches or slaps), I met up with a local musician at Amsterdam's classic Cafe de Jaren, a sprawling two-level bar/restaurant with a canal-side terrace that is packed on summer evenings. This being November, however, we opted to stay in.

Some brief background info here:

This Amsterdammer was downsized from his sales job at Monster last year. He's been singing for years on the side, made the leap fully late in 2010, and in just under a year has landed the title song for a Reebok campaign (beating out OutKast, among others) and connecting with some big music industry movers in Holland and Los Angeles.

His first album is due in 2011. Check out his YouTube channel here. Check out his site (and cheeky Reebok ad) here.

Name: Steffen Morrison

Age: 31

Profession: Singer

How long have you lived in Amsterdam?
I arrived from Suriname on Oct. 4, 1992 in Amsterdam. Which makes it eighteen years for me.

List three quick words to describe the city, the first things that come to mind.
Diverse, Vibrant, A Living Postcard (Ed. note - it looks like five words after the Euro~Dollar exchange rate).

What are some of your favourite things about living here?
I love the canals in Amsterdam. These truly give the city its own unique character and identity. One of the other conveniences of this city is that you are literally 15 to 30 minutes away from everything by bike. Also, there is so much to be discovered about this city in general in terms of its history. Even for us who live in Amsterdam, at times we feel like a tourist because you discover so much daily.
Nightlife-wise, Paradiso and Sugar Factory are great for special shows.

What do you like the least about living here?
People on the bike tend to be pretty impatient. (Ed. - Er, yes. I just clobbered someone yesterday on the bike... more later). The fact there isn't much room for more tolerance in that area is something I would want to change about this city.

If you weren't living here, where would you want to live?
I would want to live in Los Angeles if I wasn't living in Amsterdam.



Some interesting views in and around Amsterdam and Haarlem over the past three days....

Seen: at Albert Cuyp street market
"Um, ok, give me one of those and two of those, jerkface."

Eaten: in Bloemendaal Aan Zee, at a snack shack
This is "Mexicano", a deep fried concoction involving some kind of ground meat.
As with many of Holland's culinary treats, created for maximum convenience and viscosity, it's best to take a page from the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Seen: At a highway exit ramp leading to Amsterdam
Of all the reactions one might have to the above scenario, the disdain evident on this fellow's face seems the least likely. Although I would probably buy that suit.

Seen: at the same exit ramp, facing the above billboard
This seems to be a more appropriate reaction.

Seen: on bus 176 from Amsterdam to Haarlem
This security screen appears in almost every bus here.
The Comfort Meter is of particular interest to me. How do they know? Isn't 9 a bit high? Obviously they aren't aware of the Mexicano I ate earlier.

London Not Calling


Maybe I've just been unlucky. Maybe I haven't seen the best of the city. Maybe, though, there's a reason that movies like Children of Men and 28 Days have been set there.

London has that gloomy, post-apocalyptic feel that envelops you as soon as you enter the half-outside, half-inside automated netherworld that is the shuttle taking you from Gatwick's North terminal to its South terminal. It was there again as I spent arrived for a writing course last week.

Stepping into the Underground (an ominous name itself), you hear cool, clinical automated voices telling you to "Mind the Gap" ad nauseum, and buses have those creepy security screens in full view of all passengers that seem to presage a mugging. Work being done on the rails or the odd strike is also a very common occurence, so your travels can get bogged down in a hurry.

The city EATS money as well, in the manner of shoebox-sized hotel rooms for 120 pounds/night, shuttles (the Gatwick Express expressly makes your wallet lighter for 17 pounds for a one-way train ticket into the city), and an added 17 pounds for 24 hrs of wireless access at the hotel.

Yes, it has its charms - a huge selection of great restaurants and takeaway spots, mostly very friendly people, a royal family to easily make fun of, and neighborhoods like Notting Hill.

But you can feel the unspoken class warfare as well, and the gulf between the 'avs and the 'avnots is easily visible in the form of numerous private clubs, high-end cars, and the barely concealed contempt in so many hotel staffers' eyes.

Perhaps, as I say, I have just been unlucky on my four visits there, with a total of 3 hours of sunshine. Maybe I need a better spot to stay and more insider knowledge. Or buckets of money. Or, maybe Clive Owen and all those zombies were angry for a reason.