Expat Experience - Part 1


The first of a four-part series on being an expat

Time for a Change | The Favourites | The Differences | The Downsides

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them

It happened about three to five years ago. Somewhere between justifying to myself the purchase of a pair of jeans that exceeded $300 and reading about a security guard who was killed in a shopping stampede in some non-descript North American city as part of its annual Black Friday insanity.

It was between those two events, punctuated by hundreds of similar ones and accompanied by my own mild-to-less-mild forms of restlessness and depression, that I decided that a change was in order. My society and I were focused on the wrong things.

In brief visits to Europe (I'll exclude the UK if it's OK, as it is as bad as the US) in 2003 and 2008, I was struck by the smaller size of houses, food dishes, and stores, but mostly by the seeming contentedness of everyone I came into close contact with, be they relatives or relative strangers. People seemed less restless, more content.

I began to long for the absence of big box stores and ripped moms patrolling the aisles of the Apple store; for a lack of discussions about the next addition to the deck or the latest Wii. I wanted to say non.

Of course, I am still not immune to desiring nice things; nor is Europe some bohemian, egalitarian utopia full of happy people and devoid of consumerism. It still helps to have money, no matter where you are. And there are plenty of people here who are trying to keep up with the Joneses, or les Jones or the van Jonesenburgs.

But it's still nowhere near as all-consuming as the all-consumption of North America. You can still wedge some fresh bread, some cheese and a $5 bottle of wine (and it's pretty good wine) under your arm and sit in a park and have a great afternoon with friends. Try doing that in Toronto or Calgary and see how many people join you.

You do feel it immediately here - that you can get by with less and somehow live more. In Amsterdam, a cramped apartment and a bike and bus pass are all seen with unjudging eyes, and it sure doesn't impact your romantic life much. I'm not sure how many girls would have been keen to jump on the back of my bike back home, but in Holland it's common to see - and pretty damn fun, for both parties.

Contrast that with discussions with friends from Vancouver, Dallas, New York... all have told me tales of woe where they're regularly asked (within minutes of meeting a woman) "What do you do?" or worse "What do you drive"?

Places like Vancouver and Calgary are loaded with eligible girls and guys, none of whom can seem to get satisfied with one another as relationships today match the consumption patterns of regular products - each one is waiting for the next iPerson upgrade, even if the current model works great. I was as guilty as anyone.

And so, the life of this expat for over two years now has been a revelation. Call them expat eyes - a way of seeing things from a different perspective. Here it's about focusing on more important things, while at the same time not needing to live like a monk either - there's plenty of nice stuff to acquire if you want, but it doesn't define you as much. There is a better balance, a sort of permissible contentedness with however much or little you have.

I would paraphrase Einstein's quote to add that we cannot solve problems while being in the same place where the problems began. I think this kind of changing of perspective is only made possible by changing one's physical location entirely, if even for a few months.

The expat experience has made a firm enough impact to ensure that this new perspective will stay with me wherever I go from now on, as expat or ex-expat.


Longer time between posts these days folks, as work has taken root and free time has eroded considerably.

Next up: What it means to be an expat.

Euro Neuro Scan


All this Euro fuss is quite interesting to an inside outsider.

To get a handle on it I read the news, and hear some people's opinions, but I am no economist. I do know the situation is dire.

What I also know is that the idea of the various 27 countries in the European Union thinking the same way about anything is flawed to begin with. They wouldn't agree on how much butter to put in a pan, much less sort out a complex economic inferno.

It'll never happen either. A Spanish person's mindset is as different from a Dutch person's as bullfighting is to bicycling; the Greeks retire in their early fifties while the Germans do so in their mid-sixties. Where some are warm, passionate, not rich, and unhurried, others just 90 minutes away by plane are chilly, economically comfortable, and always on time.

A wise friend and writer named Stephen (follow him @BogusBobby) sums up Europe very nicely:

"Above the line, it rains, they drink beer, the indigenous food sucks, they work like here [North America], and the trains run on time. Below the line, the sun shines, they drink wine, the food’s great, the trains run late, and nothing the f&$# gets done all day."

In Amsterdam, in my limited experience, it rains so much and the winters are cold and dark enough that staying in the office for lunch and an extra hour or two at the end of the day hardly seems to make a difference in the bowels of winter.

Whereas if you are sitting in Malaga, and the sunshine is beckoning you each day for what seems like 10 months of the year... well, you'd want to get out of the office too.

To try to mash these lifestyles and mindsets together, along with a dozen other ones, is a fool's errand, as it has been since the first arrow landed in some king's paella, the first boulder in some keizer's schnitzel.

I just hope it all somehow works out, so I can get below the line as often and as safely as possible.

Sunny Days


What to do on a warm, sunny day in Amsterdam, with the limited daylight hours of late November and your last few hours as a freelancer ahead?

1. Hop on the bike. The tram is for days of rain and snow, and for wimps. (Which I am for about 10 days each winter).

2. Head to Anne&Max or Cafe van Zuilen. Better coffee at the first place, better ambience at the latter.

3. Run errands, no matter how far across the city. The next 10 days call for rain, so you won't soon get this chance again.

4. Stop in at Mint Hotel's SkyLounge for the best views of the city in all directions. 6 Euros for a cup of tea = well, steep. But still worth the views.

5. Walk the dog. All the way down to the massive beach pictured here, in the leafy, mildly ghetto-y area of Slotervaart.

6. Buy fish at the Wednesday-only outdoor market on Sierplein also in the same neighbourhood. Friendly fishmonger will provide a bit of free fish for your furry friend.

7. Read online about the blast of winter that friends and family are receiving back home. Pretend as if this past summer never happened. (Which it didn't, actually).

8. Prepare for next day of sun, perhaps somewhere in mid-January.

Gym Dandy


Squash City. Health City. Fit for Life. Fitness First. The preponderance of English-only names of health clubs in Amsterdam seems curious.

Stepping into any of them (I'm a proud Squash City member) reveals a few local habits that are even more curious, at least to the North American gym-goer:
  • Shyness: I don't think there is a word for it in Dutch. (Well, technically it is verlegenheid, but you get the idea). Whether it's the girls from reception entering the men's room regularly (and unannounced) to sweep and tidy up - pausing only to get you to step out of the way - or the spandex-clad guy splayed out on the incline bench press as though he's seeing a gynecologist, it seems modesty is for wimps.
  • Nudity: In the same vein - varicose or otherwise - the sauna area is co-ed. This means that the person next to you on the treadmill or the yoga class may well soon be next to you in the shower, steam, or sauna as well. This can either be a pleasant experience or a "my eyes, my eyes!" event that haunts your dreams.
  • Hygiene: everyone on the weight room floor has a towel with them to put between themselves and the apparatus they're working on, and you quickly feel strange without one. However, ten minutes after the workout you'll see fully naked people plunk themselves down on a bench in the steam room, sans towel, with only a quick squeegee sweep performed beforehand.
  • Effort: At least twice per visit, I hear the loud, repeated exhalations of PHHHEWW or WHHOOF from a guy as he enters the men's locker room, as if to announce: "I have worked out hard... behold me, the hard-working worker!"
  • Service: As with most establishments in Amsterdam, it is real hit and miss. The hit is fine - cordial, normal, helpful people - some exceptionally so. The miss, as I've seen around town on occasion, is a real miss, on a level where you want to either strike the person or ask them why they decided to work at all with other humans. A recent encounter:
Can I leave my bag here for 10 minutes (behind the trainer's desk in a corner of the gym, nowhere near any person or traffic)?

Meathead (actually the Fitness Manager, in a tone with an unreal jerkiness that is difficult to convey in print):
It's not for nothing that we have lockers, you know.

Me: (stunned silence, shaking head)

  • Tanning beds: These still exist in abundance at many gyms, and they're being used all the time. You can use the fitness benefits to fight off the melanoma.

So, come join a gym in Amsterdam - there are definitely some good ones. Places like Health City include free coffee and juices; many have a buikspierkwartier, 15 minutes of core strength that will help bring out the abs; there are lots of excellent group fitness classes, spinning in particular; and most places still emphasize Dutch gezelligheid, the coziness that has been mentioned in this blog a number of times.

There's a wide range of prices, from David Lloyd's preposterous 85-100+ Euros/month to the bare bones Fit for Free's 10-20Euros/month (which, technically speaking, doesn't sound very free).

True to Dutch form, there is nothing free in any gym though - the trial workout does not seem to exist here, though most places will refund you the cost of a day pass if you join.

And wherever you go, remember to bring your towel, your spandex, and your systematically beaten down expectations of customer service.

Movie Mania


It's that time of year again, when the days darken early and Dutch parents still don't put hats or gloves on their kids.

It's also time once again for the International Documentary Film Festival, the best 10 days for movie geeks to sneak some peeks at the world's best un-Hollywood films.

I'm now on my third year of this cinematic feast, and as a seasoned vet I am all over this like Herman Cain on an assistant.

Want to make the most of the festival? Here's the lowdown:

- Get on the mailing list for the festival; they are not spammy, with only a few emails sent throughout the year, and you will get ample warned well in advance of the ticket sales and the overall program.

- On Day 1 of the kaartverkoop, go online and buy tickets for all your favourites. I bought 5 tickets this year, and it wasn't easy whittling down the choices. But waiting until the day before or day is risky. Although last-minute no-shows do happen; if you really want to see something, head to the cinema about 30 minutes before the show and talk to a ticket-taker or wait for a seller to start hawking.

- Bring your smartphone to the show - no need to line up to pick up pre-bought tickets this year, as the organizers have gone all smartphone-friendly.

- If you have any questions, be patient. The volunteers range widely from friendly and on the ball to friendly and way off the ball. It happens every year - some of them seem genuinely surprised to be there.

The lineup for the 2011 version is much the same - many with a very strong social message, some with serious stomach-churning violence and sadness; some with beauty as their main feature; and others that are light and a bit wacky. Virtually all of them look great.

This year, I've got tickets for:

Just came back from this; it's a fascinating movie about the discovery of cave drawings in France dating back 32,000 years, directed and narrated by Werner Herzog - in 3D no less. This movie expands your brain, largely (I think) by making us realize how short a time we're really here and how close we are to messing it up.

The very sad story of camel jockeys (yes, actual camel jockeys) in the UAE.

A look at a simple question posed to various people on a hike: What makes you happy? (These days? An awesome fiancee, dogs, Guinness, playing squash, and movie festivals. I suspect this movie will delve a little deeper).

Morgan Spurlock, the guy from Super-Size Me, casts a light on the prevalence and absurdity of advertising and insidious product placement. Which seems like a good time to mention that this blog is currently sponsored by Lithuanian garlic, Simon Levelt Indian Chai tea, Etos cough syrup and Hema's Ultra Soft nose tissues.

The Canadian Eskimo Dog is the only dog that can survive a temperature of minus-60 degrees. Only a few hundred are left. We'll see if it's chilling or heart-warming.

So a full agenda of movie-viewing is on tap, and I am overly, geekily, excited about it all. Some other ones that I may even try to see are Four Horsemen ("What is created by humans, can be changed by humans" - check out the trailer) and G Spotting: A Story of Pleasure and Promise (oddly, the identical working title of the first movie listed above). Just hope I find the damn place.

The Telltale Squeak


After a good 10-15 minutes of walking up and down the bicycle racks like a mildly insane person, looking for my trusty, rusty steed, I had finally given up hope. In a city of some 524,000 annual bike thefts (no joke), I had just experienced my first.

Or had I? Suddenly, faintly, almost plaintively, I heard the squeak.

Unmistakeable, as quiet as it was. I looked up to see a guy struggling to get on a bike while holding another one, getting ready to ride off into the masses that make up Amsterdam on a Saturday afternoon at the intersection of Spui and Kalverstraat, in the shadows of the American Book Center.

On any given weekend, this square is crammed with tourists and locals sitting on a bench, eating at a cafe, or heading to the shops nearby. Coupled with the messiest, most clogged bike parking areas this side of Centraal Station, it is the ideal place for a wannabe bike thief to go virtually unnoticed.

Enter the squeak.

I bought the cartoon dog horn several months ago for several reasons, practical and otherwise.

On the practical side, it helps me locate my own bike quickly in a sea of bikes. There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, very few white squeaky plastic dog horns adorning the handlebars of Amsterdam's cyclists. But this little dude had stood faithfully for months now, letting me zero in on his location quickly and efficiently.

On the intangible side, I decided to approach things strategically a few months ago; with almost everyone sporting a bell that rings at various levels of aggression in order to get people to move (trust me - a bell being clanged repeatedly right behind you on a bike by a cranky Amsterdammer is on par with a car horn bleating at you in your own vehicle while you are stalled in an intersection), a horn that sounds like a baby's bath toy is infinitely more pleasant. And more successful.

So why not defuse the everyday bike traffic situation by giving people (usually tourists) a little ee-oo instead? For months now, I have been able to delight these visitors while simultaneously getting them to move the hell out the way. It's been a win-win. A Schwinn-win, even.

In happier times

Anyway, back to the guy. Evidently, before biking off he wanted to take away any obvious markers, so the dog was the first to go. But little did he realize it was a squeaking dog, or that the squeaking dog's owner was standing there about 5 steps away.

So in short order he rips it off, the dog goes ee-oo, and I hear it, incredulous that my bike is right in front of my eyes. He is struggling to balance his bike with one hand while riding mine, and I dash over and pull the back wheel of the bike up.

It's a guy's bike, with the bar of the frame right there, and he is forced into a rather uncomfortable position. Suffice to say, at this moment we are both feeling testy.

He falls to the pavement, with both bikes clanging to the ground and some 100 onlookers wondering what is happening. I yell at him, something along the lines of "Hey man, this is my *(%@$#! bike" and he turns around, peering out from under a hood that was thus far obscuring what turns out to be the sad, sallow face of a junkie.

With his hands up in the international symbol for Ref, I didn't do it even though I clearly did it he says "Hey, I just bought this off a guy, I didn't know it was stolen."

Note that I was in the bookstore for maybe 10 minutes tops and certainly this was not enough time for the bike to have its lock picked, be stripped its removable parts, and then sold to someone else. So I doubted him.

I then said "I'll give you three seconds before I punch you in the *(%@$#! face" and he scooted away on his other bike right away, gone forever into the shopping and cycling masses.

Adding to my doubts about his innocence, I figured if he had just bought it from someone else, I highly doubt he would have let me threaten him into giving me a bike by words alone.

To be fair, I'm not sure I would have punched him in the *(%@$#! face, but it sounded impressive and sufficiently tough. It all happened so quickly and unexpectedly that I didn't think of all the things I could have done, but the end result was satisfactory.

In hindsight, maybe it was his sad, impoverished face that held me back from bopping him; or maybe it was the fact that he was the same height as me and I'm just not that tough; or perhaps it was the new jacket that I had on and didn't want to ruin. I'll never be quite sure.

In any event, I have my bike back and am very thankful that somehow this idiot decided to bike directly past the spot where he stole the bike from 10 minutes earlier.

Alas, in all the excitement, I forgot one thing. The dog horn.

Squeak on, little buddy, squeak on.




My blog made easyJet's Blogger of the Month list for October!

EasyJet Holidays

It's like being the Employee of the Month, if I had a job.

Air BnB


The morning view outside of our Airbnb-rented place, a 7th-floor apartment whose owners were in Lisbon for the weekend. In a popular destination city, people are making good money by renting out their empty place, even for a simple weekend.

That sound you hear, the nervous rattling of hotel keys? (Ok, they don't really rattle anymore since most of them are plastic cards, but work with me). It's the sound of hundreds of thousands of hotel and motel industry executives as they ponder and fret over the emergence of Airbnb.

Airbnb, if you haven't already heard, is a person-to-person accommodation provider. The vacationer, tired of hotel prices and looking for a more authentic travel experience, contacts the owner, who has either a room or an entire apartment or home to rent out. The prices vary from very low-end dives to high-end villas, but you can set your price range and fully check out the photos and even speak with each other before committing.

If you don't mind (as a guest) living in a lived-in place, or (as a host) having strangers in your bed, Airbnb is an ideal arrangement. Over 2 million nights have been booked on it so far - that's a lot of empty hotel beds too.

We used this for the first time in Paris, and it worked perfectly. Compare 250Euros for three nights in a very nice place where you can eat your own food and feel much less like a tourist versus paying 350-400Euros for three nights in a lousy, cramped hotel. A quick stop to the grocery store downstairs, and 3 days' worth of breakfast for 15Euros later and nous rions!

Below, more sights from a sunny October weekend in Paris:

The view from Parc Belleville - also featured in earlier posts from 2010, but it seems there is always a different light and the Eiffel Tower always beckons.

Above, images from the flea market Marche aux Puces de Vanves. It had your standard flea market stuff - Elvis posters, creepy dolls in sailors' outfits - and, uh, THIS. I have no clue as to its origin, but I'm guessing it's not Brazilian:

Outside a busy Rue Saint-Martin. Some B,er - boys?

Along the Seine, dancers of a more wholesome sort, doing a brunch and a line dancing class. When I am 60+, I want to be line dancing on the banks of the Seine.

Photo Gallery


Did you know?

That just by clicking on one of the photos in any given post you can view them in a much larger format, and as a gallery?

This works on any picture, aside from the main one at the top of the page.

More Paris coming this week...

Paris, Encore


Anyone getting tired of the annual homages to Paris that you see on this blog? I hope not. And if so, just skip the next few days' worth of posts.

I visited Paris for the first time in 2008, and have been back four times since, once for work but mostly for pleasure. It's quite something to have an almost unrealistic fantasy-like image of a place, then to actually see it live up to your own hype. And it's again something else to get to know it, like somewhat of an insider, seeing its warts and all.

This most recent trip two weeks ago took me to some must-see places, both old and new. And yes, Paris has its warts. Seeing some of the abject poverty and homeless people is still jarring, particularly coming from Amsterdam where it is less visible (whether that means it's less of a problem, I'm not sure). It is easy - perhaps too easy - to not even see the Parisian homeless, with all the amazing things to see in every arrondissement.

Alors, among the new: Day 1 meant a visit to Parc des Buttes Chaumont, an urban park of rolling hills, dramatic rocks, and even the odd waterfall. The colours were just starting to change too. A great new place to check out, get some fresh air and walk off the morning's excess pastry intake.

Also enjoying his first day at the park was a 3-month old dog we came across whose owner told us was seeing grass for the first time ever. Watching this little white ball go nuts with sheer joy was a highlight of the trip - makes you think about the last time you enjoyed a first time doing something, and serves as a good reminder to seek out some new first times.

No photos of the little guy, unfortunately - too busy petting him and fending off his happily savage bites - but he looked something like this, except with grass on him:

And now for the rest of the park...



As we wrap up the Netherlands' Late Summer Series, let's take you to Zeeland. And let's imagine all of the following vividly in our minds, as it seems the photos taken from this day are lost forever on a wayward memory card.

Zeeland (pronounced zay-lond) is a region that lies in the southwest corner of Holland, a claw-shaped collection of islands and small towns and endlessly awesome stretches of big beaches.

Even before we got there, we had stopped in Rockanje, technically not part of Zeeland but of South Holland. A very quiet beach town only one hour's drive from Amsterdam, Rockanje (Rock-Kanye), this was the perfect place to park it on a very wide, long, and tranquil beach.

A few beach clubs with big decks facing the sea and some posters of DJ shows alluded to a more active summer life there, but on this day in mid-September there was a ton of room for everyone, including one ecstatic dog.

After a few hours of sun (I heard earlier this week that August officially had 3 days of sun in total, so this day provided a healthy 33% increase), it was time to head further south.

Zeeland lies mostly below the sea, a fact which contributed to a terrible flood in 1953 where nearly 2000 people died. As a result of that tragedy, the massive engineering project known as the Deltawerken (Delta Works) began to keep the sea out. You can read more about the werken and the flood here.

It's very impressive to see the dams in action, as you drive over them or even step out of the car to have a better look. It's this same ingenuity that has people from around the world calling in the Dutch when they want to manage a water issue (the beaches and bays around Malaga, Spain for example, were engineered by the Dutch to control the waves and erosion).

Onwards it was, one more hour's drive from Rockanje (so two hours' total from Amsterdam, for those of you keeping track) to the nicest town I've been to yet in Holland, Domburg. It was loaded with nice houses, restaurants and shops. Though not many web design companies, it seems.

The Franco-Belgian influence is easily seen here, with just that little bit extra put into storefronts, pastry shops, and food preparation. Domburg also has huge dunes lining the long coast, beyond which lies the kind of soft sand that you expect from the Caribbean. But if you want a quick reminder that you're nowhere near it, dip your toes into the frigid North Sea.

Zeeland is a revelation, a great place to spend a weekend, and yet another great break from the city right around the corner.

Texual Healing


The open road along the coast

Still scarred - or soaked, rather - from this year's non-summer in Amsterdam, I was keen to grab whatever sunshine remained as fall loomed nearby. Enter Texel.

Texel (pronounced "tessle") is a small island north of Amsterdam, part of a Dutch archipelago that extends towards Denmark known as the Frisian islands.

Why would one head north, fresh off the beaches of Spain a week before? Well, the forecast was for a balmy 24 degrees and pure sun, and hearing so much about the peaceful plains of Texel made it a must-visit at some point.

There are special sections of the train for cyclists, so it's easy to get there right from your front door. A 90-minute train ride through some very nice Dutch countryside is followed by a 15-minute cycle to the ferry, which leaves every hour/half-hour, depending on the season.

Awaiting the ferry

No smoking on the ferry. And apparently, no hula hooping

What is it about ferries that reduce one to about 11 years old every time, running from port to starboard and bow to stern to catch the sea air and watch the wake? I don't know, but it's good stuff.

Rolling off the ferry and into Texel, it's quickly apparent that biking is the way to go. You can bike all over the island on special paths, stopping in any small town for a break or venturing into the dunes along the western coastline.

Not many places left in the world where you buy some roadside potatoes and just leave your money in a container

An artist doing serious justice to the nearby dunes

You will bike a lot here, probably for 4-5 hours over the course of a day, so make sure you have a comfortable seat. (*Guys - a good seat makes a vast difference for your vas deferens). The island is also very exposed to the elements, so be ready to bike into some headwinds.

Each town is marked by a number of small cafes, and the bigger spots have a nice collection of shops and restaurants to choose from. In between the towns are stretches of 3-10kms of farms and open fields.

The island does have a very therapeutic effect from city life, with huge skies and long sections of bike paths that skim the sea. I imagine it is pretty bleak in the winter or in the rain, but on a warm late summer day, Texel is definitely worth a visit.