Friday, February 13, 2009

Oh, Amsterdam:

I haven't posted anything on here in forever, but what a crazy past three months this has been. And how is it already February 2009? That’s what I’d like to know. 

It seems like just yesterday I was I started working in San Francisco. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a colleague at the time; one of my favorite colleagues ever. The details of the conversation are a bit fuzzy now, but the general basis went something like this:

‘How is it already August 2006? Before you know it I’ll be 80.’

So true. 

These past three months has been nuts, and I mean that in the fullest sense. I’m my own worst enemy, but I’m just now realizing that. Of course, naturally you are your own worst enemy, but I’m just a wee bit above average in that category–by far. I’ll explain.

First there was that whole, let’s graduate from college and move to Amsterdam thing. Followed by trying to find a (very nice) position in a foreign country, before Christmas, or I had to move back to the USA. All of this during a global economic crisis.

Well, mission accomplished. I have found a full time position in Amsterdam. It was hard–very very hard. And it took me a good two months (which, contemplating it now, is relatively quick–considering most people don’t find one that fast–let alone outside of their home country). People searching for positions in their own country sometimes can’t find one that fast. But. I have one small advantage that makes me desirable to the 'Continent’–I am a native English speaker. And so happy to be one. It truly is astonishing how much English is everywhere; it’s the international trade language. And nothing is more entertaining than being at a social event, or doing business–especially fancy formal business affairs where I can on look, without participating, while listening to a mixture of Europeans, who all live so close, but all speak different languages, and then hear them converse in their European form of English, with small broken grammar and confused and mixed up pronunciation rules here and there. It is amusing to say the least. But I don’t mind. I give props to anyone who can speak another language other than their native tongue. But am I bit jealous of Europeans, as English is everywhere, and most of their media (TV shows, movies, songs, they all come from the USA). Thus giving a slight advantage and easier method of learning. I mean–I’d know French if I was surrounded by it all the time, and all the media/entertainment funneling into the USA came from France. Does that make sense?

And so as I had found a full time position right before I left for the USA, for Christmas, I moved out of my old apartment, packed all my stuff back in the four suitcases that my life so neatly fits inside of these days, stored my extra baggage at a friend’s house, and boarded a plane for the frigid Midwest. Let’s not forget that during the month of December I was practically on my deathbed. No really, I mean on my deathbed. As in: lying on the couch, too weak to walk, with a cold rag on my head for weeks. All the while waking up every few hours during the middle of night because I was profusely sweating–but freezing cold at the same time. So much so that I would stand in the shower with the water temperature set to 50C (about 130F). My body was majorly sick. All this, while barely being able to talk due to my simultaneous sore throat; the whole time wondering if I got the position I had interviewed for, twice. And let me tell you–you can practice all you want for an interview, but you just never know what’s going to happen until you get there. Still recovering from the flu, in essence; I borded a plane at Schipol for the dreaded flight across the ocean, while sick. 

Transatlantic flights are no fun. Especially when you’re on your deathbed. But then again I guess I can’t truly complain, and most people my age don’t usually have the opportunity to take transatlantic flights, and an abundance of them, at that. So yes, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to come to Europe so many times. And I’m even more grateful for the fact that a family member works for Delta. And so the flight was free (minus taxes). And I, because of that, I often fly Business Elite–which is really wonderful, as they always serve mimosas and orange juice as soon as you board. Then, once you’re in the air the feast of wonderful food (at least as wonderful as it can be, for being plane food), is bombarded toward your mouth for a good two hours. As is all the wine you can drink–the flight attendants' clever strategy to silence passengers, I believe. Then you lay back in your seat, you know, since they recline all the way, pull up your nice fluffy duvet, big oversized pillow, pull the night mask over your eyes, and fall into a deep slumber. Only to be woken up about six hours later to the wonderful sights and smells of breakfast as the USA is slowly approaches on the horizon; but since you’re flying back in time it’s usually dark outside. So it’s more of a mental imagine of what you would expect the USA to look like on the horizon. Good thing I’m a visual person, and I can visualize this image on my own. 

My flight flew into Atlanta, and as I was flying standby–as happens with flights that are practically given away at no cost–and as it was two days before Christmas, all (literally) the flights to Cincinnati kept being booked, full; compounded by the fact that it was as cold as the arctic, snowing, and so the flights kept being canceled, and thus the people on the canceled flights kept being placed on the next flight(s) to Cincinnati. Which means that I had to wait in the airport for about nine hours before I finally caught a plane at the very last minute–by complete chance. I had walked away from the gate, one the last flights of the day from Atlanta to Cincinnati, fully prepared to sleep in the airport, as I figured my chances of getting on were slim to none; this was brought on by the fact that you can see your ‘place’ in the ‘standby line’ on a LCD screen next to the boarding gate. So, I walked away, disappointed, only to walk back five minutes later to, to my surprise, hear my name. Perfect.

Did I mention at this point I had been up for about 30 hours, and though incredibly tired, did not even sleep on the plane from Atlanta to Cincinnati, because a drunk gentleman was seated next to me? 

When I did finally get to the airport in Cincinnati, it was 1:00 in the morning, and my parents had already gone home–as they thought I wouldn’t make it until the next day. Not having an American cell phone anymore, I had no way to call them in Atlanta to tell them I was boarding a plane to Cincinnati (well, there was the pay phone, but I had no time, they literally called my name–last–and I ran through the gangway–and they shut the plane door). So, when I arrived at the airport, I decided to sleep near the baggage claim area, only to be awoken about two hours later by my family. It was 3:30. I was tired as ever. But in the United States. Which felt great. 

Gone were all my worries of finding a position–I had one waiting for me when I returned. Gone were all my roommate problems, left in Amsterdam never to be resurfaced. But also gone was my bike, the new friends I had made over the past six months, and the many other aspects of my new life I had come to love–but sometimes disagreed with. Gone was the life I had created for myself in the Netherlands. I wasn’t at home in the USA. I was in a foreign country. And I was mystified by some of the daily routines and ways of life that I had lived within for the last 21 years or so (as I’ve been living in Europe for the past two years prior to Amsterdam). The USA, as much as it would always be home, felt different. But it was there that I was surrounded by family and friends who knew me and in out. But I was still sick, completely out of it, mentally, due to the time change and my lack of sleep during the past 48 hours. And suddenly, I was surrounded by many strange sights; like jumbo-sized cars, and high fructose corn syrup, and grocery stores without any food inside, instead filled only with boxes. How strange, I thought. 

I imagine that this brings me back to the beginning–where I say I’m a bit too hard on myself. It’s really easy for me to forget that I moved to Amsterdam knowing no one, had a successful journey, and found a full time position. I tend to brush things aside too quickly. Um, even when my diploma from my university came, my family was so proud. Yet I just replied, ‘Um–it’s a piece of paper’. Granted it’s a really, really expensive piece of paper, but in all reality, it is just that–a piece of paper that says congratulations, now you’re smart. And that’s just the way I see things. I’m always thinking of the next task at hand, quick to brush off the feats I’ve accomplished. I admire what I’ve done, but there’ no reason to dwell on it. On to the next thing. 

Which brings me up to date. January 2009–the month I did absolutely nothing. But then again, that’s just me saying that. Of course I did something, lots of things actually. January 2009 was one of the most exciting times of my life–but during it, it was quite hard for me to realize that and see it that way. I was sort of in a daze for most of the month. And it was even more difficult for me to realize what I had accomplished over the past few months during that time period. Once again, brushing my accomplishments aside. 

At the beginning of January, I was still in Cincinnati. And for New Year's Eve, I rang in the coming of 2009 in style, the best way I could have ever imagined–with my Grandma. We fell asleep on her bed at 23:30. Whoops. No elaborate celebrations, no champagne, no nothing–except a nice pillow and the comfort of knowing someone you love more than the world itself is sleeping right next to you. Looking back now, that seems like so long ago. But it isn’t. 

I flew back to Amsterdam early in January. I was over the flu–I beat it, finally, right around New Year's Eve. (Looking back now, my holiday in the USA is all one big blur–due to the fact that I was sick. Of course it’s not a blur, I have great memories, but being sick made things so hard to adjust to at the beginning of my trip). Upon my return to Amsterdam, my former magazine was throwing a party. Hooray! The party was to celebrate the office moving into a shiny new office space in the South of the city, right next to the Olympic Stadium–literally. But in my mind I like to think they threw the party as a ‘Welcome back to the Netherlands, John’–sort of event. But of course it wasn’t. But what it was, was a whole lot of fun. My life seemed so surreal at that point. Just three weeks earlier I had been in the same studio, very sick, waiting to hear if I had the position I had interviewed for, or not. And since then, I had been to the USA and back, and now continuing along my new life in the Netherlands.

Since my lease was up on my old apartment in the Oud Zuid, coupled with the fact that I would never renew the lease because of the roommate I would sign up for, by renewing it, would be there–and so a friend graciously offered to let me sleep on his couch upon my return to Amsterdam, until I found my own place. Which, is super difficult in Amsterdam because there’s this sort of housing crisis or something or another. Housing crisis-shortage? What does that even mean? Sort of how there’s a bunch of oldies (and a few luckies) in Manhattan who have rent controlled apartments, there’s a sort of similar situation in Amsterdam. Except since this is the Netherlands and everything is regulated, a select group of companies own these rent-controlled apartments (about 75% of all the apartments in the city, or so I’m told). And no one is moving out. 

There’s one simple solution to this problem. There’s tons of space in Amsterdam. Build something! Problem solved. But things aren’t quite that easy. Dutch rules and regulations are super strict–regarding everything. Especially architecture. Magnified by the fact that the county is pretty much artificial, as in the whole county is basically built on land that the Dutch have reclaimed from the North Sea. In other words, most of the country should be underwater right now, but since the Duchies are such astute land planners–it isn’t. And that, I am incredibly thankful for–or else my stuff would be wet. Well, not really because this friend lives on the top floor of his building. And I guess even then not really, because the city of Amsterdam itself is approximately two meters, give or take a few here and there,  above sea level. So I guess we’re safe for another 1,000 years or so.

Back to the month of January 2009. 

I began my new position just a few days after arriving back in the land of legal marijuana and prostitution; coupled with more bicycles than any one county could possibly ever need. Professionally, I am now a book maker, writer, and editor, after being a magazine editor. Thus, the position is perfect. I’m in charge of creating the studio's next book–or four–their website, their publicity, their brand image, in short. Which is pretty wonderful  in my opinion. (Update, January 2013: I've made so many more books since then!)

But the thing is–when I returned to Amsterdam, amidst my excitement of spotting all the (now) familiar landmarks I’ve come to love–everything was frozen. I mean frozen. Even the canals. Which was quite grand and magical in its own unique Amsterdam-y way. So, even though it’s beautiful to look at–that doesn’t mean I wanted to be frozen right alongside the canals. So I stayed inside. And stayed inside. And stayed inside. On a friend's couch. For the month of January 2009, my friend's couch and I were best friends. Really. There was just no motivation on my part to do, well, much of anything. 

For the last two and a half years I have been moving around the world every three months. Literally. First San Francisco, then back to Cincinnati, the back to San Francisco, then to Manhattan, then to Copenhagen, then back to Cincinnati, then to Düsseldorf, then back to Cincinnati, and then–finally, to Amsterdam. As one can imagine, packing your life into two suitcases every three months and staring over can be incredibly exciting. A brand new destination very few months was conveniently located just outside my doorstep; with all the amenities that the huge cities of the world have to offer. Bars, clubs, restaurants, theaters, festivals, and parades–basically the past three years of my life has been wondrous in ways that I can’t even begin to describe here. I could attempt to, but then I think I would be writing a memoir if I tried–and really who has time for that. (And ironically enough, by the time most people actually have accumulated enough history within their lives to need a memoir, they usually do have the time to write it–but yet again, ironically enough, have someone else write it for them. Interesting.)

But the downfall of this accelerated and exciting lifestyle, is that in each city I’ve lived in–in a way–I always knew that my stay there would come to an end at some point or another. Which made me want to see, and do, everything that each city of those cities had to offer. Everything. There was such a mental pressure for me, form myself, to do and accomplish, and see as much as I possibly could–that I’m now finally enjoying having absolutely nothing to do. And what a nice feeling it is. Except for the fact that the whole notion of having absolutely nothing to do, is completely foreign to me. So–that’s why I say that during the month of January–2009–I did absolutely nothing, and loved it. But at the same time–shocking–was so hard on my self for doing just that, nothing. 

It’s so strange to come home from the studio and not have to worry about on which continent I’ll be living in a few months. It’s such a nice feeling. I feel like I can finally breathe. 

Following on the trend of being too hard on myself, let’s rewind back to my holiday in the States for a quick paragraph or two, shall we? Food in America is awful. I mean awful. And it all stems for the capitalistic background of the country. If a company in the USA can do something to save money (at the cost of, oh, you know, the general well being and health of the country’s population–they will). For example, for some strange reason the importation of sugar into the USA is rather expensive–which is strange considering the country is right next to where most of the sugar in the world is grown, and even more strange considering the fact that it's one of the most wealthy nations in the world. In the place of real sugar, companies now use high fructose corn syrup. For everything. I mean everything. Even salad dressing. Ever put sugar on your salad? I didn’t think so. 

I tried to eat healthy when I went back to the USA. But everything was just so delicious that I couldn’t stop. And really, I was on holiday in theory. So, why not? It was appauling how much unhealthy food I ate when I was home. But there are so many uniquely Cincinnatian food items that I just couldn’t pass up. Like the wide array of ice cream parlors the city has to offer its residents. I couldn’t resist. And every time I ate a meal in a restaurant instead of at home (which would be almost every meal–just to clarify, all I did was plan my days around where I was going to eat, because that’s all there was to do. Eat and be merry.), I couldn’t help but order the most American item on every menu. Not by choice you see, it just happened that way. 

But in a way, I’m glad that the USA attacked my mouth. I’ve never had the flu before, at least not that I can remember, and I had no idea it took such a toll on your body weight. I didn’t even realize that I was looking quite thin–legitimately. And I only ran once when I was in Cincinnati. Which was excruciating, all 10K of it, because the flu had depleted all my muscle mass. Seriously. So I’m glad my body reabsorbed all the nutrients it needed–even if that nutrient came in the form of saturated fat and high fructose corn syrup. I’m just now feeling 90% better than I was feeling in December. I can’t say that I’m 100% cured form the flu, as it seems that it is still lingering a bit. But I have rid myself of the saturated fat and high fructose corn syrup, and have returned to the eating habits I’ve become accustomed to here in Amsterdam–soy everything.

I would say it’s safe to say I’m a vegetarian these days. Not by choice, it just happened. Growing up next to a farm, and having steak most nights of the week (sourced organically from the cows that just so happened to graze within the green pastures right next to my childhood home), was repetitive and exhausting. And steak is so not fun to chew. I am just not a meat person. I always enjoyed watching these cows though; they make the landscape more romantic. But I didn't, and don't, want to eat them. And when I do eat meat these days my stomach doesn’t even know what to do. (Update, January 2014: I'm totally a vegetarian 100%, these days.) Someone served me prosciutto back in December and I had to keep myself from getting sick at the sight of raw meat. In fact, when I was at my childhood home over the holidays, I made dinner for my family one night. Of course the recipes came from one of my favorite digital food publications–the Smitten Kitchen. Roasted Red Pepper soup with Broccoli Rabe Pizza. It was delicious, but when I served dinner my Dad and brother’s first response was, ‘Where’s the meat?’ Do people really eat meat with every meal? That’s a legitimate question; I just don’t know. And I just don’t see how it’s healthy or practical. 

Flying back to/bringing the subject back to Amsterdam, yet again–I have decided that Amsterdam is at its apex of annual fineness during summer. Cute in the winter. But sumptuous in summer. 

But these days, going outside is just not fun. I mean, really, who wants to walk outside when it’s 0C? And since Amsterdam is situation on the North Sea, the ocean always makes its presence known–via the stinging wet chill that's always in the air, which usually smacks your face in a constant hammering motion, when riding your bike around the city. One of my favorite things to do in Amsterdam is just hop on my bike and go. Go where? I don’t know. But all the bike lanes make it so easy to see the city and just absorb the beauty that is Amsterdam. Except that’s only really the case in the summer. It’s just frigid outside. And dark. And I mean dark; it gets dark here early. Really early. It used to be about 16:30, now it’s around 17:30. Which means the days are getting longer. And that’s nice, because I’m anticipating spring like no one else.

I can’t wait until I can wear shorts again–outside. 

But until then, I’m enjoying cooking dinner almost every night, sometimes sipping on some red wine. (Alcohol somehow found it’s way back into my life while I was in the states, continued the trend for January, and it now slowly being eliminated once again–I just don’t like to drink. Coupled with the small fact that alcohol is just cleverly marketed poison.)

I’m starting to run again as well. Which is so nice, because it’s been such a vital part of my life for the past year, and it vanished for the month of December (due to the flu), as well as the month of January (due to my laziness and the bitter cold). Running in the cold is just, not, fun. 

But I have made it my goal to run all of the Scandinavian capital city’s marathons–and a friend is joining in on the fun. Last summer I completed my first half marathon in October, and the time has come for a full one. In May. In Copenhagen. Those Danes. The Stockholm marathon is already sold out, so that’s out of the question. And I’ve decided it’s only practical to do three of the cities this year, as most of the races are held in the fall–except for Copenhagen. So right now it’s Copenhagen, possibly Helsinki, and Reykjavík (get there while it’s cheap!). And, I really would like to run the Berlin marathon, as well. Four marathons this year should be enough. I can’t wait. 

Back to the living situation for one second, as I stated before, I’m still sleeping on a friend's couch. Hopefully that’s only the case until next week. When the lease on my very first one bedroom apartment in this city, is (theoretically) set to begin. A friend of mine here in Amsterdam has set me up with their friend, who just happens to have an apartment near the Jordaan/Westerpark (and right next to the pool where my swim team practices), that they were looking to rent out for one year. It’s located in the perfect spot, and it is the perfect apartment for me. It even has a terrace off the bedroom. I can see myself enjoying a nice breakfast and book on summer mornings, already. I have already signed my intentions to lease the apartment with the person who I will be subletting it from, and have a meeting with her, and the housing agency, tomorrow. 

Somehow I have managed to find an rewarding position, in Amsterdam, amidst a global economic crisis, and even found a perfect apartment near the city center. And the thing is, I don't even think of it as a position–it's one part of my journey, that will expand my many passions, and ultimately lead me further down my path toward self actualization. How is it that things always just work out for me? I am very thankful–to everyone that I’ve met during my stay here in Amsterdam–all of which, in some small way, enabled my current situation to be possible. I look forward to the adventures in Europe that are yet to come; such as–joining a friend and his family at their holiday home in June, in Italy, on the beach, just a mere one-hour train ride from Rome. Oh, Europe–how you've elevated me to new heights.