Local immunity

So far this winter I’ve been sick about 520 times. I’ve even managed to get a stomach flu on top of the sinus infection and strep throat that I already had. My doctor says I need to sleep more. She’s wrong.  She doesn’t realize that viruses in the Netherlands have an immigrant integration test of their own. Once I get through winter, my immune system will be holding it’s very own resident permit.

Until then, I’m eating local. What better way to fight local viruses than eat local vegetables? I don’t even need to drag myself to the Dapper Markt to buy them. A friendly lady runs a vegetable stand across the street from my apartment.

On the menu today–celeriac. And yes, she understood me the first time I asked for it in Dutch!

If celeriac were a character in a Pixar movie, Boris Karloff would have to rise from the dead to provide it’s voice. Even politically correct NPR calls it “The Vegetable World’s Ugly Duckling.” But don’t let this gentle root scare you. The French have been eating it as “céleri rémoulade” for centuries, and we all know they’re on to something with that jolie-laide thing.

Today, I peeled it with a paring knife, cut it into cubes and sauteed it in butter with a shallot, a garlic clove and a potato.  I added everything to a pot of  vegetable broth to simmer.  After about 35 minutes, I pureed the mixture with a wand mixer. Voila– a splendid soup that even a sick person can make.

Tomorrow, hopefully I’ll wake up one step closer to my immune system residency permit–only 56 more tomorrows until spring.

Got a great celeriac/knolselderij recipe? Please post the link below!

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The answer is

I’m getting old. It’s been a long time since I could nimbly pluck the right answers to life’s most mind-numbing questions from thin air. Questions about jobs, primary schools, interior decor and what’s for dinner draw a blank stare from me.  I’ve spent the last few months pretending I didn’t hear the question, taking the answer from other people’s random status updates, or mumbling about decision fatigue.

And that’s why I love my brand spanking new Dutch classes.

I’ve heard many immigrants to the Netherlands complain about  inburgering — a law the requires non-European immigrants to integrate by learning the Dutch language and social norms.

I must be an unabashed socialist because I’m very happy that the Dutch government is:

a) sending me to learn Dutch

b) picking up the bill


c) painting a stark comparison to my own country’s ridiculous conservatism.

They even threw in a spiffy three ring binder and language book.

Three days a week, I go to my Netherlands as a second language class with a strict teacher who regularly reprimands me for erroneous conjugations– u kunt kills me every time. The curriculum covers everything from the un-sexiness of Dutch men to euthanasia.

I’ve come to terms with speaking like a wise mythical character for the rest of my immigrant life. Saying things like “Yesterday am I early to the store gone.” no longer phases me.

As I channel my inner Yoda,  I realize why I love learning languages.

There is a right answer.

With all the uncertainty in life, the past tense of do, will always be did.

Now finally, that’s something I can write home about.

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Before you go Clockwork Orange on me, answer this, do you have an urban/rural balance?

I grew up in a town of 2329 people. In my town, the cheerleader, jock, stoner, overachiever, redneck clichés were the extent of local color. It really wasn’t for me. I became a perfectly happy urbanite at 18. But, I’ve always tried to find a balance of urban and rural in my life without romanticizing either.

Yes, I  missed our lush vegetable garden, but not the pile of manure that hatched hoards of flies in our driveway every spring. And eating fresh honey while your father centrifuges it from the honeycomb isn’t priceless–you pay for it with regular bee-stings and very memorable massive swarms around your house.

(For my fellow urbanites–a swarm happens when the beehives become too small to house the growing bee community. The queen leaves to find a new hive and all the female bees follow. If the queen happens to land on the side of your house, consider it karmic payback for eating their winter food-stores.)

When me moved to our new apartment in Amsterdam, my urban-0-meter went haywire. Within a two block radius I have coffee shops (where no one drinks coffee), burka stores (with full length mirrors), every ethnic grocer imaginable (except Mexican), day-cares, bars, carpet vendors, a movie theater, flower stands, braiding salons and a few bakeries.

While this is all pretty cool once you invest in an extensive reach baby phone (done!), I wondered where I would get my rural fix. Wasn’t the Netherlands supposed to be filled with windmills and cows?

Last week, when I ventured north over our neighborhood bridge,

I found the rural bike paths I’ve been lusting after since I moved to the Netherlands.

Prose and I headed towards a village named Broek in Waterland–home to my favorite thrift store thus far. Cows and quaint villages dotted the countryside.

On the way, I found the dream of every lactose tolerant, Wisconsinite gone urban.

The Melktap.

I originally stopped in for the homemade ice cream “from the farm’s own milk,” but never got around to it when I discovered the inner workings of the melktap– a coin operated raw milk dispenser.

Your drop any coin of 5 cents or more in, and the melktap pours a hit of fresh, raw cow milk into your receptacle of choice. With 80 cents, you’ve got a liter of milk, great for making Dutch style custard (they sell fresh eggs too!) or, for fully cognizant adults, drinking fresh.

As I took a few minutes to allow my urban/rural meter to re-balance itself, I couldn’t help but admire the milk against the typical Dutch sky. Netherlands–you rock.

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Hurricane Albert

Roughly 58 years have passed since the Netherlands experienced anything resembling a hurricane.  In 1953, the North Sea Flood devastated the country’s southern provinces and caused 1,836 deaths. (For anyone interested in Dutch literature, Margriet de Moor delivers  a touching fictional account of the natural disaster in her novel,  The Storm).

All seriousness aside, I think this tragedy has forever scarred the Dutch psyche. I know hurricane trauma when I see it. Miami gets a few hurricane scares every year–frantic citizens snatch everything from the shelves of local supermarkets and make long lines at the gas pumps. Usually these scares end with a good hurricane party, some debris and a few downed power lines. I’ve never lived through the trauma of a direct hit–so I almost find it cozy, in a “I’m scared shitless and maybe enjoying my last natif” sort of way.

Every time I walk into the local Albert Heijn supermarket, I get a flashback of Miami’s hurricane season sans the cozy part.

Although no Dutch of my generation have experienced a hurricane in the Netherlands– a trip to the local Albert Heijn Supermarket will convince you that a category 5 hurricane is careening straight toward Amsterdam.

The shelves are empty. Lines are long. Aisles are crowded. Normally proper and polite old ladies elbow through the throngs to grab the last bag of freeze-dried marshmallows, and workers constantly block aisles to replenish unbelievably bare shelves.  It’s mayhem from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.  Everyday.

I ignored Albert’s deficiencies at first. I was too busy gorging myself on shrimp chips, peanut sate sauce, stroop waffles and chocolate sprinkles to notice the dreadful shopping experience. But my honeymoon with Fat Albert is now over.

When the sugar high hurricane adrenaline wore off,  I realized not only does the shopping experience leave much to be desired, so does the quality of the food.

I’ll admit it. I miss the locally grown food shares, the community gardens and the beautifully stocked produce bins of Miami Beach.  Silver lining: I needed this kick in the butt to motivate me to discover the markets, ethnic grocers and local producers that I know exist in Amsterdam (but felt too intimidated to interact with).

And while it would be nice to find great food in a convenient Albert Heijn on every corner, that hurricane took a different path.

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Hello old friend

I’ve been slow to process all the information in my new home city–Amsterdam.  Sure there are tons of things to write about, but I’ve had trouble getting my thoughts organized into a coherent two-minute blog post. I decided it was time to get over my general laziness and take a vacation in the south of France at Opa and Oma’s.

And if you don’t believe that a trip to southern France combats laziness, try lugging a recalcitrant two year-old, a squeaky piece of shit stroller and shoulder bag with razor-sharp straps through two European airports where stairs are the new elevators. Alone.

Don’t cry for me though–Amsterdam.

So far it has been worth it. Last night was moules-frites-merguez night in the neighboring town of Cotignac. Feisty volunteers work as chefs and off-the-cuff comedians, serving up a steaming plates of moules and peppery commentary. Since the region produces tons of good rosé, well, it’s cheaper than water.


And today I leisurely wandered around a local brocant, fantasizing over everything orange. Was I subconsciously thinking of you, Amsterdam?

Thankfully, I learned my lesson traveling here and wouldn’t dare add any weight to my load. I’m sure Edgard will also be happy that these chairs will not grace our living room.

And Prose will have no idea that I passed on the coolest toy ever.

I’ve realized that coming to France is like visiting an old friend. We’ve been out of contact for a while, but I get “it” with France, even when she acts a little weird.  Amsterdam still leaves me tongue-tied, wondering what “it” is, what she will do next.

I wonder, Amsterdam, we will one day look back at my first months and laugh? Will I someday miss you while on vacation?

Until then, Amsterdam, I’ll send you postcards from Provence, letting you know that the weather is good.

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We’re home.

Typing away in our new Amsterdam apartment, the phrase sounds foreign. After three weeks of unpacking, and despite a series of home improvement setbacks (concrete walls-4, drill-0), it starts to feel pretty cozy around here.

With limited time, and a pressing need to find SOMEWHERE to live, we chose the best option for our circumstances–a new building in a wildly mixed neighborhood called the Indische Buurt (more on the neighborhood in later posts).

Coming from Miami Beach, the building’s monolithic and, seemingly boring brick-brown architecture initially made little impact on me. I even shrugged indifferently at the enclosed community courtyard the first time I visited.

I just didn’t get urban planning. Then, my new neighbors explained it over cocktails in the courtyard, while Prose safely tooled around with his pushcart–i.e. urban planning in it’s finest hour.

One of the “father’s of modern Dutch architecture”, Hendrik Petrus Berlage, inspired the architectural design of our new building.  A look at the Beurs Van Berlage (below)  one of Berlage’s most famous buildings in Amsterdam, helped me understand the historical reference.

After 10 years in Miami, I was most surprised by the mission statement of the Alliantie,  our building’s developer.  The Alliantie focuses on urban renewal and reinvests all development profits to create neighborhoods with social and economic balance.  In our building, the Alliantie requires that a third of the inhabitants buy their apartments,  another third are renters and the remaining apartments are allocated to social housing for those with special needs and disabilities.

Could such a policy change the way a society interacts? I’m not enough of a idealist to think so. But by creating a beautiful, well thought-out building, the Alliantie attracted inhabitants reflective of larger Amsterdam and put them together in a micro-community.

The central courtyard and garden-facing balconies make it impossible not to know and interact with your neighbors, regardless of their age, life stage, socio-economic level or nationality–which is awesome news for any newly arrived, foreign, stay-at-home parent craving adult interaction!

Today, I just might borrow a cup of sugar from my neighbors. I’ll thank an urban planner/architect on my way.

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The Hunt

Almost a month has passed since our arrival in the Netherlands–a 30 day blur of family, friends, exploration, rediscovery–and an intense amount of apartment hunting.

We hunt and hunt. And I am like those drunken, orange-clad forms prowling the fields of Wisconsin at Thanksgiving. I’m shooting at anything that moves, hoping to down a terrace and a floor in the process.

Yep, a floor. Dutch apartments often come bare bones.

Want some cozy laminate to go with that stunning windmill? Get ready for some DIY.  What happens when you move out? You “sell” your floor to the new tenant.

Unless they don’t want it. Then, congratulations!!!  You’ve won a luxurious weekend removing your cozy laminate and posting it to sell on marktplaats.  The Netherlands is a pragmatic country after all, with a booming market for second hand flooring.

To prove how well my integration process is going, I might just buy some myself. Neon-orange imitation marble for the toilet, anyone?

Flooring or no flooring, for the last 30 days, Dutch apartments seem to be either outrunning or outwitting us.  Fortunately,  as we pedal our yellow rental bikes around Amsterdam, we’ve picked up some new nesting skills.

We’ve suddenly started to think much more creatively as we visit apartments. Like the residents of most cities with compact architecture, Amsterdammers do much more with less. A small terrace becomes a lush garden, an outdoor dining area, a place to dry the laundry AND a guest bedroom for American visitors who do not bring Mexican corn tortillas and a bottle of Barbancourt.

I’ve never paid so much attention to the sun’s path until now. I almost grimace as I hear myself saying “ah, yes a southwest exposure, nice.” But, let’s be honest. In the middle of winter (when one actually craves light), the sun’s going to set by 4:07 p.m. anyway.

We’ve also discovered which neighborhoods we prefer. And for now, we can’t afford them. The good news is, we can afford drinking a white beer on their terraces. I call it, “sip and dream.”

Until we find our glamorous apartment in Amsterdam, Prose and I bike around Leiden, through green fields filled with baby farm animals. Yesterday, a wobbly lamb nibbled on my finger and this “hunter” seriously considered becoming a vegetarian.

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