A Travellerspoint blog

The start of summer in Amsterdam

all seasons in one day
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Sometimes it seems to be all about time and numbers. It’s almost a year since we left familiar shores to begin travelling, and a month since we returned to Amsterdam after a three-week hiatus back in New Zealand. It took two weeks for me to get over the jetlag, and when my brain finally caught up with my head, things have started returning to normal, and more excitingly – coming together for the first time…

What a strange sense of displacement to travel back to your old home without feeling settled in a new one. Everything was so achingly easy, it was hard to imagine leaving yet again… But it’s not as if we came to Amsterdam because we thought it would be a piece of taart. I can’t count the number of times that other nomadic friends have lectured us about the ‘break-in period’, and that it took them at least a year or more to ground their feet (temporarily) in Europe. As frustrating as it is to hear this as someone only halfway through the aforementioned timeframe, I’m pretty sure it’s about right. Although having said that, it’s not as if the year passes, and suddenly – 365 days later, the clouds of difficulty pass and you’re left basking in a wave of serenity. Even now, after seven months in Amsterdam, things are getting somewhat easier and far more settled.

What didn’t help is that we arrived at the start of winter, and endured the cold, poorness and loneliness all in one swift hit. Summer in Amsterdam is a completely different city. I feel as if I’ve noticed the seasonal change far more intensely than back home. Like the trees, slowly dressing themselves in green, Amsterdammers transform for summer. The city is different. Places you never knew existed seem to crop up overnight, and bar doors open their floodgates, spilling outdoor furniture onto any available space. People actually smile. Flocking to the parks on Sundays, weekend life is more relaxed.

Our (not so) new house is perfect for summer, and we've welcomed the season with a few bbqs so far - back to the traditional coals, billowing infused smoke through the neighbourhood. The bike gang has taken to picnics in the parks, the forests... wherever we can rest on some grass and soak up some sun. And here I don't burn after 10 minutes like back home!

While I find that day-by-day my Dutch is improving, I’m also noticing a decline in my English abilities… Maybe (and hopefully) it’s just a temporary thing, and trying to switch your brain to think in another language is confusing the native tongue. The sentence structure is generally the opposite of English in Dutch, so I’m constantly trying to think backwards. Small achievements yes, but I have successfully held small conversations, and enjoy being able to understand comments being made in the street.

I had my first incident with a steep Dutch staircase (ironically, the translation for stairs is ‘trap’), and am still recovering from a nasty blow to the tailbone. It’s generally okay to walk around though, and Josh and I managed a day-trip to Haarlem the weekend after – our first Dutch expedition outside Amsterdam together, and we felt like travellers again, if only for a day. It’s a beautiful city, almost like a boutique Amsterdam (only 20 minutes on the train), and we soaked up the markets, design shops and savoured the first glass of wine we’d had with lunch in Holland.

The summer calendar is stacked with visitors, and we had Liv and Jenny here from Auckland last week, and what a fantastic week it was… I’m glad they arrived at a time when we knew the neighbourhood well enough to show people around, leading the way in the biking brigade to the best coffee spots, cafes, and even out of Amsterdam to the forest where we biked all day and devoured superb Dutch pancakes in the midst of it all.

The next few months hold many more visitors, a four-day music festival in Belgium, our birthdays, and hopefully a few little trips when we can… So much more to see…

Posted by joshtracey 07:13 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)

De eerst zes maanden... or the first six months

A change of country, culture and climate


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We have reached the half-year mark, and while I tried to do my best keeping everyone up to date with our travels through Europe before we arrived in Amsterdam, six months worth of living seems to have slipped by very quickly, and largely unrecorded. I had visions of myself scribbling passages of daily life in my notebook, but as I look through, only notes (sentences that struck me while biking or walking through the city) stare at me, asking to be turned into something more... Although that would keep you reading for days, so you will find this to be a much more diluted version…

Six months ago we arrived at the end of summer to live in a city we'd never seen, but already had begun to establish a life in. We had a flat waiting for us, flatmates to meet, friends of friends who already knew about us, yet we'd never set foot on one the Amsterdam's cobblestones. Arriving after a few months of travel, our packs full of dirty, fading clothes, we felt ready for a bit of stability. Looking back, it was a strange thing to do to decide to settle in a city we’d never seen before, but it also meant we had no preconceptions of Amsterdam life. You always hear the stereotypes… New Zealand, ahhh I’ve seen Lord of the Rings… and Amsterdam was no different. Liberal attitudes, armies of cyclists, canals, the red light district, cheese, olliebollen donuts, the coffee shops; we were about to start living in a transient, tourist highway.

We really knew not a lot about the country at all. My thoughts go back to the words of a couchsurfer in Prague, who lent me her descriptions of Dutch cuisine that amounted to not a lot more than biscuits, cheese, fried food and sandwiches. Oh, and lots of herring. For a girl who loves her veges, generally opposes fried foods, and has cut down on bread over the past year due to symptoms similar to gluten intolerance, this might not be easy. Perhaps we should have chosen Japan, and at least I could have lived off sushi??? Although the biscuits really are good.

Living in another city tests your comfort zone. And living in another country, where English isn’t the native language has certainly done that for me. For someone so pedantic about language and spelling (I was horrified to realise halfway through my blog posting that the automatic spellcheck wasn’t working as I’d thought, and that the fact that there was no little squiggly red lines on my page didn’t necessarily mean it was all as it should be…), it spins my head a little to think that now all of that doesn’t really matter, and sometimes it’s just a struggle to communicate, no matter how ‘incorrect’ that form of communication may be. We also become the sounding board for new words, forgotten words, mispronounced words… and you do start to look at your own language (and wish you’d learnt another one somewhere along the way). A child again, giving blank looks or confused smiles to strangers who assume you understand, and are perhaps just rude… or mute?? Sometimes I couldn’t even muster up the energy to reply ‘ik spreekt beeche Nederlands???’ (yes, I do know that’s not how you spell all of that, but at the time I didn’t) knowing you will never see them again. Just smile awkwardly and move on. For the first few months I was babysitting French children, who knew two more languages than me by the age of three… So when you can’t communicate with three-year olds… That’s when you really feel like an idiot.

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My brain has tried to cram in more new things over the past six months than I can remember (and I probably can’t remember because those memories have been replaced with Dutch words). For me, my education has always been building on things slowly, grasping familiar threads and weaving them slowly together. Dutch has been an explosion of the unknown that has sent my brain into overdrive, constantly replaying sentences in my head until I can no longer stand the sound of the mystery voice on the audio tapes. I knew absolutely no Dutch before I arrived (actually, Sophie had taught me “kopje thee met suiker en melk”, a cup of tea with sugar and milk, during our flatting days drinking lots of tea…). Embarrassingly enough, I even had to look in the guidebook on the way here to find out what ‘hello’ was – and was relieved to find out that it was ‘hallo’… so this Dutch thing might be easy??! Well, not so much…

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I’m grateful we decided to do a big European trip before settling somewhere, as it’s easy to get weighed down with the rhythms of every day life. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having no job, no bills to pay, no home, and your life in your backpack. And you do get weighed down with the rest of it. Even with so much undiscovered terrain on our doorstep, it’s not as easy as we thought it would be to do a weekend in Spain here, a day or two in Italy here… Hopefully soon it might be, but this first six months has been all about finding our Dutch feet. And they’e not quite yet fitting into clogs.

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The weather has been a struggle. I had to remind myself (when I realised how much more I’ve probably been eating), that this is the coldest winter in 24 years that our bodies have had to cope with. It’s also the coldest winter the Netherlands has seen in about ten years which doesn’t help. The canals froze over, as did our hands to our handlebars each time we ventured out in the sleety or snowy days to travel. I remember our eyes lighting up and our faces glowing with joy at the first sign of snow. I also remember my eyes stinging from having to bike in the driving snow… And also thinking how quickly these moments of magic become a mark of the ordinary. Sophie didn’t batter an eyelid after spending seasons working in snow towns… You also join the bike brigade like a local, cursing at people (generally on the token hired bikes) for getting in your way. Except the curses are under your breath since I can’t bear to translate some of the crude sayings that escape the lips of the liberal Dutch. Since sex is hardly taboo, disease becomes quite a topic of ‘vloekworden’ or curse words.

I guess it always takes longer than you think for things to fall into place the way you imagined they would (although friends of ours said they had found things here almost too easy – falling into a fantastic apartment, steady jobs and so on…), so is this where we thought we’d be after six months of European living…? Amongst the chaos, we quickly linked to those with a common thread. New Zealanders flock together, and have made some great friends, and not just New Zealanders! We finally have a fantastic apartment we feel at home in, and work is looking up (just as the weather will soon…). There were days early on, when I would trip over five cobblestones in one day and decide that this city may just be out to get me, but now it is starting to feel like a second home. And with our first trip back to New Zealand in three weeks after nearly ten months in Europe, it will certainly be a strange experience to leave and come back. Ten months of our old lives has been continuing without us and it’s a bit disjointing to live between two cities, which seem worlds away given that every photo update is clad with brown-skinned friends with glowing faces while I can’t feel my toes over here, and both of my sets of gloves have worn through the fingers from overuse. By the time we arrive back, Spring will be in the air, and hopefully some long-awaited sunshine will be setting in…

Posted by joshtracey 05:43 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)

A relaxing day in Biberach, Germany

sunny 23 °C
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We didn’t realise just how much we needed a good night sleep and some down-time until we awoke. Rising at the dignified hour of 9am, which impressed us given our exhaustion, we were escorted into the Gruner’s sunroom, where Hilde had set up a beautiful table filled with bretzels, fresh jam from the garden berries and steaming hot coffee. We chatted and ate, and planned to go into the town in the afternoon for a wander around.

The rest of the morning was spent catching up on writing this thing, while Josh was content to nap. As we’d been so late the night before, lunch was a chance to share the delicious meal Hilde had prepared for us, and we were sighing with exuberant gratefulness at the effort they had gone to. It was the closest we’d come to feeling like home in a long time, and made us sigh with content. An entrée of salads and smoked meats was followed by a mouth-watering meal of German treats. When Hilde and Fritz wouldn’t take our full-faced no’s as an answer, we all devoured fresh fruit salad and delicious ice-cream until we couldn’t eat any more. It felt like a Christmas lunch.

We then drove to the centre of Biberach, a small, quaint area, perfectly maintained. After relaxing with a coffee in the square with the Gruners, we went our separate ways to wander the old town. The sun streamed around the white, bold buildings, contrasting with the red flowerpots suspended from their windows. We had decided that we would bake the Gruners some Anzac biscuits, and found all the ingredients we needed (even some form of golden syrup…), and then ended up strolling in and out of shops until we made our way home.

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After our huge lunch, we had a small dinner, which I struggled with, as I was still so full! Afterwards, we gathered around to show them through some of our travel photos over the biscuits. Soon we were off to bed, knowing tomorrow was the day we were arriving in our new home city.

Posted by joshtracey 05:10 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

The battle to get to Biberach

Leaving Berlin for southern Germany

overcast
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We packed up our gear and made our way to the train station with the hope of a small line at the glass dome to finally climb it, but after we carried all our gear there and discovered the line was longer than we’d seen yet, we lugged everything back to the station. Now, sitting outside a café by the train station, reality began to sink in. It was the end of this road, and a new one was about to start. One that didn’t include a different hostel bed every night, eating wherever and whenever we could, and lugging our lives around on our backs. It did, however mean the holiday was nearly over. It would soon be back to the reality of work, routine and a (somewhat) normal daily life.

We ate a last bite together of paninis and sweet treats, and bid farewell to Andy, off to catch a plane back to London. It was sad and strange to wave goodbye to our travelling companion of seven weeks. It felt like we were leaving something behind… Josh and I made our way to the train platform, Josh elated that he would finally get to ride a high-speed sparkling new ICE train. We were heading to southern Germany to stay with friends of Josh’s family, in a small town called Biberach. It would be a few days calm before the foreseeable storm of Amsterdam. Waiting at the platform, we were glad to see the train arrive on time, but it didn’t look like the ICE trains we’d seen before. Boarding the train through the old, tired doors, and glancing down a rundown passage with faded compartment seats, we were a bit confused.

Grasping our seat reservations, we entered what we thought was our cabin to see our seats occupied, and angry passengers saying that since the ICE train hadn’t turned up, everyone’s reservations were void. So much for paying for a reservation… We scrambled to the next available seat so at least we could sit down for the journey, which was with four middle-aged Germans. As all of the announcements were in German, and German only, the gentleman of the group became our translator. The story was that after problems with the ICE, a normal train was sent (the one we were enjoying the un-comfort of as they spoke), and since it couldn’t run at high-speed, we would be 90 minutes late. Josh and I were going to miss our connecting trains, and weren’t sure how we could make it to Biberach.

Everyone is the cabin was clearly peeved off, as we were. The ticket officer arrived at our cabin, and her explanation of what was going on was translated by our new-found train friends, and scribbling over our ticket, the officer rewrote our entire journey plan. We could still get to Biberach that night, although it would be a bit later than our original arrival of 7.30pm. Passing around our bags of lollies, we listened to German cursing about the way the day had turned out. Our hosts, Fritz and Hilde Gruner, didn’t have a cellphone number to reach them on, but we managed to contact their son, Patrick, who we’d visited in Munich. He passed on the message that at this rate, we would hopefully get there by 9.30pm.

Jumping on a different connection, we finally made it onto an ICE train in Ulm, which is incredibly fast to ride on. The train tilts as you speed around corners at almost 200km/h. We had beautiful seats in first class (thanking those winning train tickets again!), and it was surely a step up from the first part of the journey. I grabbed a bite to eat at the onboard café while Josh looked after our gear, and a lovely German woman struck up conversation about our travels and how far we’d come. I still couldn’t believe we were at the end of this phase as I rattled off country after country that we’d visited. The food was pretty good for a train meal as well…

Looking at the time now, it appeared that our new ICE train was running a bit slow. Typical. We still had one more connection to make in Ulm, about half an hour from Biberach. Josh hailed down one of the train staff to see whether we would get there on time, and after to-ing and fro-ing, and checking and re-checking, he informed us that no, the connection couldn’t wait, and we would have to wait another hour or so for the next train. Back on the phone to Patrick, and our hearts sunk as we arrived to hear the whistle of the conductors and our train pull out of the station. Another round of waiting… and finally, at 11pm, we pulled into Biberach station. Exhausted and red-eyed, we could see the Gruner’s waiting patiently with open arms. We drove back to their place, and were so grateful to be nearing a proper bed. After a quiet drink with them before bed, they insisted we sleep in as long as we liked the next morning, and that we would all share breakfast together when we rose. Basically already asleep at the table, we crawled into bed.

Posted by joshtracey 03:35 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Berlin

The last days of the big trip

rain
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Our day began with a trip to the Turkish markets in Kreuzberg – a very short walk from Zach’s place. Tucking into spinach and feta parcels, we strolled through the stalls, searching for the ingredients to cook our hosts a classic brunch (minus the bacon since Jesse is vegetarian). Complete with bread, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, avocado and cabbage (for bubble and squeak…), we made our way back to the flat to start cooking.

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Zach and Jesse had never seen bubble and squeak before, and Zach decided ‘squiddly po’ was a much better name. We devoured the delicious brunch, and were introduced to a friend of theirs, as well as another couchsurfer, Kate, who had turned up to take our place. We were staying at a hostel that night, as my sister Sarah and her boyfriend Mike were due to arrive for the night the following day. The day passed very quickly, and before we knew it, it was time to move our gear and check into the hostel quite a way across town. We decided to go back to Zach and Jesse’s that night for drinks, as Kreuzberg was the place to go, and Josh and Andrew were very excited at the prospect of 50c swap-a-crate beer that was actually decent to drink.

We had a quick dinner at the Chinese restaurant by our hostel, and ventured back across the city to Zach’s. Many drinks followed, and the boys enjoyed some apple-flavoured tobacco from Zach’s Turkish pipe. Kate, the new couchsurfer, was studying to be a vet and introduced us to the pure magic of slug sex through the power of you tube, which has to be seen to be believed…

After a boogie and a sip of the Polish vodka we were still carting around with us, we made our way to a bar called ‘ä’ down the road from the flat. Kate had a 7am train the next morning, but with some not so gentle persuasion, we managed to drag her out, although she did manage a nap at the table… It was a great night out, followed by a very, very long metro ride home (thankfully they run all night), and we eventually crawled into bed.

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After sleeping in, and waking feeling a little worse for wear, we made our way to the train station to book our tickets for the next day. Leaving Berlin for Biberach in southern Germany for two nights with Josh’s family friends. We thought we would check out the line again to climb the glass dome, but a standing queue was still winding its way beyond the doors and down the steps, so again, we moved on.

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We asked for directions to a flea market, which we found a few metro stops away in Tiergarten. Hundreds of stalls filled with gems awaited, but most of the gems were sadly too difficult to relocate to Amsterdam! Old retro and antique furniture, books, jewellery, clothes, hats, old camera equipment… We managed to find a perfect hat for each of us, so we did get to take something away with us.

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Very hungry by this stage, we weren’t sure which area to venture into for food, but saw a beer sign lit up on a lamppost, a sign that food may be near, but not appearing to lead anywhere. It turned out to be a restaurant in a boat on the river, hidden far from sight, but filled with what looked like many happy customers – always a good sign! We sat up on the deck, all of us choosing amazing fish dishes; something we hadn’t had in a while.

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From there, we walked through the park to the Victory Tower Memorial, which we decided to conquer the steps of to get a great view. Our late night was creeping up on me, and with the prospect of another one ahead, we headed back to the hostel afterwards so I could attempt a nap before Sarah arrived. I think I managed a few winks before a phone call came to say that they sadly wouldn’t be making it…

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We decided to go out for one last German meal as a party of three on our last night of travels together on the journey. A place around the corner from the hostel was recommended to us, but we arrived to find a private 50th birthday party well underway. The back up plan was one the beer garden by the zoo, so we jumped on the metro to make our way there. After a traditional German meal and a lovely beer, we ended up heading back to Zach and Jesse’s for one last night with these two seriously awesome dudes.

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After a drink a their flat, we decided to check out another spot in the Kreuzberg bar scene. In the pouring rain. We had been amazingly lucky with weather on the trip, until we hit Berlin… Passing by so many little ‘hole in the wall’ bars jammed full of people, we found a spare booth in a retro bar. Fantastic music kept us bopping along all night with a drink or two. All pretty exhausted, it was actually nice to have a very low-key night to send us off. We loved that people off the street come around the bars selling bretzels and nice hot food…

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When things wound down, we made our way home in the rain, kindly escorted to the metro station by a friendly Australian who had just moved to Berlin, and we met while walking in the wrong direction to the station… After a million changes to get across town and over an hour on the metro, we crawled into bed for our last night’s sleep in Berlin.

Posted by joshtracey 13:39 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

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