Moving to Holland is not easy, but it's worth the effort. This blog tells the story of shifting from American life in Pittsburgh to Expat life in the Netherlands,
and all of our European adventures that follow.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas 2009

For Christmas this year, stayed in Rotterdam, because we had a trip planned back to the US for January. Last year it was really nice to be able to go up to Norway and spend Christmas with Vegar’s family. This year would be nowhere as adventurous, but it was a great time nonetheless.

We found a little Christmas tree at the grocery store across the street. It was cheap, and small enough to carry home, so it worked for us. We placed it on the end table and wrapped a red blanket around the bottom, since we lack a proper tree skirt. It sort of resembled the Charlie Brown tree, but we liked it.

One small difference I noticed is that the candy canes in Holland (and Belgium, so maybe more countries as well) are all strawberry flavored. In the US they are traditionally peppermint. Though now they have tons of flavors (as with most things) including even Starburst or Sweet Tart flavors. Also, because the Dutch celebrate Sinter Klaus on December 5, they do not start decorating for Christmas until the 2nd week in December. It seems a bit late, since in the US we usually decorate just after Thanksgiving Day.

It is tradition in Chad’s family to cook a cured ham on Christmas Eve, along with potato salad, so you have something good to eat during the day on Christmas while you cook, and for leftovers. They also make this fabulous food called treca, which is pickled beets and horseradish. It’s a spicy sort of sauce that you eat with the ham, and we both love it.

Thanks to my boss, Juan (pronounced like the French Jon), we found a British man who owns a butchery in Rotterdam selling typical UK meats, sausages and pies. His website is called, haha, I love it. We ordered a 3 KG ham from him, which he delivered free of charge. On Christmas Eve we cooked it, and made the potato salad & treca. It was our first time for making each of them, and they were all delicious, especially the ham.

We were happy to be able to share Christmas dinner with our friends Andrew (Toyer) & Dayrina. We ordered a turkey from the same butcher we had used for Thanksgiving. On Christmas Eve we picked up the bird, and again carried it home in a backpack on a bike. We also made the bread stuffing again. Chad is really getting the hang of this, and it tastes great. We also had cranberry sauce and crescent rolls, and we made gravy from the turkey drippings. Toyer also made mashed turnips and carrots, & sage and onion stuffing, which are typical in the UK. Both were great.

Toyer also brought a typical Christmas thing from the UK, Christmas Crackers. They are paper tubes that have a small gift inside. Two people “compete” and one holds each end of the tube, sort of like a wishbone. They you pull it quickly and it makes a cracking sound. The person who has the end with the toy gets the price. Inside, there is also a small paper crown that you must wear the rest of the night.

For desert, we had a whole spread of tasty options. Chad and I cooked another pumpkin pie (we can’t get enough!). Dayrina made a delicious chocolate cake with chocolate icing. Toyer brought Christmas pudding from the UK, which is a dense cake with raisins and other fillings, sort of like a fruitcake. It comes in a bowl shape, & you turn it upside down on a plate & slice it and serve it. You can put chocolate syrup or another topping over it if you like. He also brought some other small pastries which are round with a filling, and reminded me of fig newtons. Everything was delicious!

After dinner, we went to relax on the couch with full bellies. Ironically, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation movie was on TV at that time. So, we watched it for old time’s sake. I don’t think Dayrina found it too funny, but the rest of us were laughing.

Chad and I called to Skype with our families. My family was in Houston this year, so I also got to see my Texas relatives, and Christy and Vegar, which was great. It was nighttime in Holland, but in Houston they were just preparing their dinner, which included smoked turkey and cornbread stuffing; a true Texas feast. We also got to Skype with Chad’s family, in Wheeling. It was nice to be able to both see and hear our families, and made us feel not so far away. Toyer and Dayrina also popped in to say hi and meet our families.

We really enjoyed our Dutch Christmas, though we are also looking forward to our trip home to the US in January. This is when we plan to celebrate and spend time with our family in person. Mmmm… I can already taste the Fat Heads sandwiches now!


Pics from Christmas:

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dutch Self-Defense

I was aware that it is illegal to own or carry a gun in Holland. Guns are, of course, controversial issues in most countries, and most US states for that matter. I also knew that you cannot carry a pocket knife, or any kind of knife, in Holland. Furthermore, you cannot have large knifes over a certain size in your home, even for display purposes, such as Samurai swords.

However, I was surprised to learn that it's also illegal to carry pepper spray in the Netherlands. I was talking with a female colleague about how she heard a noise at her front door the night before, and she went to inspect because she thought someone was trying to break into her apartment. Luckily, it ended up being nothing but some noise on the street, but it made her realize at that moment that she didn't have anything in her bedroom to defend herself with if someone actually did break in. I suggested that, for starters, she could simply get a can of pepper spray to keep with her, since she lives alone. But, she said it was illegal! What?

My colleagues went on to explain that it is also illegal to have a baseball bat in your car unless there is also a glove and baseballs present, as it can be used as a weapon. The same goes for having a golf club in your car without golf balls. You must also show that you have intent to play the sport, and in certain circumstances have the accompanying clothes on hand.

At the tone, please state your emergency:

I asked them how people were meant to defend themselves, then. They said by calling the police. Hmm… I think they misunderstood the question. Calling the police won’t stop someone from continuing to attack you. Furthermore, if you call the EU emergency number in the Netherlands, 112, you will get an automated system where you first have to listen to a recording (in Dutch, of course) and enter a number to select your city from a list of choices, and then select if you want the police, ambulance, or fire department. By the time you get through to a person the crime will already be over.

I asked my colleagues if they agreed with these laws, and they both shrugged their shoulders and said they weren't sure where they stood. They do feel that criminals have more rights than law-abiding citizens, and that makes them upset. Maybe that’s why the Dutch wear wooden clogs, so they have something legal to hit their attackers with, like Jackie Chan's great Rotterdam scene in 'Who Am I' (check it out on YouTube... classic).

Anyway, the point of this post was not to take a stance on weapons one way or the other. I just found it shocking that you cannot carry pepper spray, which is a major means of self defense for many people in the US. It also does no permanent damage, but simply provides necessary time to escape the situation until help arrives. After doing some light research, I found that pepper spray is considered a weapon in most of the EU. I understand that it can be seen as a weapon, if it is used with malice intent. But using that argument, almost anything can be used as a weapon if you get creative, including keys.

I believe that if a criminal is going to attack or mug you, then they are already breaking the law, so why do they care if it is also illegal to carry a weapon, too. So, only the law-abiding citizens have no means of protection. That is where the law can sometimes miss the point.

- S

Ironically, just the following week after my conversation with my colleagues about the above, this article was posted on

Woman fined for bread knife in car; Monday 04 January 2010
"A woman from the staunchly religious town of Staphorst has been fined €60 for carrying a bread knife in her car, just hours after picking it up at her local bakery through a coupon reward program, the Telegraaf reports.

The knife was spotted by police in her car glove box during a routine check when she was asked to produce her car papers. The woman had placed it there for safe-keeping while she went shopping.
Baker Willem Ubak told the paper he considers the police action childish and that he will pay the fine.”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chad's 30th birthday

December 3, 2009;

The big 3-0. Wow, have we gotten this old? ;) For Chad’s 30th birthday I made 30 cupcakes for him to take into work. Well, he took some into his office, I took some into mine, and we still had plenty left over. I was proud of myself, though, because I made the chocolate cupcakes from scratch, along with both chocolate and vanilla icing. They were yummy.

I wanted to do something special, so for a surprise, I planned a weekend trip to Cologne, Germany. I didn’t tell him where we were going, just what to pack. It was a quick 3.5 hr train ride. The nice part about going at this time of year was that they had the famous German Christmas Markets all over town. I think we heard that there were seven different markets in all.

We did not go to a restaurant once for the whole weekend. Instead, we “grazed” on all of the delicious foods from the vendors at the Christmas markets. For example, we had, bratwurst with bread & mustard (of course), a dumpling (dumpfel) with vanilla sauce & cherries, potato pancakes with applesauce, smoked salmon sandwich, brick oven pizza with bacon and onions, pork sandwich, grilled pork on a stick, mac & cheese, and even a crepe. There was also a nice warm dish with sauerkraut, pork, seasonings & sour cream on top.

The most popular vendors by far at all of the markets were the Glühwein stalls. Glühwein is a mulled red wine with honey and spices that is served warm. Perfect for a cold day. They had these booths spread throughout each market, and each one had their own unique mug. We collected a few of these mugs to take home. You have to be careful, though, because a couple mugs of Glühwein can sneak up on you really quickly!

Aside from the seasonal Glühwein, the Germans of course love their beer. The typical beer served in Cologne is a light pilsner called Kölsch. It is usually served in small, long, thin, cylindrical glasses. A waiter can carry several of these small glasses in a special round tray that has holes to hold each glass. Another interesting observation was that they serve the beer out of small, traditional kegs. The kegs were kept on the counter and had a tap at the bottom. When the keg got low, they would place a wooden board under the back end of the keg to tilt it forward.

Cologne is best known for being the birthplace of the fragrance of the same name, Cologne #470. However, today, it is also well known for having the largest cathedral in Germany, the Dom. It is a beautiful, ornate, stone Gothic cathedral right in the center of the old city. The city of Cologne sustained severe damage during WWII, however the Dom miraculously remained unscathed. The old city, or Altstadt, is also an interesting area, because it has nice small brick streets and historic buildings.

We both enjoyed being back in Germany again, and it was a nice weekend getaway. I loved the German Christmas markets. They were beautifully decorated, especially at night when all of the lights made for a nice festive atmosphere. Each vendor’s stall looked like a little wooden hut in the theme of that particular market, and each market had a different theme. Next year I’d like to go to another city and see more of them.


Pics from Cologne:

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

Thanksgiving is only an American holiday, of course. So we have no luck with getting an official holiday off of work. Nevertheless, in order to keep our spirits up, and to feel connected to our fellow countrymen, we decided to take a day off anyway to celebrate. We took off Friday, instead of Thursday, so we could have a nice 3-day weekend. Although nothing could be quite as fun as last year, spending Thanksgiving together with all our old Pittsburgh buddies in Glasgow, we felt fortunate to have two good friends in Rotterdam, Jake & Erin from Houston, to share this great American holiday with.

It's actually funny the things we had to go through to make a dinner such as this happen. The week before we ordered (yes, ordered) a 4 kilogram turkey from the butcher shop. True to Dutch form, since we don’t have a car, Chad picked up the turkey, put it in his backpack, and biked home with it on his back. haha. We made all other foods from scratch, because they don't have the things we need in the grocery stores. I did, however, manage to score a can of Libby's pumpkin puree from a little American food shop in Amsterdam. So we could make a real pumpkin pie! Although, the day before we realized that we didn’t have a can of evaporated milk that the recipe called for, and of course the Dutch don’t sell it in their grocery stores. Luckily a colleague who bakes had a can that I was able to borrow, and the pie turned out great.

Another difficulty we encountered was that the Dutch evidently don’t use basters. Not a single store in town, including a kitchen supply store, carried a baster. And the people in the stores that we asked looked at us like we were crazy, and had never heard of what we were describing. So, we ended up using a soup ladle to baste the turkey, and it worked fine, it was just a bit more difficult.

A key component of a true Thanksgiving Day is watching football. Part of the benefit of celebrating on Friday instead of Thursday is that we could record all of the games as they were played overnight on Thursday (on Chad's favorite channel here, ESPN America). Then we could watch them on replay on Friday while we cooked. Hey, you gotta do what you can to ward off the homesickness. ;-)

The day before, Chad and Jake made a trip to a specialty beer store in Rotterdam that sells a lot of American beers. They loaded up their backpacks with as much as they could carry. I think the store owner probably thought they were either crazy or alcoholics (both are slightly true, I guess).

The dinner turned out to be great. We had all of the Thanksgiving staples: turkey, stuffing, gravy, green bean & sweet potato casserole (both cooked by Jake), cranberry sauce (which was difficult to find), crescent rolls, & pumpkin pie. Yum! It is nice to share the day with good friends, too. It makes it more special, I think. So, this Thanksgiving, I am most thankful for the friends that we have made here in Holland!


Pics from Thanksgiving:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Working hard, or hardly working?

Everyone has heard of the classic 'relaxed' European work mentality. In my experience, this is really the case here. It's not that I haven't seen my fair share of hard working people, because there are many. But every now and then I hear people make comments, or I hear stories like the below about those who don't want to work "too hard."

Case in point:
My colleague shared the story of his American neighbor who had a job in The Hague working in PR for a museum/curator. She lost her job unexpectedly, and the reason she was given was that she was making the other employees, including her manager, look bad because she was working 'more' than she needed to, & doing more than was in her job description. This is so ridiculous to me that I can’t even formulate a comment.

Another similar case:
A friend of mine (also not Dutch) received a call from his manager asking him not to work as hard at his job, at a hotel in the city. The other employees complained because he made them look bad. Again, this was a case of an 'over achiever,' or someone who was going to extra mile at work, even though it was not explicitly in his job contract. Instead of asking the other employees to use it as a good example, or work harder themselves, or even reward him for a job well done, they asked my friend to work less. Granted, he was working below his job potential, but they didn't have another job to move him into at the time, so they asked that he "work down' to this job level. Seems to me like they not only missed out on his potential, but some good quality work.

Obviously these are only two specific instances, and do not represent the workforce as a whole, or all companies. But still, I don't know how I would react if I was in either of these two situations. I think there is something to be said about putting in an honest days work and working to your full potential, not just simply sliding by. This is something that has been ingrained in me by my parents, school, & sports. I would not be happy, or satisfied with myself, knowing that I did not put in my best effort. I guess in every culture, you have a bit of both.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bikes vs. Fries

I think I’ve always had the notion that Europeans were super healthy, and health conscious when it comes to the food they eat. I’m not sure why I thought this, or where that notion came from, but I’ve learned that this is not always the case. I also sometimes find it hard to make healthy choices here when there are limited options. When we arrived, I was surprised by the amount of fried foods that the Dutch eat: croquettes & bitterballen, kaas soufflé, chicken nuggets, meatballs, etc. They also love to eat French fries (patat), dipped in mayonnaise. When bought on the street, fries are served in a paper cone with a ton of mayo on top. In restaurants, they are served as a side with almost every meal, even in nice restaurants where I would typically expect a baked potato, mashed potatoes or rice.

Historically, I think the Dutch have a similar culture to that of West Virginia. People used to do tough, physical labor for their jobs and required extra calories. West Virginian’s were coal miners and steel workers, and the Dutch were farmers and mill workers. But, now the habits & food traditions remain, even though jobs have changed. Still, given the similar histiries, you don’t see as many overweight people in Europe as you do in the US. Maybe it's because people walk and bike everywhere, and live a generally more active lifestyle. Or maybe it's just in their jeans to be tall and lean (the Dutch are the tallest people in the world).

Although they love their fried snacks, the typical Dutch person also eats a fair amount of 'simple' foods, such as bread, cheese, meats & fruit. A normal breakfast might simply be a piece of bread, possibly with choco spread or butter and chocolate sprinkles (this still makes me laugh). For lunch, a simple sandwich might consist only of bread with cheese, bread with lunch meat, tuna or egg salad. If in a deli they will add cucumber & egg slices. They will typically only eat one 'hot' meal a day, so if they have a warm lunch, they will have a simple, or cold dinner.

One other frustration for me is that it is very difficult to find healthy foods in the grocery store or food stores. Short of pure foods such as raw fruits and veggies, bread, fish, etc, there are not many healthy food choices. Most of the packages and prepared foods are processed & unhealthy. At the Saturday market, you can find some nice produce, grains, nuts or seeds, etc. It’s just nice to have these choices right in the grocery store. But, that is just one convenience that I will have to look forward to when we move back home.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Rotterdam Events & Festivals

One of the nice things about living in Rotterdam is that it hosts many festivals and events. Luckily for us, we live in a great location to be able to easily take full advantage of these opportunities. In the summer months, there are numerous free concerts and festivals in the park just down the street from our apartment, Het Park. For example, it may be a music festival where they set up several stages throughout the park, each with a different band or type of music playing throughout the day. There are also vendors selling food, drinks, jewelry, clothes, etc. I even found my green jacket with the flowers on the shoulder and sleeve at such a festival.

There are also a few parades through the city center such as the Dance Parade, Summer Carnival, and others such as Queen’s Day (described in a separate post). On the Witte de Withstraat, a trendy, cultural street in the city but near our house, they often shut the street down to car traffic and host open block parties or festivals. Rotterdam also hosts an International Film Festival each year, and occasionally the North Sea Jazz Festival.

Each year, there is also the World Harbor Days (Wereld Haven Dagen), which is held along the river shoreline right next to our apartment. There are several large ships that dock that you can walk on and tour. There are displays on the river from the fire brigade and rescue crews, including a mock helicopter rescue off of a boat.

Speaking of large ships, there are often big cruise ships that come up the river to dock right by the bridge. You can really see how large they actually are when you compare them to the buildings on the shoreline. The ships are taller than most buildings, and are about 2/3 of the bridge height. It is also interesting to see when they turn the ships around using tug boats. The cruise ship takes up almost the entire width of the river.

Another interesting event by the river was the Red Bull Air Race, in July 2008. Unfortunately, they decided to change the free show to a paid show where you had to buy tickets to sit inside the barriers that they put up along the river. We could still hear the planes, and watch when they made the high aerial loop at the end of the route by the Erasmus Bridge.

Rotterdam also hosts the Bavaria City Racing each August. They shut down all of the major streets in the city center and held an exhibition for Formula 1 race cars. We stood on the side of the street and the cars were incredibly loud as they flew by. The city also hosts one of the fastest marathons in the world each year (probably because it’s so flat).

Ironically, just as in Pittsburgh, we are in an ideal location to see several fireworks displays each year. The Erasmus Bridge is “the” spot in Rotterdam for fireworks for many occasions and holidays. We can actually see the higher ones from our front window or balcony. If we want the full display we simply have to walk a couple blocks down to the riverfront.

Although I think Chad and I are growing a bit wary of living directly in the city, and all of the noises and craziness that comes along with it at times, we do like the convenience of being in the middle of the action. So, wherever we live in the future, although it might be further out of the city, we will need to ensure that there is an easy way to get to the action with public transport. That is a tall order in the US, but hopefully we can find a place like this.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Oktoberfest in Munich

September 25-27, 2009

Finally, we have the opportunity to go to the real Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. The one that All other Oktoberfest celebrations are modeled after, the original. Since we waited so late to start planning our trip (only 4 months in advance) almost all but the most expensive hotels and hostels were fully booked. We found the only cheap option left available in Munich, a campground. So we each reserved a tent at the camp and prayed it didn't rain. It did not. In fact, the weather was wonderful the whole weekend. It did get pretty cold at night (around 50), but the days were sunny and warm, and most importantly dry.

Erin, Jake, Anna, Chad and I decided to get train tickets because we couldn't bear the thought of spending 8+ hours in a car. Toyer and Dayrina drove. Our first adventure came Friday morning when we found that the first leg of our trip from Rotterdam to Venlo was cancelled due to an accident on the tracks. So, we had to scramble and get a new itinerary from the ticket office which routed us another direction, with 3 additional train changes. Luckily it only put us in Munich 2 hours later than our original itinerary. However, because we were on a new train, we also did not have our original assigned seats for the 4 hr leg from Dusseldorf to Munich. So we had to switch seats often as people kept kicking us out when they had reservations. We ended sitting on the floor in one of the doorways. But, we had beer, so all was good.

After getting checked into our tents, we made it to the Oktoberfest festival around 8 or 9. I was immediately impressed by the size of the festival. I had pictured more of a county fair type of atmosphere (albeit much bigger). But this was essentially a full amusement park, with rides and games, attached to row after row of gigantic beer tents. These "tents" were more like semi-permanent structures that could seat up to 7-8,000 people inside, and around 3,000 outside. They were massive. Each had a different theme of sorts, so it was interesting to see how the buildings were decorated. And, since we arrived late at night, there were large masses of drunken people stumbling around. Many of them in the traditional Bavarian clothing.

When we finally found Toyer and Dayrina, they were needless to say, a bit drunk, as they had been at it since around noon. We grabbed a table outside at the Augustiner beer garden and enjoyed our first Mass (liter) of beer. I think it worked out well for us that we had a short night on Friday, because it allowed us to get up bright and early Saturday for the big full day ahead. The plan was to leave the campground at 7:30 am, so we could get to the festival by 8 am. Since we did not have reservations in any of the large beer tents, we needed to get there early to get in line for the non-reserved seats. I was surprised at how many people were awake and getting dressed up in the campground at 7 am. Guess they had the same idea as we did.

Saturday was an amazing & fun day. We ended up getting there around 8:45, and we really lucked out by getting in to the Hofbrauhaus beer tent and finding a spot at the standing tables. I was really excited that we got into this tent, because Christy and I had visited the beer garden when we had been in Munich back in 2002.
If we had arrived even 15 minutes later we wouldn't have had a spot at the table. Our first liters of beer were served at 9:08 am (as documented by the picture of Jake's watch), and by 11:15, we had declared ourselves tipsy. ;) Being inside the tent was an awesome experience. There are close to 7-8,000 people inside, between the standing areas, seated tables, and balconies. One section would start chanting or singing, or holding up their glasses in a Prost, and it would soon spread through the entire tent.

The Bavarian band came on stage around 11:00 and played the usual selection of Bavarian music, intermixed with some modern songs such as Country Roads (of course), Hey Baby, and others. Every 15-30 minutes or so (I don't know exactly how often because time was a blur), they would do a group toast singing "Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit... etc" everyone would hold up their glass and cheer. We also ate good food in the tent, including sandwiches, giant pretzels, and the best half a roasted chicken you will ever taste! When we finally decided we had had enough of standing in the tent (which was getting hotter and smokier as the day went on), we rolled out into the daylight. We found Tim and his fiancé, and Dayrina and Toyer, and we decided to leave the festival grounds and go to a quieter grassy area to enjoy one more liter and some food. This would be the last stop of the day for Chad and I, as we retired quite early at 6:30 once Chad's liver delivered the important message to his brain that said "This is it, I am done."

On Sunday we met up with Anna's friend Sabina, who lives outside of Munich. We ate a nice German lunch, then walked through Marienplatz (where the Glockenspiel is) to the train station to catch our train. We were very thankful at that point that we could get on a train to go back home, instead of driving for so many hours. The girls played Rummikub for the entire 4 hr leg from Munich to Dusseldorf, and the guys slept, read, and actually had a beer. We were all pretty tired on our last hours on the train, but we had fun laughing at ourselves.

After our time in the beer tent on Saturday, we were fully satisfied with our Oktoberfest experience. It was more fun than we had hoped it would be. I don't know if we will go back to the huge festival in Munich again, but we may look into going to a smaller town in Bavaria and experiencing a more "local" type of festival. We'll see. It's too soon to tell, for now we are just enjoying the memories and the funny pictures from this year.


Pics from Oktoberfest:

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Christy and Vegar’s Wedding! & the whole US Trip

After writing posts about all of the countries and cities we’ve visited, it feels funny to write about a trip to the US as a “vacation.” It’s our home. But, being the big country that it is, there are always an endless number of places to visit. We definitely made the most of our trip this time, being back for almost 3 weeks, driving 2000 miles in 5 states, and seeing a ton of friends and family.

We flew in the week before Christy and Vegar’s wedding, so that Chad could drive down to Vegas with the guys for the Bachelor party. Christy also had her Bachelorette party that Friday in SLC with the girls. Both were a blast, of course. That Sunday, the guys drove up from Vegas to southern Utah, and Christy and I drove down to meet them in Zion National Park. We camped for 2 nights there around Zion, Bryce, and Calf Creek.

Zion National Park and Calf Creek

The first day we went on a hike in Zion called “The Narrows,” which follows the creek/river that winds up the middle of the canyon. Most of the time you are actually walking in the water, which can get as deep as your waist. On either side of you are steep, sheer sandstone cliffs that are the tallest of their kind in the world. It was a really beautiful and impressive area. I had no idea that there were places like this in the US.

It was incredibly hot this day, and temperatures reached around 110 degrees F. After our hike, and lunch, we put on our bathing suits and hoped in the creek at a swimming area that had a little waterfall and swimming hole. It was very refreshing.

The drive between Zion and Bryce was also a site to see. Part of the road (called “Hell’s Backbone”) was a narrow two lane road on top of a mountain that had steep drop offs on both sides. In the distance all around are gorgeous rock formations and mountains of all shapes and colors. Bryce characteristically has the red rocks that look like pillars made of stacked pebbles. We saw many of these mountains on the drive.

Instead of going into Bryce to hike, Vegar & Christy took us to Calf Creek. Here we hiked out 3 miles in the canyon, and came to a breathtaking waterfall. It reminds me of the lagoon in the movie The Beach. It was isolated, beautiful, and peaceful. The tall waterfall drops off of a stone wall into a clear blue pool of water. The pool is surrounded by a tiny beach area with sand and trees. It feels like a hidden, private beach. It was incredibly hot on the walk out to the falls, & we were going through a lot of drinking water. So it was a good thing that it started to rain a bit, because the clouds and rain cooled everything off.

On Wednesday, Chad and I drove all over Salt Lake City. It was fun having a car again and being able to go wherever you want. We did some shopping, went to a coffee shop, and went to the gym. It was pretty normal stuff, but it has been so long since we’ve had a day like that, that it was really fun for us.

A Great Wedding

On Friday, before the wedding, there was a cookout in the park for all friends and family who were in town. We had great food and played soccer and volleyball. Then Saturday was the big day. My mom and Christy and I got “mani’s and pedi’s” in the morning. And, we went to get our hair done, where they gave us sparkling water & wine! Fun. We headed up to the lodge to finish getting ready and hang out in the bridal room.

The wedding was really beautiful, with the mountains as the backdrop, and the sun shining. The service, and their vows, were very meaningful. After a delicious dinner and desert, we danced the night away.

Sunday was a difficult day. We had to eat a delicious brunch and then sit by the pool all day. I don’t know how we managed. On Monday, it was off to the races again. Chad and I headed up to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks with Gisle and Simona, both friends of Vegar’s from Norway. The trip up was quite an adventure, and included a stop at the Beef Jerky stand on the side of the road, and a café in Paris Idaho which did not serve coffee. But, mostly because we drove through a storm equivalent to The Nothing, in The Never Ending Story.

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

The Grand Tetons are a beautiful row of mountain peaks jutting out of the planes. Parts were still snow capped, even in August, and you could see the glaciers in many of the canyons. We saw a moose by the side of the road as we were searching for a camp site. It was dark by the time we had to set up our tents, and raining a bit. Luckily the rain stopped by the time we went to bed, but it made lighting a fire near impossible.

Chad and I were a bit anxious about camping in bear country. There were signs everywhere reminding campers to be 'Bear Aware,' store all food in a bear box or locked car, and to keep absolutely nothing (not even toothpaste or a water bottle) in your tents, because the scent attracts the bears. Thankfully there were no incidents, however I did have a dream the second night that bears were running around our tents. Just as they got to the tent and started sniffing around, I woke up like a lighting bold, heart racing. To make matters worse, just as I was about to fall back asleep I hear a pack of while dogs or wolves howling off in the distance. They don’t call it wilderness for nothing.

The next day, we decided to do the touristy thing and we drove out to see Old Faithful. It is not the largest geyser, but, as the name suggests, it is the one that erupts the most predictably and most often. The entire thermal area was really interesting. It felt like we were exploring the surface of the moon. Some were just hot pools of water with several bright colors. Others were constantly bubbling, steaming and spitting. And others were large geysers that erupted anywhere from every 3-4 hours to once or twice a year.

Later in the day, Chad rested in the car for a bit while Simona, Gisle, and I hiked out to a waterfall called Mystic Falls. It’s probably called this because all around the area are more thermal springs which create a steamy fog over everything. We even saw people sitting near the base of the waterfall in a hot spring. We passed one of the little streams of hot water running into the creek, and we touched it to see how hot it was. It was very hot, as if you run your tap water on high until it gets as hot as it can get. Strange.

On our last morning, we hiked out to Riddle Lake. We were the only ones at the small rocky beach beside the lake, so it was nice and quiet and peaceful. We did not see any wildlife on this hike, as we would have hoped, but on our trip we did see buffalo, elk, and a 4 year old Grizzly from the car (which is as close as I want to get!).

Houston, we have a reunion

The last four days of our US trip were spent in Houston, visiting with the Chafins, the Taylors, McCormick, Bridget, Cooper and Krista. As usual when this group of guys get together, shenanigans ensued. It was a lot of fun to see all of our old friends. I was even able to sneak out one afternoon to visit with my Grandmother for a couple hours, which was great. She is doing really well, and is so much like my mom that it’s scary. ;)

Gelareh and Raymond took us to eat at Freebirds, a great Mexican place, and Goode Company, the best BBQ in the state. We also ate a delicious cupcake at Sugarbabies, and had some wonderful homemade Italian cream cake and almond pound cakes baked by Gelareh herself. We spent some fun time by the pool, and had the opportunity to go to the WVU alumni event for the local Houston Chapter. The highlight of this night came afterwards in the parking lot when a drunk girl chugged Petron in front of her headlights while flicking us off. We were also introduced to a hilarious game called Apples to Apples. We played until the wee hours of the morning.

The highlight of the entire weekend had to be the Pulp Fiction style hose down of the boys in the back yard. After getting drunk at an earlier than normal hour, the boys were being defiant and not willing to shower after a long day at the pool. Very long story short, the girls were not pleased with the dirtiness (and smelliness) of the situation, so we handed them a bar of soap and shampoo, and gave them a prison style shower right there in the back lawn. The photos from this are priceless, and no doubt tales of this night will be recounted for the rest of our lives.

On Sunday, as Chad and I sat in the Houston airport, we were both feeling the pre-homesickness that comes with knowing that you are again leaving the familiar to go into the unfamiliar. I think because our trip was longer this time (almost 3 weeks), it was even harder to leave. We had such a good trip, and we did so much. At least we know for sure that when it is time to finally move back to the States, that we will be as happy as school girls on the playground (yes, even Chad).


Pics from Zion & Calf Creek:

Pics from the Wedding:

Pics from Grand Tetons & Yellowstone:

Pics from Houston:

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Dave Matthews with Tim Reynolds in Amsterdam

July 7, 2009

For old time’s sake, we bought tickets to a Dave Matthews concert in Amsterdam, at the Heineken Music Hall. We took the train and the arena was just a few steps away. We were surprised at how small the venue was. We were happy to have tickets to stand on the floor, and we were able to get very close to the stage. We were also surprised, and pleased, to discover that Tim Reynolds was playing with the band that night. He mostly just accompanied the rest of the band, but he also had a couple guitar solos. It was a great concert, and it was nice to see them live. We also got a really cool poster/screen print of an Amsterdam building with smoking coming out of the window that spells DMB.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A fallen King

June 25, 2009

My childhood would not have been the same without learning to do the Moonwalk in front of the TV to a Michael Jackson video. I was completely mesmerized by him. I remember sitting in front of the TV, silent, mouth open, watching him dance, listening to him sing, and watching his concerts with all of the screaming, fainting fans. I was silent, that is, if I wasn’t up dancing along with him. I would roll up on my tip toes, bite my bottom lip, scrunch my nose, grab my crotch and throw my hand in the air (and I'm sure I probably threw in a little "Aaow!").

I begged my parent's to let me go to see him in concert when the Bad tour came to Pittsburgh, but I wasn't allowed to go (OK, granted I was only 8, and I can understand their decision now). I wanted to be one of the girls in his music videos so he would sing to me, like in The Way You Make Me Feel. I tried to convince my mom to let me buy a red leather jacket with zippers and buckles that I saw in a department store, but she said that it was too expensive, and that I would never wear it (she was wrong here... I probably would have worn it every day). And, I cried for days when I dropped my Sony walkman into Cheat Lake… not because I lost the walkman, but because my MJ mixed tape was in it! He’s still down there somewhere singing at the bottom of that lake.

I had an MJ record that I would play over and over on my mini record player, dancing and singing by myself for hours. He even taught me geography, as I remember wondering why MJ liked a Librarian Girl so much (then I learned that LibERian was a nationality). So many of my memories of childhood are linked to Michael Jackson, that I think that’s one of the saddest things to me. It feels as if a piece of my childhood died along with him on June 25th.

A lot has been said about his eccentricities that past 10-15 years, and how his lack of a proper childhood really affected him. Even as he changed over the years, I still followed him, watched his interviews, awaited his new music videos, and weathered the storm of the tabloids. I heard the news, but I also know that they would take the smallest thing and blow it out of proportion, or even flat out make stuff up. I just always thought to myself, “yeah, but he’s still Michael,” and I still feel that he was genuinely a good person, with a good heart trying to “heal the world.” But, I do prefer to remember the MJ of the 80's & early 90’s, during his peak. That is what I picture in my head when I hear his songs.

There was an article on MTV news entitled "A World Without Michael Jackson Has A Lot Less Magic In It." The title pretty much sums it up. I agree/identify with almost everything in this article, such as "for the first time in nearly four decades, there will be kids who grow up without ever knowing what it's like to have Michael Jackson in their lives. Jackson's death has left a gaping, generation-sized hole in the entertainment world, one that a hundred Justins or Britneys or Jiggas or Kanyes will never fill. That's the reality of the situation. We've witnessed the end of something here; something we probably won't be able to comprehend anytime soon."

This does actually make me sad, that my children won't be able to see him in action. Then again, neither did I. That was my lifelong dream, and I was only a couple months away from fulfilling it, along with over a million other people that had tickets to his 50 sold out shows for the This Is It tour in London. I'm sure it would have been an awesome show. I hear they even have videos of the rehearsals that they might release as a movie, and a tribute show planned, and so on and so on, so we'll probably see glimpses of it.

So, I know for some people it may seem silly that I am including this post in our blog. However, his death is a major event, not just of the year, but of my entire lifetime, and not only for me, but for the world. He broke down all barriers to become the greatest, most influential entertainer in history. Period. If you grew up in the 80's, and imitated and idolized Michael the way I did, then this post won't seem strange at all to you. I am focusing on celebrating his life, and being thankful for the art that he has left us. The silver lining in all of this, of course, is that we will always have his videos and his music...


Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cinque Terre, June 2009

After 7 long years since I first laid eyes on this little paradise on earth, I again found myself in Cinque Terre, Italy. My sister and I first stumbled upon this little cluster of villages (Cinque Terre = 5 towns) while backpacking across Western Europe in 2002. We were planning on staying for 1 day, and ended up staying for 3. Even though our stay was extended, we were almost in tears as we left… watching the last glimpses of the beautiful shoreline flicker by as the train would pass another tiny window in the tunnel.

Chad and I had the pleasure of going to Paris for our first anniversary. Tres romantic! So, for our second anniversary, to follow up on PARIs, what better place than PARIdise. Ok, admittedly cheesy pun there. We stayed in the first town of Riomaggiore for 5 nights, then moved on to the last & largest town, Monterosso for the last 2 nights. Monterosso is where Christy and I stayed, and we loved it. But, I must admit, that I think Riomaggiore has now taken the lead as my new favorite of the 5 towns.

Riomaggiore has a quiet charm that makes the entire city feel like someone’s home, where each tiny sidewalk or building is a different hallway or room. It has the trademark pastel painted houses in pink, yellow and salmon. The one main road leads downhill through the center of the town and ends at the tiny marina, lined with colorful stacked canoes and small boats ready for the fisherman to take out. If you wander around the left side of the village, around the path by the tiny Cliffside pub, you come to a hidden rocky beach hugged on three sides by the vertical cliffs surrounding it.

It is a spectacular site, and a really beautiful place for a swim in the Mediterranean. The water is crystal clear, of course, and just the right temperature. We were smart enough to bring Teva’s to wear in the water, because the rocks can really cut up your feet, especially when you are battling the waves getting in and out. It was nice relaxing on this beach, with only a few other people around you. Far removed from the cramped, touristy beaches of most popular destinations.

The most beautiful part of the Cinque Terre is the nature itself. These five tiny towns are surrounded by mountains that are terraced with grape and olive vineyards. There are high and low trails through the mountains connecting each of the towns, so you can hike between them. The regional train also stops at each town, and is a nice way to get back to your own town at the end of the day.

We had a great time walking between the towns, exploring all of the different tiny streets, tasting every flavor of gelato that exists, and sampling the delicious local cuisine of seafood, pizza, pasta (including chocolate ravioli), and of course, wine. Manerola was the second town, beside Riomaggiore. We had a fabulous seafood dinner there one night at a seaside table with the view of the sunset, and delicious tiramisu.

The middle town, Corniglia, is a bit different than the other four, as it is the only one that is not down at sea level. Instead, it is perched on top of a cliff, accessible on either side be steep and plentiful stairs. But, apart from the spectacular 180 degree view from the tip of the town, Corniglia had another hidden treasure, it’s beach. The train station is on the right side of the city. After walking up about 400 stairs you arrive at the top of the city. You stroll down the streets and see signs for “del mare” (the sea) leading off to the left side with arrows pointing down. The last thing you want to do at this point is go all the way back down after having just walked up there. Perhaps that’s why there are so few people down there, and, perhaps that’s why it was such a special find for us… because we had to work for it.

For those determined enough to make the trek back down the left side of the city, you come to a tiny marina and rocky beach (even smaller than Riomaggiore). The coolest part, though, is that there is a cement pier that juts out into the middle of the roaring, turbulent waves. We stood on that pier forever, just watching the waves around us rise and fall 10-30 feet as the waves came in and out, each time crashing violently around the huge rocks. The water is really amazing to watch, and also quite relaxing. We would make a second trip to this beach, later in the week, and we actually convinced ourselves to take a dive in these extraordinary waters (that's actually Chad diving into the water in this picture).

As with most costal areas, the weather can sometimes change by the hour. We had beautiful weather for most of our entire trip, but on a couple of the days there was an hour of rain here or there, that would quickly pass. One day, just as we were going back to our beach in Riomaggiore, we heard thunder and saw some dark clouds rolling in. So, we decided, instead, to stop at the little pub on the path next to the beach and see if rain would follow the thunder. It’s a good thing we did, because for the next hour we watched a really intense thunderstorm from the covered deck of this pub. There was lightning over the ocean & over the villages, and it even started to hail. On another night, we watched a spectacular lighting show out over the ocean for several hours, which was really amazing.

One afternoon we decided to take a long hike on one of the high trails between Vernazza and Corniglia. It was a difficult, but fun hike. You get such an amazing view of the towns, the mountains and the ocean once you are high above them. It’s also nice to be completely surrounded by the silence of nature. Way up at the top of the trail was a sanctuary. It was a large church with adjoining building in the middle of the woods. It was locked up and appeared to be empty. Perhaps it is used for retreats or something. It was very peaceful, though with a running fountain and statues, gigantic trees and a beautiful view. The path we were following actually stopped existing after a while (but that’s a different story), so we ended up following the main car road back down to the town.

For the last two days, we moved to Monterosso, and stayed in Manuel’s Guest house (where Christy and I had stayed). It is up on the hill and offers the best view of the city and ocean. It is also a really neat house (only 5 rooms) with a large veranda with tap beer and wine. Nice! It is the biggest of the 5 towns, and the only one with a proper beach. We took advantage of that one hot afternoon.

From Monterosso, we decided to take the two toughest low trail hikes: Monterosso to Vernazza, and Vernazza to Cornignia. And, they were tough, indeed, but very rewarding. A ton of up and down, and back up again. Tiny stone stairs and narrow pathways that dropped of dramatically. It was after this long hike that we again made our way down to the beach beside Cornigia and jumped in for a swim. The rolling waves and cool water felt very rewarding.

We had a wonderful time in Cinque Terre. I think it was exactly what both of us needed. It was a true get-away, relaxing, romantic. When you are there, you really feel like you are fortunate to have places like this that (for the time being) are not too large, loud or touristy. I’m so glad we were able to go here. It made our second anniversary that much more special.


PS: As a side note, to get to Cinque Terre, we flew in and out of Pisa, and took a train from there. So, the day we flew out, we decided to do the touristy thing and go and see the leaning tower. We appropriately donned our Fat Heads t-shirts, in hopes of making it on the wall of fame in Pittsburgh, and we leaned and held our arms up in the air with all of the other silly tourists. So, we can check this off of our list now. But, in all honestly, apart from the mobs of tourists and cheesy vendors, the tower, and the surrounding white marble buildings, are quite beautiful. If it weren't for the leaning tower, I doubt many people would go to see this area since Pisa is sort of a small city.

More pics from our trip are online:

Friday, June 12, 2009

Conversation with the tax lady

June 12, 2009

I just got off the phone with the Dutch 'trash tax' department. It was a really really priceless conversation. After getting transferred around, I get to the department that I was 'supposed' to be talking with (this is the 3rd woman I have spoken with on the 1 call). She says that she must speak Dutch to me, by law. So, I say that I must have the wrong number, because was transferred to her in order to get a specific piece of information about my trash tax.

She says that she wants to help me--talks a bit in English--says that the people around her in her office are looking at her, and that her boss is coming to sit next to her. I ask to speak with her boss, & she had no idea what to do. There was a mixture of surprise and fear in her voice, and she says that 'isn't a good idea'. I say that I am just trying to pay my trash tax. She asks me to hold, and gets off the line for a min (supposedly talking with her boss) and then comes back and helps me quickly in English. She was a nice woman, just unsure of how to handle the situation.

In the end, I said that she had made my weekend. She said that I made hers.


Sunday, May 31, 2009

First trip home after one year in Holland

It is hard to believe that it has been an entire year since we were in the US. We didn't plan on it being that long, but it just worked out that way. Both of our parents were able to come out and visit us, and Chrsity/Vegar came out our way for Christmas, so we didn't go home. Needless to say, we were very excited to finally go back for a visit. We had a list in our heads of all of the places we wanted to go, people we wanted to see, & foods we wanted to eat. We looked forward to seeing signs in English, to understanding people when they talk to you, and to being around so many familiar things again.

One of the first things I noticed, even on the plain, was hearing all of the "American English." It was nice, just like when we visit the UK, to be able to understand background conversations. All transactions in shops and restaurants are very easy; no miscommunications, no repeating ourselves 3 times and still getting it wrong, no strange looks when we say something… it was a relief. I had a different perspective on the American conversations I heard. I can see how sometimes Americans can sound annoying and whiny to other people. We seem to just talk louder, and I heard a lot of people complaining. To be fair, though, it is very possible (and probable) that Dutch people are complaining all around me all the time, but I just don't understand what they are saying to know that it's a complaint. Haha!

Meagan and Trevor picked us up from the airport, and, after a quick trip to Chick Fil-A, we were pretty much useless that first night, so we went to bed early. Saturday morning Chad and I woke up like a lightning bolt around 4 AM, since it was already 10 AM Rotterdam time. We were able to make ourselves sleep a couple more hours, until about 6 or 7. Then we decided to get up and go for a jog down Grandview Avenue, just like old times. It was really nice to be up there again, looking at the quiet city in the morning. We also walked by our old apartment to take a look (looks the same of course). Hard to believe we spent almost 3 years there.

We went to the Strip District to eat breakfast at Pamela’s. The food was great, as usual, and it had been a while since we’d had a good American breakfast with pancakes, home fries, eggs/omelets, sausage, etc. It was funny, but as we walked around the Strip, everyone looked so "American" to me. People in their shorts and tennis shoes, ball caps, cups of to-go coffee, Penguins’ t-shirts (well, it is the playoffs), polo shirts, etc. Another observation was that we also saw a lot more overweight people than we’ve seen anywhere in our entire year in Europe. Now, granted, standing in front of Pamela's in the Strip is probably one of the places where you'll see this the most, but it was interesting to have a sort of third person perspective. The people look different here. When we lived there we were so used to it that we didn’t notice.

That afternoon, Chad's parents came up to Pittsburgh, and we had a wonderful afternoon in the hot sun, barbequing and playing corn hole. The Pens game was on that night, and I struggled to stay awake to even 10:00 to see the end. Sunday morning, we marked off a major item on our checklist and went to eat at Fat Heads and have some great American micro-brews. Chad and I split a burger topped with a pierogi, and the South Side Slopes (which, for those of you unfortunate enough not to know, is a huge sandwich with a split kielbasa, pierogi, grilled onions, and cheese). We ate as much as we could, but still had to take some home.

My dad came up to Pittsburgh and picked me up at Meagan's, and we went to pick up Christy, Laura, and Nikau (her son) at the airport. Chad went to Wheeling with his parents for a couple of days. It was nice to see Chris & Laura again, and Nikau was so adorable. At home, we were greeted by a cute little puppy, Riley, my mom's newest addition to the zoo. She is so tiny, only 4 pounds, and really fun to play with.

Monday, the four of us went to the lake to see Mike and Sue. It was nice to relax on the dock by the water & to sit in the middle of the mountains again. I miss them, because Holland is so flat. Christy and I rode the jet ski for a bit, which is always fun. Then we went to the movies and saw the new Star Trek, which was really well done and funny, too. We went to Chedder’s to eat dinner, a new restaurant in Morgantown. I took note of how polite the hostesses and waiters are. Imagine that, they actually Care about customer service. And, it was nice to have a big tall glass of ice water with no hassle, or accidentally ordering a bottle of sparkling Avian water.

Wednesday I went back up to Pittsburgh to have lunch with the Julies and Jen. Shrum wasn't working that day, so she brought Abby to lunch, who had gotten so big since I saw her when she was only a couple weeks old. It was nice to catch up with the girls, and hear how things at FedEx are going (mostly the same, of course). When I was telling them all of the places we had been, I realized how much we have done in just one year. It's amazing what you can do with 45 vacation days. ;) After lunch, I experienced a miracle… I got my PA drivers license renewed! I didn't have the exact form I needed, and I had a receipt of an online payment that I wasn't sure they'd take, etc. But with only minimal eye rolling on their part, and 1.5 hrs of waiting, I got it. Major mission accomplished (Chad was also able to renew his WV license in Morgantown, so we’re covered for the next 4 yrs).

It was a busy day. I met up with Chad and we went to H&R Block to sign the paperwork for our 2008 taxes, since they had helped us remotely. Then we went to the mall and had fun looking at all of the Penguins’ gear and the Super Bowl shirts in Dicks. Chad was mesmerized by the gigantic wall of American footballs and basketballs. I think I saw a tear in his eye. It was sort of surreal walking through the mall; all of the variety of shops, familiar signs, people wearing t-shirts of local sports teams, convenient little add-ons and options to everything, people eager to help you or answer your questions. Malls are really a snapshot of American culture (as is Costco, haha).

Thursday I met up with my ol’ girl Rose head. Fittingly, we met at the mall food court and had Chick Fil-A. Mmmm. It was nice to catch up with her. Chad then came down that night to stay in Motown the rest of the week. That night, my parents took all of us to an awesome new restaurant on Chestnut Street called Dragonfly. It was sort of an Asian fusion style, with really good seafood and sushi. It was incredible. Then, Christy and Chad and I met up with Laura, Sommer and Scotty, and hit up Gibbie’s and McClaugherty’s.

Friday we had a big cookout at my parent’s house, and all of Christy’s friends that were in town for the shower came over, along with a lot of other people. It was great to sit out on the deck again, smell the grill, drink good American beer, and catch up with people that we hadn’t seen in a year or more.

Saturday was Christy’s shower. It was really nice, and everyone had a great time. Her friends brought their kids, and it was amazing for me to see all of these girls in “mom-mode,” after seeing them all growing up & getting in trouble together. Sittee, Aunt Pat, and Nicole came up from Charleston, and it was really nice to see them again, too. The shower made me get really excited for the wedding. I think Christy was, too. Only two months to go!

With mixed emotions, we made our way back to the airport on Sunday. It was nice to be home for 10 days, because it was long enough to really be able to relax, and get a lot of things done at the same time. But, it was hard, again, to leave everything in our lives that is so familiar to us, and come back to Holland. Thankfully we are really settled in and having a great time in Rotterdam, so we don’t feel the anxiety we felt when we first moved. But, it’s still hard to leave our family and friends, and leave our lives on hold for another 2 years. I guess sometimes the really good things in life come with a sacrifice of some sort. You just always hope that the experiences gained are worth the sacrifice. I think in this case it is worth it.


Pics from our trip home: