Better & Bolder, the Blog

Amsterdam, Adventure, and Moving On

adventure on

I did not love Amsterdam. 

Some places delight me from the first day. I adore being in Portland while I don’t care if I never go to Seattle again. Portland feels homey, easy to get around with public transportation, great local arts, wonderful thrift stores, beautifully green, yummy hippie food. I just like it. I’d go again tomorrow. Seattle feels more spread out, more watery, more touristy, bigger. Meh. I just don’t care. I love San Francisco, which is hella big, so it’s not just a matter of size. It’s not any list of things, really, more a sense of place. I liked Stockholm fine but loved Copenhagen. New York - ah, what a place. I feel so at home there, as if I could be my absolutest loudest and weirdest and still fit in. Thank you, New York, for giving me that.  

What makes us love some cities from the first day and not others? It’s wild to imagine we have some long ago connection, some past life or some other energetic pull.

If you want a superficial vision of Amsterdam, go here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/maggyvaneijk/46-reasons-living-in-amsterdam-ruins-you-for-life#.tcoOl1q5zq.  It looks great on paper. Yes, having everyone ride bicycles sounds idyllic. The reality is that when it’s windy and cold, which is often, being out on the bike isn’t so fun. The reality is also terrifying. 

Bicyclists zoom in and out of the flow of traffic on the bike paths. Motorized scooters share this same path. No one yells out a friendly “on your left!” though sometimes someone will say something like “beep.” In the crowded city center, cars pass dangerously close and even pedestrians will cut off bicyclists.

On Saturday I ran the Nike 10K along with 6022 other women — excuse me, the Nike site’s translation is “girls.” Perhaps “girls” is more descriptive of the field. I saw maybe three women around my age. This was a young group, lots of women in their 20s, and the party atmosphere reflected this. I had a blast. This whole trip, really, was like slipping into the world of a 20 year old. That would be my daughter’s world. 

I stayed with her in her dorm. We shared a bathroom and kitchen with 11 other international students. It was not all that clean. I’d rather walk up to the seventh floor than risk the elevator after seeing the door get stuck. One of the bathrooms doesn’t have a light but I preferred it to the one in which the lock sometimes sticks. When I first arrived, I thought, wow, did I make a mistake in planning to stay here, but then it got kind of fun. 

Over breakfast I talked with her Czech flatmate and her visiting friends (one from Munich, Germany, and the other near Helsinki, Finland). We talked about the economy in Europe and what it’s like for young adults. We talked about what they want to do and where they’d like to live. I’m telling you, it’s a once in a lifetime experience, this living abroad for a week. The guy from Hungary is super quiet. The woman who was jokingly and unrelentingly criticizing Hungary’s meal? I knew that kind of in-your-face brashness had to be someone from the States (New Jersey). 

I can’t say that I loved drying myself off with my daughter’s t-shirt (she doesn’t own a towel) but it was surprisingly fine. It’s just a week. I dug through my suitcase every morning for whatever I needed because there was no place to put my things, and the world kept turning. I actually frantically searched AirBnB that first day, but then we got busy, and I guess I just got younger. I stopped caring that this is funky living, and I went with it, just like we do in our 20s.

We borrow what we needed as young people do. We got a bike from her friend from Brazil. All good — she’ll be checking his paper (his first in English) to help him out this week. We got a second bike from Sophie, one of her besties, and I treated her and Bella (her other bestie) to dinner Tuesday night. It goes like that. 

While I don’t love this city, I loved the experience of adventuring in a new city. The first day, we headed to the Bos, which is a huge man-made park (three times the size of Central park). There are large fields, some open and some with soccer goals and forested trails. There’s a goat farm, a pool, rowing, canoeing, fishing. You have to love a city that creates a giant outdoor playground. 

Though I hadn’t slept on the plane and had been awake 24 hours when we landed, I wanted to get onto local time as soon as possible, so I worked to stay awake that first day.  After the Bos, we walked along the train tracks and near the canals. Some homes sited next to the canals had a boat docked alongside, and I imagine that locals enjoy a fair amount of time not just near but also in the water. 

We headed to the Pijp, which is a long string of outdoor stalls. Most of the vendors are selling flea market type goods, made in China perhaps, and the goods were not all that interesting. Like biking everywhere, it seems really cool — the outdoor market! — but there wasn’t much that was original or unique and nothing was hand-crafted. Still, we got fruit and veggies and gorgeous spelt sourdough bread. We bought a beautiful ivy plant for Bon’s room. We had dinner at a groovy pay-what-you-wish cafe called Trust. They celebrate “the economy of trust” and advocate we be “happy for no reason.” The service was friendly and quite slow, which seems typical in this city. The food was fine, not wonderful, and that has proven true as well in the few restaurants we tried.  

We walked until late, coming home on the tram after dark. I finally slept, with Siobhan on the floor on her yoga mat (someone else had borrowed the flat’s air mattress) and me on her twin bed. 

Thursday I returned to the Bos in the morning for my run and another walk. Later we walked through Vondelpark, which is large yet unremarkable. Once again, I found myself slightly underwhelmed by the city. 

We ended up in Dam square in the evening, which was blissfully uncrowded at 8pm as many shops were closed already. Here is where H&M and other large chain stores line up with stores designed for the tourist crowd. One store was devoted to Lay’s potato chips. That’s it: potato chips. There were no cute, local shops. No indication of a vibrant local arts scene. There was no way to know this was Amsterdam except for the reverence for Heineken. This downtown shopping square was another disappointment. I had a good time being with Bon and walking around at night, but there was nothing in this area that was interesting. I like to shop. It says a lot when hundreds of stores don’t interest me. 

The sun doesn’t set until 9:30 and it’s not really dark until way past 10. By the time we stumbled home, my Apple app told me we’d taken more than 31,000 steps that day. That count includes only the time I had my iPhone on me, which means I actually stepped even more than that. 

Instead of walking, on Friday we got on bikes. The morning was cold and I wished fiercely I had a hat and gloves. We headed along the Amstel river bike path while I re-learned how to ride a bike. This is the way to discover a city; this is how to see how people live. 

The path led us to the city center where we took a ferry north. There the city gave way to a darling string of towns (suburbs?). The homes, I swear, have moats. On one side of the street (but not the other), there’s water in front of each home and a bridge to the house. Some have clear water and others are filled with algae. We biked into open areas next to the highway and bike path, later giving way to another park-like area, the Waterlands, with large fields of grass and flowers. We biked until we saw our first windmill before turning around (somewhat reluctantly) and heading back home. 

We were so energized by the beauty of the areas we’d been that we thought we could handle spending time in the city center, but it was a huge mistake. Now the square was jammed with people. Bicycling through the crowded city was overwhelming. We were far more tired than we’d realized, and figuring out where to go became difficult as we had trouble concentrating. At one point, feeling the rush of cars passing too close to me and trying to steer around other cyclists, I wanted to stop so much that I imagined myself pulling over to the side and refusing to go on. I hated navigating the traffic, plus my butt had gotten hella sore. 

Finally we made our way out of the city and back to the beautiful and calmer river path that led us back to the dorm. I had forgotten to set my app for our cycle time; I’m guessing we had been out for more than 30 miles on our funky no-gear city cruisers. We felt the satisfaction of having really adventured, of setting out not knowing exactly where we were going or what we’d see and trusting that it would be an interesting ride. It was a satisfying day and especially gratifying because no matter which of us was feeling grumpy or frustrated or fuzzy or anxious, the other was calm and supportive. You know how it is when you travel. Sometimes there’s stress and someone freaks out and then the other person freaks out and everything goes to shit. We didn’t do that. We did good. 

Saturday morning was market day, and we found organic vegetables in the outdoor stalls. The Jordaan area finally offered some fun little funky shops. While there still weren’t any crafts, the stores felt unique and inviting. The ginger and cucumber shot from Dr. Blend seared my throat in a good way. We passed the Ann Frank house, which looked like any other building except for the line of people waiting outside; we’ve been told people must buy tickets months in advance. We asked for help figuring out the best bus or tram to take home, and once again got very friendly help. All the younger people speak English well and with few exceptions, everyone has been friendly and willing to stop for a moment to help us. 

It seems a very tourist-friendly city that way, but what works for tourists may not work as well for those who live in the city but don’t speak Dutch. This account is an interesting look at what it’s like to live in Amsterdam http://www.fluentin3months.com/amsterdam/). There is apparently a big gap between the Dutch and those who settle in their city. Even after just a few days here, this account rings true for me. I can imagine this kind of separation. 

What surprised me is when Russ told me that in his neighborhood, he’s sometimes made fun of because he doesn’t speak Dutch. Russ is a dear friend of a dear friend of mine. He gave Siobhan a place to stay and much needed support when she first landed in February. He’s been here two years while his wife works as a counselor at an international school. They love the city and love the lifestyle. They’d be happy to stay except it’s time to go home to the States because that’s where their family (adult children) live. 

Russ and his wife are on the second floor of a building that has the most narrow, difficult, winding staircase I’ve ever had to take - and I’ve been up and down the stairs in San Francisco. I imagine the Dutch in Amsterdam stay healthy and agile throughout their lives, going up and down stairs like these and biking everywhere. It’s delightful, actually, to see a vieja pedaling along. 

Some of them are quite fabulous, too, in their hats and glasses and vintage coats. There’s a stylishness to the Dutch in Amsterdam, Siobhan thinks, that makes them look unique and put together, as if a little bit of French culture and values have settled in. 

Perhaps it’s that same set of values that creates the gap between the Dutch and the rest who have settled here. They’re tolerant, yes, but tolerant isn’t accepting. This is how someone described their view on gay marriage, for instance. They don’t embrace it; some even reject it. But they tolerate it. 

This is the view from the outside, of course. I haven’t had conversations with any Dutch beyond “Can you tell me how to get to this place?” or “Is this the correct bus?” My daughter has no Dutch friends. She knows students from Spain, Iran, Italy, England — there’s a long list, actually — but has not made friends with any Dutch. She’s tried, a little. She met a guy at a party who questioned why she was a feminist. Maybe he understood her answer. She was left with the feeling that this is a misogynist culture. The men cannot understand why anyone would be unhappy with the status quo. 

More strongly, she says she would be surprised to find that a Dutch woman is a feminist. They are, she says, somewhat passive. Her experience is visceral. Dancing in a club, she’s had men come up behind her and grab her waist as she’s dancing. She has turned and told the man to back off, and he says yes, okay, he will back off…then grabs her again. She walks away and he follows. Again, she tells him no and he says okay…but follows her again. It’s not until a tall, male friend of hers steps in that the man gives up. This has happened several times and while it’s a bit scary and creepy, it’s also disheartening. Who trained these men to believe that when a woman says no, her words are of no consequence?

Perhaps there is a long history of this in the Netherlands or even through Europe. Our morning at the Rijks museum was another disappointment. Room after room of pictures of Dutch men, many terribly rich, dressed in wigs and fancy fancy pants, some fat, some drunk, and some with their very unlovely children. Room after room described the wars and the land grabs while the ornate and astonishingly beautiful furniture and decorations told a story of how much money was concentrated in this area. 

One room was devoted to doll houses that wealthy women in the 17th century owned and decorated (http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/media/dutch-dollhouse/?ar_a=1). By the time we’d reached this room, I was exasperated. I was in a Dutch museum that was centered wholly on the Dutch, and I hadn’t considered this was a possibility. I expected a collection of wonderful art from around the world. Instead, the bulk of art focused on a few hundred years of history in which the Dutch ruled the roost. This is a museum of the Netherlands, so my bad for not realizing what I was getting in to. I thought it might be more diverse. I thought the modern section might be more diverse. 

Being in this museum made the city of Amsterdam make more sense to me. This is a city of traders. They don’t make things. They trade things. They tolerate anything that brings in money. 

Perhaps I don’t love Amsterdam because I sense its spirit, its history, its ethos, and I just don’t feel at ease with it. Of course, I am the outsider, and my view of the city is influenced by my narrow-mindedness and my American will that I should be at ease everywhere. At one point on my Tuesday morning run, I was moving towards two people walking abreast. They didn’t step aside for me as I was running (and this is what would have happened, for instance, on the trails in Albuquerque). They continued, blocking the way, expecting me to move around them. I wanted them to yield; hey, they could walk single file for a few paces so that I didn’t have to stop or leap over a bike to get around them. You know I didn’t yield or stop. I leapt. 

On Saturday night, I was full-on loud crazy American. It was a blast. The Nike 10K took place at the stadium built for the 1928 Olympics. I was glad I got my race packet ahead of time because the line for packets was still long minutes before the 9pm race began. 

The pre-party for the Nike race included face painting, a hair station (mine was curled and frizzed by the weather already so I didn’t need to be teased and sprayed as they were doing), and a tattoo station. There was a board on which we were invited to write whatever was our next goal. I wrote: Better and Bolder - adventure on! 

That’s what this trip has meant to me — that I’m willing to adventure. I like being home, really, and since my oophorectomy, I’ve felt that I’ve lost a bit of drive. I lost my balls, you know? I haven’t known if this is permanent or temporary, and when I was hesitating as I considered whether to make this trip, I had to push myself to go. It’s easier to stay home. It’s cheaper. Nothing happens or changes. 

When I wrote my goal and joined Siobhan in line for face painting, I told her about the goals board and what I wrote. I teared up as I told her. This surprised me. It meant there was real power in those words. It means “adventure on!” is a rallying cry that affirms there’s more Wonder for me ahead. 

After getting paint and glitter on my face, too, Siobhan and the friends she brought along (Bella and Sophie) moved closer to the dj. We all started dancing. I already told you there were 6000+ women racing that night, and there also were friends and family, both men and women, there to support the runners. The four of us (3 Americans, one slightly reluctant Canadian) were the only dancers most of the time. Siobhan showed us the moves: the dance that’s like cooking a pizza, the dance that’s like washing your clothes. Silly stuff and hugely satisfying out on the grass with huge speakers and a great dj and the prospect of a run through the city streets at night ahead of me. 

At 8:30pm  it was warm up time. Some people who must have been local celebrities got on the stage and exhorted us to get ready as they led us through stretches and knee raises and other questionable warmup techniques. When we were supposed to run fast fast fast in place, every woman around me was a go. But when we were  supposed to swing our hips in a circle, the group was amazingly still. They simply could not. It was funny-not-funny. A whole city of women who cannot shake it. I had their back, though, you know I did, showing them how it’s done. 

There was a long cold while that we waited in lines for our start time. I pushed my way past a few in our my start group but maybe I should have pushed to the front. Because once the race started, I got stuck again and again behind slower runners.

During the race, I was literally a pushy American. Nike set this up in 5 start groups, and mine was the 50 - 60 minute finishers. That means some of us planned on 8 minute miles while others planned on 10 minute miles. This is a huge difference in pace and in a short race like a 10K (6.2 miles), it can mean getting stuck behind those at a slower pace. Usually everything settles down in the first mile, but in this race it never did. 

Some of us were hopping onto sidewalks next to the road to get around others and settle into our preferred pace, but in places the path narrowed to three runners across, such as when we ran over the bridges that cross the canals. I was barreling past runners, sometimes voicing “coming up” and sometimes just moving in as it doesn’t seem to be etiquette here to give warning when passing. I’m used to holding a steady pace as I run, and this was dodging, shifting, surging, which made it in turn frustrating (I had to slow to a walk at more than one tight corner) and a bit exhilarating because dodging and surging on my feet is simply fun.  

In fact, it was great fun to run through the streets of Amsterdam. Those who’d been sitting outside in cafes stood up to cheer us or to hold out their arms for a high five as we ran past. We ran through Vondelpark and straight into the tunnel entrance to the Rijks museum. 

At the end, we ran onto the stadium track and I thought, okay, wow, this is where Olympians ran. I was still dodging slower runners in the last 100 feet, and I crossed the line in a respectable 53:03. Not my fastest time but better than expected for the crazy course, stuffed pack of runners, and running late at night in a different time zone. An adventure, indeed.

I was hyped after the run. I found Bon and her friends, took off my shoes, and we danced in the grass on the field some more. We headed out of the stadium past 11pm where the drum line was still playing. We walked past them at first, but I couldn’t do it: I couldn’t miss dancing to the drums. We went back, started dancing, and one of the women pulled me into the center of the drummers, then pulled Bon, Bella, and Sophie in too. For a few minutes, we moved all out. The drummers yelled “low! low! low!” so we dropped it low, and by the last one, our thighs could do almost no more. Then the last few runners of the night came in, and the drum line moved closer to the track to drum them in. We stumbled off to the tram. 

We were all filled with adrenaline. This was, the three of them said, one of the most fun nights they’d had in Amsterdam. 

I know I’m not one of the girls. I know I’m visiting their world. I’m grateful they let me in. They talk with me and play with me and dance with me, making room for me in their community and their world.  This is not tolerance and acceptance. This is making room for others as they are, enjoying them, growing with them. This is the richness of diversity, the vibrancy of sharing. 

We made it back to our rooms, and after a hot shower and a snack, I slipped into bed some time after 1 am. I must have still been hyped, though, because it took longer to fall asleep. Then menopause decided to be a bitch and I was awake again two hours later. That was it for the night.

The next day was so beautiful that I wasn’t even tired. We took a bus and then a train to Overveen where I taught a Nia class to a group that had no trouble swaying their hips. They were a vocal, fun group and I was so happy to be dancing Nia after 6 days away. After class, the hosts took us to the beach. There were shells I’d never seen before and small beautiful dunes.The Netherlands is a beautiful place and worth experiencing. Perhaps the ideal trip would be to stay in all these little towns. Or to do a bike trip from one end to the other. Every time we left the city, Siobhan grew happier. Our nervous systems calmed down. We felt more joy.

On Monday, finally, we crashed. We made it to the Rijks museum in the morning and then decided to come straight back to the dorm. After the rain stopped, the wind and cold continued, so while I considered another walk in the Bos, I decided to stay inside where I began writing this blog. 

Tuesday started with a run through Amstelveen, the city where the dorm is located, just south of Amsterdam. The homes are pristine with everything in its place. Every one of those homes has a window that faces out, and every one had the curtains open or shades up. Perhaps they don’t expect nosy Americanos to be looking in, or perhaps there is a natural, strong urge for light in a place where it’s still windy and cold through the springtime. It’s difficult not to love a town that is as beautiful as this. 

We spent more of that last day in the city, going to the World Press Photo’s exhibit (http://www.worldpressphoto.org). It was a phenomenal collection of work by photographers who have my awe, gratitude and appreciation for their skill and willingness to report with their lens. The day ended with spicy Indian food with Siobhan, Sophie and Bella. Sophie said she was sad to see me go; she’d liked having some Mom energy around. I thought I was taking this trip for myself, which made me feel a bit selfish. It turned out I was giving Bon some much needed Mom time, too. It feels good to nurture from this place of being older. 

This was in its whole one of the best weeks ever. My daughter and I were adventuring together. My menopausal self and my adult daughter started our future separate lives together. I’m still Mom, always. I’m also much younger than I was when I started this trip. I’m flying home with a new sense of adventure.