Biking in Amsterdam

May 17, 2011

That's right - I rode a bike & I didn't die! 
(Mom, aren't you proud?)

Amsterdam was amazing - so much more than I thought it would be. I promise to post more on our trip, but first, I must gush about the bike culture there. I'm sure this seems silly to most, but being the most uncoordinated person on earth, I dreamed of biking stylishly through this town as if I were in a photo from The Sartorialist (who happened to be in Amsterdam the very same weekend!). Not only had I not been on a bike in many years, but I had a rather embarrassing incident involving a scooter (I didn't make it much further than the driveway before having an 'accident'). Needless to say, I was very scared about the reality I would encounter trying to bike with perhaps the most experienced casual bike riders in the world.  

1st stop after getting bikes - Espressofabriek in Westerpark for latte and Dutch apple pie. Boy, did I need this to muster up my courage to bike into the center of town!

Before even arriving in Amsterdam, I read a very enlightening article via Joanna Goddard and felt immediately better about how much safer it is to bike there than in the U.S. After my dad and brother had to help a man on a bike a few years back that was hit by a car (that then drove away), I was (& remain) convinced biking in the states is just too dangerous. If only U.S. cities would prioritize better bike lanes and drivers were better... The double bike lanes, the bike traffic lights and all other traffic (trams aside) that allow bikers the right-of-way make for the perfect biking city.

We biked to gelato on the far side of the city - Pisa ijs - best in Europe, no doubt (we went 3 times)!

So I had convinced myself that we should bike along trails out of the city, perhaps for a picnic by the sea, to avoid all the traffic in the middle of the city. What I learned after our first day with the bikes is that the city is so well catered to bikes, it's really hard to be scared or put yourself in any obviously dangerous situations (as long as you follow proper biking etiquette!). I also learned that after one day of biking around, my knee - and bum! - hurt so bad, there was no way I would make it on a two-hour trek to the sea. Instead, we biked around the city on Saturday, which was much less crowded than I expected, perhaps even less so than during the week.

Finding a spot to lock one's bike up is challenging, to say the least

While I wasn't the mess on a bike I expected myself to be, I certainly lacked the grace of the locals. They could perfectly time their passing of cross-traffic and always did so looking incredibly chic, women complete with the high heels that biking allows. The tourists were easier to spot in their chunky athletic shoes and complete disregard for the rules of the biking road. One of my biggest pet peeves while traveling is people who don't try to understand any of the rules or cultural norms of the place they are traveling to (If I read one more American's review of a European restaurant saying it took too long to be waited on, I may scream. Note to these Americans: Europeans take time to enjoy their food. It is not a race. Someone constantly leaning over your table is considered rude.).

As scared as I was in the first place of biking, I made sure to read up on how to be a safe biker in this city, both for myself and those around who would be subjected to my lacking bike skills. Saturday meant less people in general in town, but it meant more tourists on bikes - tourists who would stop right in the middle of the bike lane to scream at someone half a block away, rather than pull out of the path and avoid causing a pile-up of bikes. By the end of two days of biking the city, I had caught on well enough not to cause any damage - and to already be cursing the tourists. I suppose that's one of the side effects of being an expat, as my friend Jen so poignantly explained - I don't identify with the American tourists, but I'm not quite a European either. It's both a blessing and a curse to live in the in-between, but I suppose I'm finding my way.

Enjoying last afternoon with the bike with a picnic in Vondelpark 
& the best ham & cheese baguette ever 
courtesy of De Kaaskamer

As good as our drivers are here in Germany, I'm not sure I'd be up for biking through a busy city here without those wonderfully wide bike lanes and special traffic lights just for bikers. In Amsterdam, bikes reign as the preferred mode of transportation and are treated as such. Perhaps one day we'll live there and I too can live the bike lifestyle and wear my stylish heels around town. Until then, I guess we'll just have to visit more (darn).

More of Amsterdam to come...

*Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische

Rheingauer Schlemmerwochen

May 10, 2011

Every time I think we've got a lull in local festivities, I'm proven wrong with the recently-acquired knowledge of yet another enter-the-name-here fest, usually centering around wine. This past weekend we learned from our friends who live in the Rheingau (kind of the German Napa) that it was the final days of Rheingauer Schlemmerwochen, translated as "Rheingau's Gourmet Weeks". While we didn't find much in the way of gourmet food or entertainment or art, just walking through the vineyards, making stops at various wineries to enjoy a glass or two was enough to feel like a celebration - even though we could do this every weekend, if we so desired.

For our first stop of the day, we hiked nearly to the highest point in Geisenheim and enjoyed wine and snacks overlooking the valley. Not that it's unusual around here, but we noticed as more patrons came, we were the only ones there that didn't qualify for senior citizen status. In fact, it became quite the joke because first they were just older, then came ones hobbling in with canes and as we left, a woman in the parking lot was being helped into her wheelchair. I sure hope I'm still touring the wineries at their age!

It was another one of those perfect outings where the weather was warm and sunny, the scenery was beautiful and the wine was delicious. I wonder at what point I'll be able to stop reminding myself 'I live here', but I'm certainly enjoying the feeling of being on a permanent vacation in this wonderful new country of ours!

The view at our first stop of the day

Even the bread is shaped like grapes at the winery

Our jug of wine, surely poured fresh out of the barrel

Ample pathways through the vineyards makes it easy to walk from winery to winery

Ahh, glass of sparkling Rosé overlooking the vineyards...

Grow baby grapes, grow!

Prost to an amazing day!

More festivals full of wine in the months to come...

But next up - Amsterdam! Weather is looking to be not terribly warm, but at least the forecasted rain appears to be pushed off till the day we leave. European roadtrip - here we come!

*Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische

Spring holidays in Europe

May 03, 2011

The deeply intense hues from German dye kits

Once again, I've let time get away from me. In my defense, I was fighting a bit of stomach flu last week (or maybe it was residual Easter waffle coma...) and didn't do much at all. Either way, I'm back now and ready to report on the spring holidays.

Our waffle brunch that could've fed a small army

Now, I'm not a religious person, but the holidays (Easter, Christmas, etc.) always meant time with my family and comfort food. Being over 9,000 kilometers away from them now, friends have become our family and time spent with them helps ease the realization that we're so far away. The food helps too.

With a four-day weekend to work with, we ended up at a BBQ hosted by friends whose patio overlooks the Rheingau vineyards that Friday and for the big day, we hosted a waffle brunch that turned into hanging out all afternoon and everyone joining us for dinner. The glorious weather was a perfect accompaniment to the festivities. 

The amazing vineyard view from friend's patio

Still wanting to wish my parents a happy Easter, I called them only to discover they had to be back at work the very next morning. I couldn't believe they didn't have Monday off. I guess I often forget about America's prioritization of the bottom line over personal time. 

My mom's shop is her own, but after helping her there in the year before I came over to Germany, I know first-hand how snippy (some) people could be whenever she decided to close early one day or go away on a holiday - which was been a total of four weeks in the three years she's owned it. It's in such stark contrast to the mindset over here. I can't tell you how many times, usually in August or January, we'll walk to a restaurant or shop only to discover that they're on holiday, often for a whole month or longer. People take holidays extremely serious - and why not? Downtime is important for one's sanity and I love that Europeans recognize that.  

Collage put up by amazingly creative office around the corner from us (must improve German, just so I can work there) - love that they ate Fish & Chips and the guy fake-crying at the bottom. Don't they look like a fun bunch?

Later that week, there was another 'holiday' of sorts (at least for the British) - the Royal Wedding. I admit I wasn't overly interested in it when I heard, but all the television coverage sucked me in and felt like all those Brits cheering for their new princess/duchess/ style icon. Since Kate and I have the same name (in entirety, save the new last name and royal title, of course), it was kind of nice to daydream about becoming a princess. The amazing fashion wasn't too bad either.   

Ah, British style...

I knew the British had a thing for hats, but I had no idea how serious this was until watching the wedding coverage - they seemed to get more attention than any of the dresses. The few women who decided not to don Philip Treacy on their heads looked next to naked. I definitely had some favorites - Camilla's and an un-named young royal's teal side-hat - and some that left me wondering. Poor Princess Beatrice it seems will never live down her avant-garde hat choice for the event, but I must admit, if this is how young royalty experiments with fashion, I much prefer it to the dyed-black hair and pierced faces of America's youth. At least she was buttoned up from chin to knee and looked proper. 

Forget the Beckhams (money does not make you royalty, after all), I think Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece was the clear fashion winner among the guests, hat and all. Her hat was not stapled to her forehead and she wore a gorgeous embroidered Chanel (sigh...). Her hair looked so lovely I'm almost tempted to go back to blond (almost). Tell me this isn't the picture of perfectly fashionable royalty:

It's times like this I truly wish I were European. The royalty, the formality, the tradition. But most importantly, congratulations to Will and Kate! I hope they have a long and happy life together. 

*Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische