It’s always sunny in Amsterdam

If someone had asked me yesterday what my personal hell would be, I wouldn’t have known off the top of my head.

It seems like an easy enough question to answer – but those are the questions that are hardest to answer.

How many beans can you hold in your hand? No one’s ever asked me that, but tell me the type of bean and I can make a good guess.

What’s the capital of Ohio? I would probably think of it eventually. Those kinds of questions are fine.

But questions about yourself are tricky.

Answers to the questions about yourself are like feral cats, they sneak up on you when you’re alone and least expect them. And they rub against your jeans and you wonder why, and then you’re nervous to smell your jeans later.


That’s why if someone had asked me yesterday about my personal hell, I probably would have just described the average personal hell. Maybe very loud construction, or being in a cab and realizing you don’t have enough money to cover the fare.

Last night I learned what my actual hell is because we had to try to sleep through it: constant daylight.

People talk a lot about the length of days in Amsterdam, and they complain about the short ones. They complain about how in the winter it’s dark all the time. Bring on darkness. I go to the movie theater and pay ten euros to sit in darkness. No one is paying ten euros for constant light, but here in the summer you get it for free whether you like it or not.

Last night I took a ton of cold medicine and got in bed ready to welcome sleep but the sun was still out, and there was daylight deep into the night until pretty much forever, until somehow it started getting even brighter. Then we called it morning and I got out of bed and changed from pajamas to work clothes and went to work with people who all witnessed the same thing, and we’re all pretending it didn’t happen.

There was no night last night. Can it even be morning if it wasn’t night? How do we know today is today and not still yesterday? How did anyone sleep? This doesn’t bother anyone else. And that’s what makes it a personal hell, I guess.

So, if you were going to ask, now you know.

Here’s a photo of a pigeon unsatisfied by the things it found in the trash:

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Before you open a bike shop

My Dutch textbook doesn’t cover most of the things I’m interested in, but it does spend a lot of time teaching me how to ask people how they’re doing: Hoe gaat het. “Hoe gaat het?” asks every character in every single dialogue we listen to.

In the Dutch textbook there are pretty much only two ways things can be going: awfully good, or quite bad.

I’m not sure why we haven’t learned the word for “fine,” maybe it’s because the word for “fine” is so difficult to pronounce it requires at least a year of Dutch lessons. May be it’s a word that’s entirely consonants, or worse, entirely vowels. For now in our textbook life is lived in the extremes. In chapter two a man goes on a romantic vacation to Italy. In chapter eight his bike is stolen and in chapter nine he goes to the hospital, but by chapter ten it’s his birthday and he goes shopping for new pants. I understand. When every day involves either a trip to Venice or a trip to the emergency room, there is no fine. There is awfully good and there is quite bad and that is that.

The only person in real life I could think of who seemed to be living in a world of such disparate emotional states was a man who owns a bike shop in our neighborhood.

The bike shop I’m talking about is staffed by a very tall man with long curly hair. The door of the shop is always open and a few rental bikes are always outside, and the owner runs out frantically every few minutes, as though he’s always just now remembering he has a bike shop. Every time he runs out he looks either thrilled by the realization or horrified. He makes owning a bike shop seem like a real roller coaster, and if you’ve been daydreaming about retiring and owning a cute little bike shop somewhere, I would suggest you talk to him before you get too serious about it. We’d never spoken before, until yesterday.

Yesterday as I was walking past with groceries he lit up when he saw me, and he asked me “Hoe gaat het?”

Awfully good! I told him in Dutch. I could hardly believe my luck that a stranger had asked me the very question I’ve listened to over a thousand times while working my way through my remedial Dutch textbook.

Right away it became clear that the bike shop owner had thought I was someone else, someone he knew. He got flustered and said something I didn’t understand, and began gesturing as though he was tapping the side of an invisible stovepipe hat he was wearing. Maybe he mistook me for a friend who usually wears them.

But people don’t speak Dutch with me very often and there was no way I was letting this conversation end that quickly.

And with you, I asked. “Hoe gaat het?”

He was also doing awfully good.

My vocabulary doesn’t end at hoe gaat het, there are three more questions I know how to answer in Dutch and luckily he asked one of them next: where are you from. I also know how to respond to the questions “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” and “What color are your eyes and hair?” but he didn’t ask. I guess he wasn’t feeling that chatty.

I don’t know how to say it’s nice to meet you, but I know how to say that it’s truly an honor to make your acquaintance, so I told him so with a small curtsey, in hopes that he would think I was a visiting dignitary, princess, or lunatic.

But I meant it, it was truly an honor to make his acquaintance. I hope we meet again on another awfully good day. I hope we’re both wearing stovepipe hats. And I hope mine is large enough that it conceals my face and he has to ask what color my eyes and hair are, because no one has asked me that yet and it sort of feels like I learned it for nothing.

A kid in our neighborhood (I’m assuming it’s a kid) draws on the sidewalk almost every day. Here’s a plane.



Tiny horse

Is there anything scarier than the idea of an accomplice?

I first learned about the concept when I moved to France after college. In Marseille people love to warn you about pickpockets, always plural.

See that guy, asking if you dropped a Euro? What trouble could he possibly be? But he has an accomplice, who takes your wallet while you’re distracted. If anyone bumps into you on your left, their accomplice on your right is probably cutting your purse.

Accomplices don’t have to wear uniforms, or matching t-shirts, or anything like that. So conceivably anyone could be working together, and in my mind everyone was. That’s the thing about accomplices.

See that elderly woman crossing your path slowly to feed an injured pigeon a leftover baguette? Well she might be accomplices with that construction worker climbing down the ladder of the building next door, and the two of them could be in cahoots with one of those teenagers listening to music. Which teenager? I don’t know, maybe the one closest to us? And hey that injured pigeon could be in on it too. Don’t rule anyone out, that’s the thing about accomplices.

I don’t think Marseille really has too many pickpockets because my wallet never once got stolen. But it’s a hard thought to shake. And now in Amsterdam, a city with I think even less crime, my fears have moved up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Now I no longer worry about losing my money, I worry about losing my dignity. And unlikely accomplices are still the problem. I’m fine with making a fool of myself at the cash register, but what about the possible exchange the cashier has with the next customer after I’ve left?

“I can’t believe she brought the oranges she wanted to buy to the register, instead of weighing them with a small derelict machine at the back of the store and printing the weight of the oranges on a sticker and bringing the sticker to the register.” The next customer will say, and the cashier will be right there with her.

“I know – what does she think this is, every other grocery store in the world?”

Yesterday when someone asked if I needed a receipt I said no, which in Dutch is spelled nee and pronounced neigh.

“Neigh.” I said, somehow making eye contact with all thirty people in my vicinity at once. And then a little louder, in case it hadn’t been loud enough: “NEIGH.”

I threw in a bunch of thank-you’s too, but those are harder to spell.

I think there are two solutions to being worried about having dignity stolen by groups of unlikely strangers: either have no dignity to steal, or a never-ending supply.

But I haven’t decided which to do, so I’m always somewhere in the middle, walking around with the exact amount of dignity I need to get by.

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I took this photo yesterday so I would have a photo to post with this.

Downstairs penthouse

One morning a few weeks ago Boaz and I had two appointments to look at apartments.

The first place was just a couple blocks from work and a confident man with ear-length black hair showed it to us. He was wearing a gray v-neck t-shirt, jeans, and the green Stan Smiths everyone on earth is required to wear this year.

It wasn’t a great apartment, and the bathroom smelled like something bad had happened in there that the entire building would need years to recover from. Boaz thanked him and we walked to the next place, which was a 30 minute walk south.

We checked the address, rang the bell, and I swear the same realtor opened the door. He told us he had a different name, and he gave us a different business card, but how did he get there before us? Did he take the tram? It was the same guy.

This apartment was on the ground floor. In Amsterdam lots of apartments are on the ground floor. And unlike a ground floor apartment in Portland or any other American city I’ve lived, there is no yard giving you a few feet of space between your living room and passers by. My nose is inches away from a Dutch family sitting down to dinner, a boy petting a cat, a guy laughing at something on his laptop, a couple making out on a sofa.

A ground floor apartment is essentially drawing a chalk line on the sidewalk and saying the general public needs to be on this side of the line, but we’re all going to be sort of sharing the space together.

The upside of ground floor apartments is you can set up things in your windows for people to look at, or even touch. I mean really people are right there, I don’t know how to explain that I am not exaggerating a little bit about this.

When we tried to tell the realtor that we weren’t interested, he didn’t let us leave as easily as he’d let us leave the other apartment. Everyone in Amsterdam would kill for a ground floor apartment, he told us. In America sure, you want the penthouse. But here no one wants to go up and down with the bags and the bikes. You walk in, you’re home.

You’re lucky to find this ground floor, he said. And I’m sure he was lying.

But was he?

Now every time I’m walking somewhere and I accidentally make eye contact with someone sitting just inches away from me in a ground floor apartment I think of those realtors who are identical twins and I want to ask the people inside what the real story is. I wish I had a little sign I could hold up in ground-floor windows. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF YOUR APARTMENT? IS THIS A HIGHLY-COVETED FLOOR TO BE ON? THUMBS UP FOR YES.

I might wait until I know a little more Dutch.

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I haven’t taken any photos into people’s ground-floor apartments (you’re welcome) so here’s a photo of a light bulb store sign that I like.