Hello Tanzania!

One week from now, I will be en route to Matipwili, a small village in Tanzania, about 3 hours (approx) from Dar Es Salaam, the capital city. I leave Amsterdam on the 5th of May at 7am and arrive at 8pm – such a strange concept for me to take such a long flight, but only go through a one hour time difference (it’s one hour ahead of Amsterdam). When I arrive, I’ll spend one night by myself in a hostel in Dar. On Sunday the 6th I’ll make my way by bus and then some other form of transportation I haven’t figured out yet to Matipwili. If you look up Matipwili in google maps you won’t find it – or at least I haven’t been able to – but it’s not too far from Bagamoyo. I’m not sure what “not too far” means, but I’m guessing 1-2 hours. It’s also quite close to the Kisampa camp, which is a supposedly beautiful area with a super nice eco-lodge thing set up that tourists/volunteers/workers usually stay at if they’re looking for a “village experience” not too far from Dar, or if they’re doing volunteer work in Matipwili.

I’m going to document something. I hesitate to say I’m going to make a documentary, but I’m going with a camera, sound equipment, etc., for the purposes of using them to document what Devergy is doing, and what they’re doing is setting up a solar electrical system in this very poor, rural village that will provide people with very inexpensive solar energy. The folks in Matipwili live on about $1-2 per day and currently spend a little money every day for candles, batteries, or kerosene for lighting. Devergy  will be able to offer solar energy to the villagers for the same amount of money they currently spend on other forms of lighting, and it’s hopefully going to transform their lives. I helped put together a short video to explain the concept, and now they’re finally ready to go off and really do the first village (they will have three pilot villages this year, and hopefully start real operations next year). Devergy has been at work for about 2 years so far, so this is really exciting. Seeing what happens in the first village and capturing that footage and turning it into videos that can show people what they’re up to is my job. While I’m a pretty good agency producer, and a decent enough line producer, it’s been a long time since I’ve considered myself any kind of real filmmaker. This is a huge leap out of my comfort zone, but it’s the leap I’ve been hoping to make for five years or so, and I’m super excited/nervous to be able to do it.

Professional goals aside, I can’t believe I’m going to Africa for the first time, and I’m making the journey by myself, and I’m going to spend 19 nights sleeping in a very poor, very rural village with no running water or electricity or toilets or anything of that nature. It’s going to be warm (low-to-high 80’s during the day, low 70’s at night) and very humid – supposedly it’s rainy season, but it hasn’t been raining yet, even though it’s predicted every day. It’s practically a guarantee that I’ll have “stomach issues,” though they probably won’t be serious, but I’ve never had prolonged days of stomach issues without access to a toilet. The only memorable time that happened was in Romania, and the journey from Sibiu to Budapest (by bus and overnight train) was, well, I still remember that overnight train bathroom clearly, and that was five-six years ago. And still, that was only one night, maybe 12-16 hours that I wasn’t able to use a “normal” bathroom.

We’re going to be living on a daylight kind of schedule, which means up at sunrise and sleep when it’s dark. We can’t depend on internet access, and while we will probably be able to get a connection strong enough to send email, I certainly won’t be able to skype with E. using video.

It’s so hard to figure out what this is going to be like, I have no frame of reference for how all this might feel. After my trip through Mexico I can now remember what hot weather and mosquitoes feel like, and I did get used to going to bed very early and waking up around 7am (while I was in Mazunte, which is the most beautiful place I’ve ever stayed). But there I could wear a bathing suit all day and swim, whereas Matipwili isn’t on a beach. The things I’m most nervous about are A) lack of showers in a hot & humid climate and B) lack of toilets. I know I’m just going to have to deal with both of those things, but man, both of those things are going to be a big deal.

I bought some new clothes, including both a white and a purple shirt. I’m trying, really, to not bring black shirts (my pants are so far all black), but it’s hard without buying a new wardrobe. To keep my backpack as light as possible I’m only bringing about 6 shirts anyway. I need to buy a hat, and DEET, and a flashlight… but most importantly, now I have to go do ten thousand camera tests in the next week. I just spent thousands of dollars (while in NYC) on camera equipment and there’s still so much I don’t know how to use.

August in Amsterdam

The spring in Amsterdam was just perfect. I was in boats, parks, cycling to the beach, taking my clothes of in empty fields (in the north) in the middle of the afternoon, wearing dresses, putting on sunblock. Then I went to NY, where the humidity and heat had just kicked into full gear. Came back to Amsterdam around 9 June, and since then haven’t felt a real summer in this city.

Sure, there were days in June… maybe even weeks. I know I had some good times at bar terraces and I wore sandals all month. There were even a few really hot days, I remember having to leave my house because it was so warm and wishing I owned a fan because sleeping was uncomfortable.

But that was a few days here and there. that’s it.

Enrique and I escaped to Italy for over 2 weeks July, where it was real summer. Tank tops, shorts, skirts, wearing sunblock, clothes drying outside in a matter of hours instead of inside on drying racks for three days. we swam and got tan and would only go inside due to mosquitoes, not due to cold. So when we got back to Amsterdam, the cooler temps didn’t even bother me at first.

Now it’s August 29th and I want to turn on the heat in my house.

If I end up leaving Amsterdam, it’s not because I dislike the city. I adore this city. I love my group of friends here, I love the prettiness of it, the cycling is obviously unbeatable, it’s the cleanest city I’ve ever lived in, work opportunities are abundant, interesting and cool projects are all around me, and I have a giant apartment with no neighbor issues in a great location.

If I end up leaving Amsterdam, it’s because I. Can. Not. Deal. With. This. Weather. anymore. I’m freezing. I had an entire weekend off and I did nothing with it. I didn’t go cycling anywhere, I didn’t have a picnic in the park, I didn’t go on a boat ride, I didn’t drink beer on a terrace, I didn’t do any of the things that I like doing in Amsterdam because of the awful weather. What good is it to have a city full of awesome things if I don’t go out and do any of the awesome things?

I wouldn’t be this dramatic if it was just one bad weekend. I can handle a bad weekend. I can handle a bad week. I can handle not having it be perfect; I don’t need Barcelona or Rome weather to have a good life. I’m being this dramatic because it’s been a bad MONTH, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better. That’s it folks, summer has been pretty much over since the beginning of August. Tt won’t get about 20C/68F again, and I highly doubt there will be too many days when it’s above 16C/61F.

Two months of beautiful weather in the spring is not enough for ten months of crap.

I’m going to put on my gym clothes, my hoodie, and my rain jacket and go to the gym. after my workout I’ll sit in the sauna, where it’s warm. At the end of August I should find the idea of sitting in a sauna absurd, yet here I am.

Living in the exact center of Amsterdam

These days I’m living on a busy, touristy street in the middle of the center of Amsterdam. It’s hard to be more central, my place is literally 300 meters from Centraal station, a neighborhood I never envisioned myself living. I’ve lived in the south, the center/east (near Weesperplein), two places in the pijp, and a canal-side apartment off the Leidsekade. Now I’m in the exact area that I thought I’d never live in – on a busy, super-touristy street that smells like pot smoke and fast food.

Honestly, it’s perfect. It’s big (90 sq meters, two floors!), I only share it with my boyfriend, and the absolute best most wonderful part about it is that I have zero issues with the neighbors. Whenever I walk down the street, I smile and wave at the men and women who work in the coffee shops, kebab stands, sex stores, and tourist-friendly restaurants. My neighbors across the street have at least two or three young kids who are always at the window looking down, waving, shouting, and playing. A few days ago there was a gigantic rain storm in the middle of the day, and my boyfriend and I ran to our front windows to watch the people on the street either try to hide or just take off their clothes and run around in delight. The kids across the street did the same thing, and we waved and yelled hello to each other.

I used to wave and yell hello to my neighbor across the street when I lived on the Saphartistraat as well, and one time we even ran into each other on the street and finally said hello in person. It’s so easy to see into your neighbors homes here in Amsterdam – partly because it’s a city and we all live so closely together, but also because Dutch people aren’t in the habit of really closing themselves in. It’s strange, one could say the dutch are a “closed” type of people, but at the same time they’re perfectly find leaving their curtains and windows and doors wide open whenever possible. I like this, because I like sticking my nose in everyone’s business. Most people pretend they don’t look into other people’s windows, but the kids across the street and my former non-dutch neighbor actually enjoy the fact that we can see and hear each other. It’s part of why we live in a city and not the middle of nowhere.

It’s a fantastic place where I live – the building is old, the house is leaning over (like you see in postcards), I live among a lot of very dutch people and a lot of very foreign people and while my street is busy with tourists and music all day long, cars are not allowed down my street. My boyfriend (who isn’t Dutch) and I were welcomed the first day we moved in by people in the restaurant across the street, who told us that they only accepted cash (we didn’t have any, only bank cards) but not to worry, we could come back some other time to pay them. This is my 6th apartment in three years of living in Amsterdam, and it’s the place that feels the most like home. I didn’t expect to like the neighborhood as much as I do, but I’ve never felt so at ease anywhere else in this city.

One week left in Italy

I feel busy, almost too busy, but I know I’m not really. I wish I could find that happy medium, but I know I’m happiest when I have either no responsibilities (ie: traveling) or super busy. Right now I feel “in between” and it really doesn’t suit me. I’ve traveled a lot in these past two months – only in Italy, but man, I really think it’s possible to live in Italy forever and never run out of totally new places to discover.What’s my favorite thing about living in Florence? The fact that if I take a train for 2 hours, I am in a different region with different food, different landscape, different accent. I can also ride my bike for an hour and more or less be in the country, that kind of Tuscan countryside setting you have in your mind. That totally exists, and it’s beautiful. I love that I get get to Rome in 1.5 hours. I love that this country seems small by fast train and huge by slow train (because the train I take to get to Rome takes 4 hours, but costs a fraction of the price). My other favorite thing is the food, and here is where I will freely admit that the food in Amsterdam is generally awful. Sure, it’s possible to eat well in Amsterdam. There are great markets with fresh fish and veggies and seasonal fruit, I love the pastries and apple pie, there’s tons of ethnic food available, but the normal dutch attitude toward food is just simply best described as your average american attitude toward food, which is a shame. Going to a (normal, not-fancy, not-bio) supermarket in Amsterdam is a depressing experience and I can’t count how many times I’ve gone in and out without buying anything because there is nothing that appeals to me. This sucks, because ok, I can go to the markets, but what if I don’t have time? What if I just want to quickly go to a non-fancy supermarket and get inspired to make something for dinner? That doesn’t happen in Amsterdam, I have to go to the fancy supermarkets (ie: the dutch version of whole foods).

In Italy, the normal supermarket is not a depressing experience. I can buy food at my local supermarket that makes me happy! I love this! and I love italian food. I love Tuscan food. I love the meat and cheese and wine and everything they produce here.

What’s my least favorite thing about Florence? The fact that my boyfriend isn’t here. And other than that, this city is an awkward size. It’s too big to feel like a “town,” it’s too small to feel like a real city (about 350,000 people or so). there’s not a big alternative scene that I have been able to find. I think I might love it more in the summer – I can tell this city was meant to be enjoyed outdoors, in the squares with people drinking beer, on the banks of the river, etc. The weather is good for Jan/Feb, and when it gets really warm (it was about 65 F the other day), everyone is out, on the grass, having picnics, drinking wine, enjoying. The sounds of the city are beautiful. I also don’t love the fact that it is such a touristy place, and my god, I hear so many americans. The americans that live here are as closed of a group as the japanese are (there are tons of japanese as well), and I kind of feel that in the city, and I kind of don’t like it. In Amsterdam, being a foreigner is just that – you’re not dutch. that’s all. in Florence, it’s “you’re american, you’re japanese, you’re spanish,” etc. In Florence we spend more time talking about where we’re from which is a conversation that does become pretty boring after you have it ten thousand times.

I am very much looking forward to returning to Amsterdam. It’s not that I’m as crazy in love with the city as I was a few years ago, it’s just that that’s Amsterdam is where my life is, and I like my life there. I have great friends and a great bike and I somehow managed to find work as a freelancer, and I have health insurance and the cinemas are amazing and there is an alternative scene that isn’t very hard to find and people aren’t very snobby or exclusive and it just works for me. I don’t know. I have no idea where I’ll live next, as I expect Amsterdam won’t be the final resting place, but who knows, maybe it could be. maybe. But… ok, the food thing I can kind of work around, but the lack of consistently hot summers is a bigger and bigger deal. I mean, I like that the winters are mild(er than New York), but I need hot summers. The first year I was in Amsterdam, it was hot. I wore shorts to work, I went to the beach in June, it was great. But that’s not something you can count on, and this is really not okay with me. I want to tan in the summer and stay tanned all summer and sweat and have to only eat salad and fruit because it’s too hot for anything else.

This past weekend I went to Venice and it was a bit sad to have the waiters and hotel people switch to english with me. I get that it’s the most touristy city in europe, but still, that never happens in Florence. However, I could hold a italian conversation with the funny indian guys we met (another story), and on Sunday I went to my friends’ parents for lunch. It was really warm and enjoyable and I spent 4-5 hours with them only speaking italian (they don’t speak english at all) and it worked.

I’ll end this without an ending, but a picture. What a country.

Antique Venice

Feeling at home in Florence, Italy

I’m in Florence. It’s barely rained at all since I’ve been here. It’s cold-ish, but not cold enough to need a hat, gloves, or scarf – just a coat is fine. The sun rises earlier, so it’s light out when I wake up. It’s not sunny all the time, but man have I enjoyed a hell of a lot of blue skies and bright sun, like needing-sunglasses kind of sun. the food is absolutely wonderful, people are nice, the customer service is great.

And yet I miss Amsterdam so much today, and it’s only been ten days. I’ve been away for longer than 10 days before, quite happily. But I miss my bicycle, and I am so jealous of everyone here on their bikes. I saw a woman on a dutch bike the other day and my heart almost broke, thinking about my rusty bike stuffed away in a closet for two months in Amsterdam. I love my bike. I miss it. I am doing something about it, tomorrow I’m going to walk 5km to meet a girl who will give me her broken bike (with locks and lights) if I get it repaired. YES PLEASE THANK YOU!!!! if it costs less that 50 Euros to repair it, it’s just as good as buying a bike, and I can help bring it back to life. This is a bike that has just been sitting there, unused, because of minor repair work. I want to fix it and fall in love with it immediately. I feel like this bicycle is like a guy you meet from a personal ad, having it all built up in my mind to be the most perfect thing in the world. as long as it has 2 wheels, a seat, handlebars, and it’s not too small for me, it will be the most perfect thing in the world.

I just can’t take it, being in this beautiful city and not having a bike. I’m going crazy. I like walking, of course, but… no. I can’t really Florence until I have a bicycle. People here ride bikes! It’s not quite like Amsterdam, but it’s a thing. Normal people ride bikes, not just “bike people.” 50 year old women get on their rusty piece-of-shit bikes and go from place to place. Kids sit on the back or in front. I’ve seen a few people riding double. there’s bike parking and bike lanes and the whole deal. gah, I should have purchased a bike on my 2nd day here, I hate that I’ve even waited this long. I hope I can solve this problem by tomorrow.

Other than lack-of-bicycle-in-my-life, Florence is going really well. I have never asked anyone “do you speak english?” since I’ve been here, and no one has switched to speaking english while I stumble over italian. The Florentine accent is killing me, so I do better with talking to people who aren’t from Florence.

In italian, C is a popular letter. the C in “casa” sounds just the way it does in english (or spanish), like a hard CA sound. “casa mia,” for example. Something you’d say a lot. Except in Florence they don’t use the hard C sound ever, they replace it with an english-style H. Casa mia becomes hasa mia. this goes for C’s in the middle of a word too. However, H is (usually) a silent letter in Italian, but here in Florence, coca cola is “hoha hola.”

Well, off to daydream about my bici.. I mean bihi.

Hello Winter, goodbye Amsterdam (for a little while)

Today is cold, windy, and rainy. Awful. The first real awful day of the season, and holy shit there is so much left to the winter. I mean we aren’t even officially IN winter yet. Scary.

However, I came up with a plan to escape some of the cold, windy, rainy months. I’m going to go to Florence for eight weeks (January/February 2011) to study Italian! This is something I’ve wanted to do for a really, really long time and everything is aligned for actually doing it during this time period. I’ve been to Florence before but barely saw anything, so this will be a totally new city for me to explore! “City” is a bit of an exaggeration, I think it’s around 325,000 people, but that’s a perfect size for a two-month city. I’m going to take intensive classes for four hours a day and look into volunteer work while I’m there. In the meantime, I’m still taking Italian classes twice a week in Amsterdam and trying my best to keep up.

But work has been so busy lately, it’s been impossible to maintain a decent social life or study Italian that much. I generally just take on everything that is thrown at me in terms of jobs, but there were a few weeks there where I would work from 10am-3am every day, 7 days a week. I really need to get a hang of this whole freelancing thing, and how to not over-extend myself.

I’m moving out of my little canal apartment at the end of the year, which is great, because I am totally over my apartment. I have grown dependent on having such an amazingly central location, but my neighbors/landlords (they are the same thing) have gotten on my nerves so much lately. So I’ll go away for two months, not pay rent in A’dam during that time, and when I return in March, it looks like my boyfriend and I will move in together. Which is pretty big, I guess. We went to see a place together this afternoon and it felt more real than it has in the past when we’ve talked about it. We’ll see.

My Italian classes start on Jan 3 in Florence, so I have to be there on the 2nd. Luckily, my boyfriend loved Italy when we went there recently (he had never been!) and is supper supportive of my plans and will (fingers crossed) be able to visit me twice while I’m there, once in Jan and once in Feb. It’s not as though Florence is warm and tropical during the winter months, but one thing is for sure, the weather will be better there than in Amsterdam. And there are mountains AND oh my god the food AND I have good friends that live in Siena, which is about 40 minutes away. I can’t wait!

One year anniversary of living in Amsterdam

It’s April 23rd 2009, which marks exactly one year since I’ve been living in Amsterdam. And oddly, here I am in New York City. In Brooklyn, to be precise, resting comfortably at the home of some friends in Williamsburg. Whenever I stand on the street here at night and admire the view of the bridge with the Chrysler building in the background, it only takes about 20 seconds before a taxi slows down and beeps at me. No, taxi guy, I don’t want a ride. I’m actually just standing here admiring the view.

I’ve been outside of New York City for one full year. I’m just here to visit this time around (not moving back!), and when I stepped off the plane, it felt like I had been gone for about 5 minutes. This is an important fact because I had slept about 5 minutes in the entire week leading up to coming to New York, and being able to arrive here without thinking – with knowing exactly how to get to where I was going – it was wonderful.

So my 1-year anniversary of living in Amsterdam is being celebrated in New York City. But I thought about Amsterdam a lot today, about how much I still completely love that city. I love my apartment, my job, my bike, the lifestyle, the sunsets, everything. But the reason I feel that Amsterdam is my home is because of the people I’ve met. When I arrived in Amsterdam I was totally alone. I was hungover, actually, having just taken the train from Paris with 2 giant suitcases. In some ways, I think this was an advantage – I was too tired to fully understand that I just showed up in a new city where I didn’t know anyone, where I didn’t have a job, and I had no idea how to actually fill my days.

I got to know people. I looked for a job. I freaked out, many times about my decision. The day before I accepted the job offer, I went over every mistake I had ever made in thinking that living in Amsterdam was a good idea. Every person who told me that it was a bad idea, or stupid, or impossible, or if they gave me that look of “oh, so you’re another one of those non-EU people who think they can just up and move to Amsterdam, that’s so… cute,” these people all affected me.

But it turns out I was right the whole time, and I love being right. Amsterdam is the city for me. It’s home. So all those freakouts, all that stress, all that uncertainty, it was all worth it.

Happy one-year anniversary to me!

la fiaba – happy new year from Italy

Let’s say you’ve been on holiday for a few weeks, and it’s gone a million times better than you ever expected, and the whole thing has you so happy and optimistic about what comes next that you don’t quite know what to do with yourself. If you should happen to find yourself in that position, then please, get yourself to Siena, Italy.

When I arrived in Siena last night, it was dark and cold and I didn’t really do much exploring. Waking up today to bright blue skies and blinding sunlight was perfect, and I went about a morning routine that I’ve become quite used to. First, open up the blinds that keep the rooms in Italy pitch black at all hours of the day if they’re closed. Then, go for a coffee at whatever bar happens to be closest. Today I started with a macchiato, which I already knew would cost 90 cents. They’re all 90 cents, seriously, every place I’ve been. I stood at the bar, drank quickly, and headed out.

My first stop when I got into the center of the city was at a supermarket for some practical supplies and food. I stood in line at the meat/bread counter waiting for my number to be called. DIECI! the woman yelled a few minutes later, standing about 5 meters away with a million people between us. DIECI! I yelled back, and she ran over. I asked for a small doughnut, which I ate for breakfast outside.

I don’t usually like sweet stuff for breakfast. I’ve always preferred plain, simple foods like breads or cereal, yogurt, fruit, etc. After a a couple weeks in Italy, I’m now reaching for cookies, croissants, donuts, anything that has sugar in it. If I manage to sleep past an acceptable breakfast time, my first meal of the day becomes lunch, and my first beverage of the day is wine.

Anyway, this town – Siena – is the most perfect backdrop to go along with my mood today. Completely different than anywhere I’ve ever been. Absolutely beautiful. Peaceful, when I walked down the side streets where there were no shops. I bought a map but never bothered to look at it. When I got tired of walking, I would sit down on church steps or benches or on the ground in a pretty spot in the middle of a city square. Sometimes I would snap out of my daze and try to have a short conversation in Italian with someone at a cafe about travel or coffee or food. My very, very limited vocabulary has not yet stopped anyone from making small talk with me.

So a trip that has felt like a fairy tale the entire time ends appropriately. Tomorrow I’ll go to Pisa in the afternoon so I can catch my flight early Wednesday morning to Amsterdam. I’m hoping to go back and fill in this blog with bits and pieces of this trip in the next few days – I think it will take a few days to get back into the swing of Amsterdam anyway. But on that note, I saw a Dutch bicycle in Treviso, and I excitedly took a picture of it, even though I’m about to go back to a city full of identical looking bicycles. I’m looking forward to seeing my friends, even feeling good about returning to work, it’s just always hard to end a vacation.

Road trip: Amsterdam to Italy

The days that lead up to my road trip from Amsterdam to Aprilia, Italy were hectic and incredibly fun. I was very proud of myself for remembering to make a second set of bike keys before I left and get myself some insurance. Insurance in the Netherlands is easy and cheap, if you do it through your bank – or at least it was for me, I never know if these things are generally easy or if I just keep getting lucky. I ran into ABN AMRO on Friday afternoon at 4.30pm, and I left at 5pm with liability, travel, and apartment (renters) insurance. Basically, my apartment can burn down or get robbed, I can run over someone on my bike and injure them drastically, and I can lose my laptop and camera and all my clothes while I’m traveling and I’ll be totally covered, all for about 10 Euros a month. Amazing! All that combined with the fact that I have health insurance makes me feel like the safest person in the world.

Anyway, I had fun saying goodbye to Amsterdam. Even though I’ve been thinking for a while now that I really wanted to get out of the city (just because it had been a while since my last trip), the fact is, I always have such a good time being in Amsterdam that forcing myself away from the city doesn’t seem that urgent. However, after a few hours of sleep, I woke up on the 21st of December (a Sunday) to leave for a fabulous road trip to Italy. Joining me were three other great people I met through Couch Surfing, all of us on a mission to take V’s car back to its home in Aprilia (about 50 km south of Rome). So what’s one of the least fun ways to start a sunday morning road trip? Finding out the car you’re planning to take has been broken into! As far as breakins go, this was a “lucky” one. Someone had smashed the drivers side window and messed with the lock, but they didn’t actually take anything or mess with the car beyond that – and for once it didn’t rain, so the car was dry on the inside.

But obviously, it’s hard to feel lucky when you’re looking at a car that has a 1500 km trip ahead, in December, through Germany and Switzerland, and there’s no window.

That’s where our good friend plastic came in. We were all determined to go, window or no window, so we taped up some plastic to where the window had once been, the glass was cleaned up, and off we went. We all knew that the fact that it was Sunday was going to make getting the window fixed more difficult, and the fact that the car was insured in Italy and not the Netherlands made things even more complected, and of course the owner of the car didn’t have time to make a police report. After I finally managed to get a cup of coffee (the fact that I even left the house that morning without coffee was a very rare thing for me to do) and could start thinking clearly, I made a few calls and we all started to work together to call service agencies and emergency roadside repair places. I know a lot more about how to fix a car in the Netherlands on a Sunday now than I ever knew I would, so let me share a piece of information: it’s really expensive if you’re not insured in the Netherlands. If you are insured here, then you’re in good shape, because someone will come out and fix your car without a problem and it won’t cost you anything (I’m taking about a broken window of course, that’s where my experience begins and ends). But if you don’t have Dutch insurance, a temporary window – really just some hard plastic – will cost you €185 if it’s a Sunday. That’s a lot of money.

To make a long story short, we drove all the way to Freiburg, Germany with plastic on the window. And honestly, it wasn’t really that bad. We weren’t cold, it didn’t rain, and the only annoying thing was the noise. But no one pulled us over and the plastic held strong the entire way. The four of us switched around a lot in the car, except for me – since I don’t have an EU driver license, I was really only a “last resort” driver. I had a good time the entire way, but of course we were all happy to arrive at our destination for the night and meet up with our CS hosts. A dinner party was thrown together, wine was opened, and within 5 minutes we were all laughing and joking around and having a good time. I went to sleep that night in a comfortable bed and felt amazingly lucky and content.

After sharing a really nice breakfast with our hosts the next morning (Monday, the 22nd), the 4 of us gathered together again to head out for the day with a little bit of a delay. See, we had all assumed that Germany would be the answer to our car problems. I mean, it’s Germany! Germans love cars, they’re efficient, and they know how to fix things. But the first 3 places my friends tried didn’t work and they all sent us in the direction of a repair place a bit outside the city. The good news, when we got to that place, was that they could fix it, and fix it properly and perfectly. The bad news was that it would take a few hours – but all things considered, that wasn’t so bad. We had food, we all had books and computers, and there was a really comfortable waiting area. When we were asked if we wanted coffee, we all enthusiastically said yes – and about 10 minutes later, a wonderful angel from German Car Repair Heaven bought out 4 real cups of coffee (I was expecting something instant) with real milk and sugar and cookies and cakes. I have to say, that small gesture completely made our morning. Everything was fixed and ready to go by about 3pm, and we were back on the road. Fortunately, we had just enough daylight left to see some beautiful parts of Switzerland. The sunset was beautiful, the Alps are spectacular, and seeing a landscape that is the total opposite of Holland felt really special.

We had to drop one of our travelers off near Milan, and I was sad to see him go. When you spend 2 days in a car with someone, you do get this bond to them – I felt like we had all become a little international family (we came from the US, Brazil, the UK, and Italy). He headed off to Genoa and me and my two friends drove the rest of the night to our destination, arriving around 3.30am. I slept like a rock until 12.30pm the next day, and woke up to a beautiful lunch being served by my host. I was drinking wine before I even had a sip of coffee and I saw palm trees and sunshine when I started my day. I mean, if those two things aren’t the sign of a good holiday, I don’t know what is.

There where three specific things I wanted to note down that happened as soon as we arrived in Italy: everyone started to drive like a lunatic, a very thick fog surrounded us for hours and hours, and the food instantly became incredible. Honestly, a highway rest stop in Italy could be a fancy restaurant in a different country. We stopped a few times for coffee along the way and I give a lot of credit to the drivers of the car, because the fog was really, really intense for a really long time.

It’s Christmas Eve now (actually, Christmas day), and I feel nice and cozy at my friends apartment in Rome. Happy holidays!

Beautiful chaos in Rome

I am back in Amsterdam after an incredible long weekend in Rome. I left on the 21st of August and returned late on Monday (the 25th). I traveled on KLM – no complaints there, everything worked as it should, and it was easy to tell that I had landed in Italy by the clapping and cheering of all the passengers once we hit the ground. From the minute I got off the plane, everything was chaotic, noisy, and off schedule – and I loved every minute of it. I’ve been to Rome before, in the early summer of 2005. This time around, I was staying at the home of C. and A. and getting much better insight into “real” Rome. A. is from Sardinia but has been in Rome for over fifteen years, and is part owner of the bar/restaurant Ombre Rosse (in the Trastevere district) – and that is where I went directly from the airport.

The highlight of the trip was definitely the food, which is no surprise. I could probably write ten pages detailing everything I ate over the course of four days, but I can also just sum it up by saying that everything I ate was flawless and perfect. I followed the Italian rules and never drank a cappuccino after breakfast. I ate big lunches and drank wine only an hour or two after waking up, I ate dinner late and ice cream was a perfect mid-afternoon snack. Instead of filling up my suitcase with clothes or souvenirs, I came back to Amsterdam with 3 different kinds of cheese, balsamic vinegar, and other assorted food items that I wouldn’t be able to find at the local Albert Heijn.

As far as sight-seeing, I feel like I would need … a year, at least, to really feel like I’ve “seen” Rome. Whenever I go to museums or galleries anywhere, I don’t really like taking maps or guides or planning out my route – I would rather just wander around and figure out what I like, what I don’t, and not be bothered by trying to find my way to the stuff I know I will want to see. Being in Rome is like being in the biggest museum on earth, and since I was only there for 4 days I knew I couldn’t even scratch the surface. The one thing I really wanted to see was the Vatican. Despite the absurdly high entrance fee and the massive crowds of people, I really, really wanted to see the Cappella Sistina, the famous tapestries (I love tapestries), and absorb all the history. The trip to the Vatican didn’t disappoint and when I left after three hours, my brain felt like mush. To see all that famous art in person, rather than in a textbook or a replica – there are just really no words to describe what that feels like.

The Vatican was the only thing I really made a point of visiting and paying to get into during the day. I did most of my sight-seeing at night while walking around with friends, wandering from place to place. I lost track of how many monuments, fountains, churches, and beautiful old squares I wandered through. I was also fortunate enough to get out of the city for an entire day and drive off to lago di martignano (Martignano lake) with my friends, about 45 minutes north of Rome. We spent the afternoon and evening sunbathing and swimming in the perfectly clean water. I haven’t gone swimming since last summer, which was a sad realization. I adore the water, and I especially adore swimming in clean lakes and rivers (rather than the sea or in pools). I felt really lucky to be at such a relaxed place, with little kids running around naked and dogs jumping in the water after frisbees.

Cycling as a mode of transportation does not seem to be at all popular in Rome, which is a real shame, considering that it’s a huge city with a pretty lousy public transportation system. My only real complaint about Rome is that it seems like such a car culture – granted, the cars are small and fuel-efficient, but still, the most popular form of transportation for Romans is the automobile (or motorcycle/moped). While waiting for a tram one night, I saw a bigger car crash into a smart car and drive off without stopping (it didn’t appear that anyone was injured). I can’t emphasize enough how much I truly hate having to rely on a car while in a city – I firmly believe that cars should only be necessary if you live in a small town somewhere. Obviously, most cities are not going to be as bike-friendly as Amsterdam, which is fine – I’m usually pretty good an figuring out local public transportation. But I’ve honestly seen better public transportation systems in just about every other major European or American city I’ve ever visited, compared to Rome.

Anyway, enough of that. Though I was often in my friend’s car going from place to place, I also spent a lot of time getting around by bicycle (C. had one to lend me, which was great). Rome is hilly, with cobblestone streets, uneven pavements, cracked sidewalks – so it makes perfect sense that those who do choose to ride on two wheels choose mountain bikes! It was actually quite a bit of fun to shift gears and bend over the handlebars. C. and I rode from her place to the Vatican in about 40 minutes, and when we went out for ice cream later in the day we just happened to ride around the Pantheon. The moment I realized I was riding my bike past the pantheon on the way to eat the best ice cream in the world (San Crispino) was just as overwhelming as walking into the Sistine Chapel for the first time.

Even though I was sad to leave Rome, with all the sunshine and beauty and amazing food, I have to admit that being back in Amsterdam (and back on my own bicycle) feels great. The end of the summer is always a little depressing, but when September arrives it means more visitors, a new roommate, the return of Tuesday night movies at the OT301, and friends coming back into town from their holidays. I’ve been in Amsterdam just a little over four months, and it really, really feels like home.