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 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!

The logistics of living and working in Amsterdam

In the past few weeks, I have been many places. It hasn’t all been cafes and bars and picnics in the park. In chronological order, this is where I’ve been since the 9th of June 2008:

1. To the main IND office in Rijswijk. This is where I applied for permission to get a work permit, basically. After deciding to hire me, my employer gave me a 1-year job contract and made the appointment for me at the IND office. The outcome of this appointment was getting a sticker in my passport that proves I reported myself to the authorities and my visa is in process. I had to bring my contract, passport, and 1 official Dutch-size passport picture, and application forms (which were prepared for me by my employer, again). This was a really simple appointment – I was in and out of the building in ten minutes.

2. To the bank (ABN) to set up an account. In order to get paid, I need a bank account – practically everything here is done with bank transfers and direct deposit. Normally you have to provide a BSN number (which was called a SOFI number, or a dutch social security number). However! My employer has an agreement with this bank that allows employees to set up bank accounts before getting a BSN number (though I need to give them one within a certain time period). I needed to provide a letter from my employer and a copy of my job contract, along with my passport and an address.

3. To the main branch of the DienstPersoonsGegevens (DPG) in Amsterdam, on Stadhouderskade 85. This is where I had to register myself to the city with a legal address. See, in order to get a BSN number, I need a legal address in Amsterdam (keep in mind, everything about this process is different if you have an EU passport, which I do not have). And since you need a BSN number to do just about anything, this is a really important step. I’m fortunate enough to have friends that own their own apartment here in Amsterdam and said “sure, you can use our address to register.” I want to emphasize this is a really big deal here – I needed a copy of their mortgage agreement, a letter saying that I could stay, and a copy of my friends passport. And from here on in, all my mail goes to their place, which is also a huge deal. Everything is communicated through the post – my bank account number, my BSN number, etc. Anyway, everything went fine at the DPG (I was there for about an hour or so) and now I’m officially in the system.

There’s one weird thing that I needed to provide that I don’t have, which is a birth certificate with an apostle stamp. I have never been asked for something like this before and I really have no idea why the Netherlands needs it. I do have my original birth certificate, and the people at the DPG seemed really understanding about this whole lack-of-apostle-stamp thing. They said I had six months to get it, which means requesting a copy from the state of New York, where I was born. So, okay, I’ll start figuring out how to get that sometime soon.

I want to emphasize that because I have a job with a proper contract, my whole integration process into Amsterdam has become absurdly simple. Everything I’m doing right now is based on the fact that I have a job… and everything I do, I do with the help of the HR department at my company. I’ve had one or two very minor problems/inconveniences along the way, but honestly nothing even worth detailing in this blog. Every time I go anywhere, whether it’s to the bank or the immigration office, I just simply bring everything with me. Everything. My passport, photos, birth certificate, job contract, housing contract, etc., and of course I have multiple copies of each one of these things.

So, what’s next? Finding an apartment. I know, my housing situation must sound a little confusing. Here’s what’s going on, in the simplest terms.

-I’m registering at my friends’ apartment, in Bos en Lommer. This is where Amsterdam believes I live, where all my mail goes, etc.
-I’m actually living in a different apartment, south of Vondelpark, in the Oud Zuid. It is not possible for me to register there, since I’m “illegally subletting.”
-Therefore I’m looking for my own place, something nice and legal, someplace that allows me to register which…
-Is incredibly difficult to find here in Amsterdam for a million different reasons but…
-I found one anyway.

This is incredible! I’m going to move into my new place on the 1st of July. It’s located near the Weesperplein, which is technically in the center, but it’s actually more east of the the center (just across the Amstel). Anytime you change addresses in Amsterdam, you need to re-register. So – yes, I just went through this whole process of registering in Bos en Lommer and getting my mail sent there and everything, and now I’ll have to change all that stuff. The thing is, I just really needed that BSN number and couldn’t wait to register myself (and honestly, I didn’t expect to find an apartment so quickly). The good news is that there are DPG offices all over Amsterdam and I can change my address at any of them (think about them like little City or Town Halls), I don’t have to go back to the main branch.

So, just in case there’s anyone reading who might be embarking on something similar – honestly – none of this stuff was hard. Since every other person who moves to Amsterdam seems intent on emphasizing how hard it is to live here, how it’s impossible for Americans to find jobs, how dealing with Dutch bureaucracy is a total nightmare… I just wanted to be that one person on the internet who says that hey, in my particular case, it’s all working out fine. And even though it was raining while I biked to work this morning, I still thought, man, I am so happy to be here.

Legally residing in Amsterdam – victory!

I recently celebrated my 29th birthday, and the best birthday present was putting my signature on the (ten-page!) contract that will allow me to live and work here in Amsterdam. Once I was done meeting with the HR people, I went out to meet up with some new friends and celebrate.

Now, I’ve been planning this move for about 7 months and put in a lot of effort, work, etc., into making this all happen. But I want to acknowledge that yes, I’m really, really lucky to have everything work out the way it has. Way back in October 2007, I found a company that has offices both in the US and Amsterdam, and I met with them in person in NY and Oregon. Once I got to Amsterdam I had about four meetings with the folks here, and was then finally offered the job (to make a long story short). So while a lot of people say “wow, you’ve been here for just over a month, that sure was quick!” it doesn’t quite seem that way to me. Then again, now that I actually have the contract and my start date is coming up soon, it does seem to be rushing up!

Because the company is now sponsoring me to stay here, they made the appointment for me at the IND (the Dutch immigration office). the purpose of this appointment will be to hand in my residence/work permit paperwork and getting a sticker in my passport that proves I’ve reported myself to the authorities and my visa is in process. I need to bring:

1. My signed employment contract
2. the application forms (which are being prepared for me by my employers)
3. My passport, obviously
4. a Dutch official passport picture

The differences between starting a job here in the Netherlands and starting a job in the US are drastically different. I have twenty-five vacation days, and if you’re American, I don’t need to explain how unbelievable that is. When I got to the part in the contract that explained sick leave, I asked “so how many sick days do I get?” and the woman looked at me like she didn’t understand the question. If you’re sick, you’re sick, she said. Basically, there is no “number of sick days.” Sick days are totally different from vacation time.  I thought about my previous full-time job in NYC, where during my first year of employment, I was granted exactly 3 personal days, 5 sick days, and no health coverage at all. And you know what, that’s absolutely not uncommon or weird. Here, I’ll have health care and a pension plan (if I want it), just like everyone else who lives and works (legally) in the Netherlands. They even offer free Dutch classes!

Having the past two months to just kind of relax, travel around a bit, and explore Amsterdam was perfect… now it’s time to really develop a life here.

One month in Amsterdam

The first time I was in Amsterdam was back in the Spring of 2005. I hardly knew anything about the city before I arrived, and I remember being surprised by two things – 1) that it was so beautiful and 2) that it seemed really diverse. I still think these two things almost every day. This past Monday night, I rode my bike home from the Lloyd Hotel after a great evening of free music – European musicians performed with artists from all over Africa and Europe as part of the Virus Free Generation Tour. The (South African) host of the night spoke English to the room, the artists performed in English, Slovak, Zulu, Swahili, Sardinian, Italian, and probably a few other languages that I’m forgetting. I sat with a group of new friends – Dutch, Croatian, Austrian, etc – and as I looked around the room I realized that out of the 100 or so people, we could have probably come up with at least thirty languages, easily. Every Monday night, the Lloyd Hotel hosts these free events, completely open to the public. You’re not even obligated to buy a drink, though there is a nice bar.

So the diversity, the combination of people who end up in Amsterdam from all over the world – this really appeals to me. In some ways, it reminds me a bit of New York City, just in the way that everyone seems to be from somewhere else, but every so often I’ll run into a born-and-raised Amsterdammer. This makes for good stories, but at the same time everyone has heard all the stories… so one more foreigner showing up here from somewhere else really isn’t that big of a deal.

And then there’s the beauty, and this is me still being in the honeymoon phase. I still simply just love riding my bike across the city late at night, when it’s quiet. On Monday night, my roommate and I rode home together, side by side, and only occasionally saw a car on the road. We crossed canals and rode past the windmill and the beautiful homes along Koninginneweg, not too far from where I live. It was such a great night, and to end it with the ability to cycle so easily, riding next to a friend the whole way … it’s just very special. Spring is in full bloom, and everything is so green and alive. I know I sound like a big hippie here, but whatever.

I’ve been trying to make myself take care of some of the more practical matters, like getting a printer cartridge refilled, going to the post office, and picking up a few things for my apartment. On the advice of practically everyone I’ve met I finally went over to the Albert Cuyp market and was successful getting just about everything I wanted. This is where you want to go to get everything from new bedding to envelopes, bike locks, food, clothes, etc – and at very, very affordable prices. However, if you plan to buy a mattress topper, I would advise you to maybe put some thought into how you’re going to transport it home if you go via bike. As I rode home I just had to hope that I wasn’t going to need to use my brakes or bell, since my hands were completely full holding the mattress in front of my handlebars in a very specific way (I got home without incident, fortunately).

Oh my god the BIKES (welcome to Amsterdam)

I’ve been in Amsterdam for about a week or so, and I don’t really know that many people, so when I find myself with free time and no desire to unpack, buy practical supplies for my apartment, or clean … I bike. The weather has been absolutely perfect lately. I’m talking warm, sunny, blue skies, and cafes full of people eating outside. On Saturday, I spent several hours enjoying free wireless internet at Debaille, a cafe in Leidseplein. I left around 6pm and didn’t stop biking until about midnight. It doesn’t really even start to get dark until 9pm or so, which makes the days feel incredibly long – and when the weather is as perfect as it was on Saturday, all those daylight hours feel really great.

While I was in the center of Amsterdam today, I had my first pedestrian run-in. He stepped in front of my bike (while I was in the bike lane) and I didn’t have the time to ring my bell, so technically, I hit him. Or collided into him, if you will. I fell down and was also a bit hurt, so I said “Look before you walk next time!”, which is probably about ten times more polite than I would have been in New York (when a simple “fuck you, asshole” would have done). Everyone around me was instantly concerned about the welfare of my bike and cast disparaging looks at the sad pedestrian, who dared step foot in the bike path. It’s moments like this when I feel like I feel like all is right with the world – cyclists always win here.

I say I’m averaging about 6 hours a day on my bike. At the end of the night, I’m exhausted (which is one reason why I haven’t done nearly enough cleaning/unpacking/apartment-sorting out). Now, I’ve been riding for what feels like my entire life, and I’ve ridden in all different types of places – from the middle of nowhere to the heart of Chinatown in Manhattan. But these Amsterdam bikes are unlike anything I’ve ever ridden before. No gears and no hand brakes – to stop I push back on the pedals and also get a lot of use out of stopping myself with my feet. My hands feel like they have nothing to do! My left hand stays firmly near the bell while I’m riding through the center of the city, but once I’m outside the super-busy area… it’s so strange, but I do like it. The bikes here are simple machines. Comfortable, not built for speed or going up hills, but perfectly built for this city.

I’m leaving for Barcelona tomorrow night, just for a quick 3-day vacation to avoid the madness of Queens Day here in Amsterdam. Having never been here for Queens Day, I don’t really have any opinion of it one way or the other, but my roommate isn’t a fan and convinced me a few months ago to go out of town for the holiday. I’ve never been to Barcelona, but I have a guidebook to read from 1995, some high school Spanish skills, and a wonderful friend who will meet me at our hotel on Monday night. So I pretty much think I’m all set.

Goodbye Los Angeles – originally published 15 April 2008

My last day of work in Los Angeles is tomorrow (technically, today), the 15th of April, and I keep getting a lot of “wow, you sure are leaving quickly, huh?” type of comments because my flight to New York is the 16th. But Los Angeles was only a temporary move, so it doesn’t seem like a quick departure to me. What else am I going to do here? Go look at movie star homes? I saved some money, enjoyed the weather and the food, and now it’s time to go. But before I leave, I have to pack.

I’d like to think that I’m a good packer, but I wonder if I’m lying to myself. When one makes a “normal” move, ie: moving to a different town, you pack up all your crap in boxes and go. Of course I’m sure you throw a lot of stuff away and donate and whatnot, but for the most part, you don’t get rid of everything. That’s the big difference when you move across an ocean, especially if you have absolutely no idea how long you’ll be away or where you might end up. So yes, I have a few boxes in my father’s attic with photo albums and comic books. I will leave another box or two at my mom’s house in LA with clothes and shoes – but my reasoning for leaving behind my beautiful shiny black shoes? They’re heavy. I love them, but they’re heavy, so they stay in the US. The goal is to get all of my worldly belongings in two suitcases, each under 50 lbs., and heavy shoes do not make the cut. I won’t be moving books, movies, or photo albums. For the most part, all I’m bringing with me to Amsterdam is clothes, about 1/4th of my shoe collection (which is really hard), and a couple thousand of dollars worth of electronics. It would be nice to think that if I do manage to settle down in Amsterdam, I could have a few boxes sent to me and reclaim some of these items. The hardest things for me to leave behind (other than the shoes) are the pictures that I keep in frames and my wonderful winter coat, which is long and warm and wonderful and completely impractical for Amsterdam in every way. I spent over four hours this past Sunday listening to the Clash very loudly and going through every item I currently own, trying to figure out if it stays or goes… and I’m not done. And have I ever mentioned that when I came to California, I only had two suitcases? I know most of the time I spent packing was really going through paperwork – years of bank statements, old passport copies, plane tickets – but still. I have no idea how that took four hours.

I know those first few weeks that I spend in Amsterdam are going to be really weird – going from a super-structured life in the US to a totally unstructured life in Europe is obviously going to take some getting used to. I have a meeting with some folks in Amsterdam on my first full day there (the 24th), and I admit, having something to do – a place to go and a time to be there – it helps, mentally.

So the first leg of the journey starts with a 6-hour plane ride east. Back to Eastern Standard Time, back to Brooklyn, back home to New York. I’ll spend four days running all over the place, picking up a few last-minute items, trying not to be late to some last-minute appointments, and of course, saying goodbye to friends and family. My time is booked up nicely with dinners and drinks and hopefully, lots and lots of sleep.

Preparing to leave NYC – originally published 3 Jan 2008

I purchased one-way flight tickets from New York City to Portland, Oregon and from Oregon to Los Angeles. I leave New York on the 29th of January, and I’m spending five days in Portland before heading to LA to begin my (temporary) new life as someone who works at an accounting office as of February 4. Working in an accounting office = saving money, pure and simple. Then in April, I plan to move (by myself) to Amsterdam.

While in Portland I’ll be meeting with the woman I talked to about a potential job in Amsterdam at an editorial company. Getting in with this company would give me the best chance at a legit way of living and working in the Netherlands and would do wonders for my career, so obviously that is my first choice. The company has their main office in Oregon, a very small operation in NYC, and a growing operation in Amsterdam. I already met someone from the NY office and really fell in love with the entire company and filled my head with all types of wishful thinking.
In the time between Christmas and the New Year, I really went back and forth a million times about taking this next step. Quitting my job here in New York, moving to the west coast for a few months, planning out my living situation in Amsterdam… it definitely all started to seem a little overwhelming. But what I keep coming back to is this very simple fact: if it doesn’t work out, I’ll do something else, and that will be okay. If the weather or the flat landscape of the Netherlands depresses me too much, or if I really can’t find a way to get the proper permits, or if I run out of money, then I will just simply do something else.Here’s the thing I’ve learned after having moved around a bit from city to city, and it’s a very simple lesson: I need to allow myself a decent amount of time to figure things out. When I lived in Paris, I honestly never really felt like it was my home until I had been there for about a year. It took about that long to figure out my routine, to find my regular spots, and to stop having to ask questions about the culture/language/policies before doing everything. After about a year, I had been to French doctors, done little things like give directions to other Parisians who would end up lost in my neighborhood, and I found a job. When I moved to New York City in October 2006, it took about six months before I felt similarly comfortable, even though I was raised about 2 hours from NYC. Still, I had to learn a lot of things about this culture that I didn’t know that I needed to know, if that makes sense. I had to act like a ten-hour work day was something I was totally familiar with, when in fact I had just moved from France where I worked about six hours a day max. I had to figure out how to survive without any health insurance, it took months to find an apartment, and everything in NYC is done through favors and friends and knowing the right people. The rules are always bent and things are always just a little (or a lot) illegal, from apartment terms to work conditions.

Living in Paris was originally a six-month experiment that ended up stretching on for almost two years. There was so much I figured out as I went along, and it’s been the same for NYC. I thought I would move to NYC and stay for a few years, but after about six months here, everything in my personal life changed and it prompted me to come up with another plan. I love this city and I love the people here, but this isn’t the life that I want right now. If you had asked me about a year ago, I would have given a totally different answer.

So what I’m going to do is keep trying to learn as much as I can about living in Amsterdam. I’ll keep listening to podcasts on Radio Netherlands and trying to teach myself as much as I can from books, message boards, blogs, and expat communities online. I will save as much money as humanly possible in the next several months. However, I know that no amount of research is really going to teach me all the things I’m bound to pick up along the way.

Though I have been having a great time in New York City lately, recently my neighbors were robbed (at knife point) and I had to step over two dead rats on the sidewalk outside my house. It comes with the territory of course, but it is nice to remember all the things I won’t miss.

Inspiration in Philadelphia: originally published 12 Dec 2007

(This post was written while I lived in NYC in 2007, during the “I think I want to move back to Europe” phase)

This past Saturday I was running (well, biking) all over Philadelphia from one event to another. I started off at Molly’s Bookstore in the Italian Market, where Big Tea Party was having their 10th-anniversary celebration and fundraiser. They had a great crowd come out, and the small bookstore was packed with activists, artists, filmmakers, musicians, etc.

I was happy to see someone I knew from back in the day, Ellen, come in to the room. As we started talking I caught her up on what I’m up to (living in Brooklyn and working in TV post-production) and what I’m planning in the near future. Part of me remains a little scared that that no one will take me or my plans seriously, but I shouldn’t have been worried about something like that while I was at a fundraiser for an anarchist cooking/crafts/activist show. So I began talking in more detail about why I want to live in Amsterdam and the documentary that I want to make – and Ellen’s response is “I did that exact same thing!”

I’m going to guess Ellen is about 40 years old. When she was younger, she decided to move to Paris with her boyfriend for no real specific reason (hey, me too!). Then she took a 3-day trip to Amsterdam, fell in love with that city, and relocated. She stayed for about five years, had her son there, and had a great story about living on a houseboat. She’s currently a video production instructor in Philadelphia and also makes her own documentaries. Both of us shared pretty much the exact same views on why Paris is great but we don’t want to live there and why Amsterdam is such an appealing city.  So now I’m in this amazing conversation with an American documentary filmmaker who has lived in Paris and Amsterdam, and this guy who has experience shooting throughout Sarajevo joined in on the talk, and they’re both telling me that I should absolutely move back to Europe and make documentaries. “How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?” the guy (whose name I forget, dammit) said.

“28,” I replied.

“Oh, you’re still a baby! Of course you have to do this,” was his response.

In my head, I silently thanked him for thinking of me as someone who is still a kid. Every so often I get an irrational fear in my head that I have waited too long, that I should have been out there when I was 18 years old. I should know more languages and I should have traveled to more places by now, and maybe it’s too late and I should just stay in New York City and work myself into the ground trying to become a bigshot in TV production. But then I attend events like the Big Tea Party fundraiser, and I’m surrounded by people like Elizabeth, who will be celebrating her 50th birthday this year and is still just as passionate and daring as any 18-year-old. These people are still traveling, still protesting, still activists, and still have time to encourage me to do the same. I feel very grateful to have such amazing role models in my life.

It’s always been hard for me to be patient, but I really want to do it right this time around. This is the good part about being 28, and not 22 – I simply know a little more now. I know that my first priority in Amsterdam must be figuring out a way to live there legally with a proper residence permit. I know that is going to be very, very difficult. The first few months I’m there – well, I have no idea what it will be like, but it won’t all be sunshine and roses and bike rides and apple strudels. There will be mountains of paperwork, bureaucracy rules that I’m not used to, and the very real fact that I don’t have a lot of friends living there right now that I can lean on for support. But when I do have all my paperwork in order and I’ve obtained the residence permit and gotten myself a place to live (and I don’t doubt that I will be able to do all of that), I’m sure I will have made a few more friends along the way, and I’ll toast to the next phase in my life.