Sunday, May 16, 2010

Traveler's Tales: Great Scot!

How can one do justice in describing a visit to Edinburgh? As I recollect my fond memories of my trip in early May, it seems that I have to tell about many cities. There is the Old City and the New City, cleaved in two by a large valley. There is the daytime Edinburgh of tourists and shops and the nighttime Edinburgh of clubs and hard-partying, drink-downing Scots. The city is at once both young and old.

In a way, I feel as though I visited the city as two different people: there was tourist me, off to visit the castle and hike Arthur's Seat; and there was the student me, the young American me, hoping from bar to bar, scene to scene. Its amazing how much one's experience of a place is dependent upon one's identity in that place.

It is hard to experience a city as a local might without some sort of guide who can tell you what is real or authentic. I was lucky to be staying with my college buddy Nathan Hakimi who has been living in the city for the past four months. His abroad program has placed him in a flat with other Scottish students so he is keyed into the local nightlife already.

Some of the higlights of my trip include the first night I got there, when we sat around and watched election returns (an historic night to be there), went to a club, came back and kept watching election results. It was interesting to see how other culture's relate to their elections. The youth were mostly nonplussed.

The next day, Nathan and I walked up to Edinburgh Castle and spent most of the day wandering arond the castle, which is basically the Tower of London of Edinburgh. Please don't tell any Scots I said that, they would not be pleased. That night, Nathan and I went to a cool venue where there was a concert of alt-acts. The headliner were a pair of American's singing British folk (much better than that description might lead you to believe).

Saturday morning, I woke up early and set out to explore the city on my own, as a tourist. I chose to go on a hop-on-hop-off bus tour as a way to both get around the city and get a bit of a tour. Halfway through the ride, I hopped-off at the foot of Arthur's Seat. Arthur's Seat is a mountain/public park that holds court over the entire city and the North Sea. I popped in my headphones and took a hike to the top. It was tough, but worth it. The views all the way up were incredible. By the time I got back to the bus, I was exhausted. But my day of tourism was not over, I went to the touristy shopping street to get my hands on some cheap Scottish cashmere (check!).

(not Roslin Chapel)

That night, Nathan and I went to go see a play at a local theater (The Goat, by Edward Albee) and then met some of his friends at a club. The next morning we were pretty worn out from the late night but decided to go on a little adventure. About a half hour outside of Edinburgh is Roslin Chapel. Roslin was made famous by its portrayal in The DaVinci Code. Over ten years, the church has seen its visitation risen from a couple thousand a year to around 150,000 a year. Thats a big increase. The chapel is famous for its intricate masonry and mysterious carvings. The chapel was a treat, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has an extra afternoon in Edinburgh. That night, I was back in A'dam.

I still have a few more days in Amsterdam and definitely have more posts to write: I have yet to tell you about Istanbul or Budapest. I also want to write a wrap-up about my experience here. I return hom on June 3rd, but might have a few posts out after that. I can't wait to see you all soon.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Getting on with it...

Would it be cliche to say that I have been doing so much lately that I haven't been able to write about it? Well, I am here now, ready to regale you with my goings on!

The past month has been so much fun! Even though the weather has recently turned sour (rain, gray skies...) there was a two-week period where we saw sun and warm weather! So it was nice to have some real outdoor friendly weather in the city. Some highlights include visiting the nearby botanic garden, having a picnic in the Oosterpark and going to a great local brewery which is housed in an old windmill and has a patio on the IJ channel.

Amsterdam in the Spring can be a magical place, everywhere there seems to be something flowering or growing. Tulips pop up in every park and in every planter. The city grows. Tourists flood into the city, spilling over into the bike lanes and tram cars. Somehow the city keeps running smoothly.

Even the hardworking Dutch occasionally strike and for the past two weeks there has been no sanitation department activity. Its supposed to end tonight. I hope so, my trash day is tomorrow.

Above all, there has been three major highlights in my last few weeks: a group trip to Schiermonnikoog (pronounced: ski-er-moan-ee-koh), Koninginnedag (eh, not worth the pronunciation, just call it Queen's Day) and a trip to Edinburgh. I know, Dutch is an insane language and thank god we speak English (it was this close to being Dutch...).

Schiermonnikoog is an usland in the way north of The Netherlands in Friesland province. It is one of a string of islands that form a chain between the North Sea and the Wadden Sea. The difference between the currents of the two seas has made Schiermonnikoog an important ecological site and the entire island (including the village/beach town) is a National Park.

The trip was organized by my abroad organization, CIEE, and was great as usual. Very well planned, fun, and not too strict.

One of the unique features of the Island that results from the weird current patterns is that when the tide goes out, much of seabed is revealed as a murky, muddy well mudflat. not only can you hike it, it is even possibly to walk across the sea shore to the mainland. We did get that far. But we did go waddenlopen as its called. Our guide taught us all about the ecological heritage of the mudflats and we even caught some
Oysters and Mussels that we later cooked!

Later that day, we got the opportunity to explore the island on our own. I set out to circumnavigate the island by bike. I even managed to recruit a couple friends to join me on my journey around the island. We made a few stops to enjoy the nature (a quick walk around the km-wide beach, a short stop at the dunes). It was a lot of fun, and there was a lot to see.

By the time we made it back, we were exhausted. Luckily, there was not much to do besides dinner. After dinner we all went out, including our program directors. The next day followed a similar pattern, lots of outdoor activity and even a campfire on the beach at night.

April 30th is the official celebration of the Queen's Birthday (Koninginnedag). The entire country is on holiday and there are massive street parties in every city in the nation. By far, the largest one is in Amsterdam. It is estimated that around 700,000 people came into the city for the celebrations, roughly doubling the population. On Koninginnegad, anyone is allowed to sell things in the street, the entire country has a vrijmarket (free market). That means loads of stree vendors, food, and all sorts of other goodies.

On Koninginnedag, it is customary to deck oneself out in Organge and spend the entire day partying with friends. The Dutch know how to have a holiday. In fact, because they have the next day off, the Dutch have turned the night before Queens Day, other wise known as Koninginnenacht into a party in its own right. There were free concerts held all over the city.

In the Dam, there was a huge carnival going on which included a large Ferris wheel. The pictures are evidence of the awesome views provided by the ride.

I have been having so much in the past few weeks that the time has just been flying by! I cannot believe that I am leaving here in less that three weeks! I am excited to be home again and see everyone but really sad about leaving Amsterdam. The fickle thing about abroad is that you can never recreate the experience. No matter how often I come back to Amsterdam, I will never have the same experience because abroad is so much about the people you meet and spend time with. I have made great friendships with people from all over the world, some of them I will probably never see again.

I hope to write again soon about my trip last weekend to Edinburgh. But, you will have to forgive me if I choose to spend my last few days in Amsterdam and not in front of a screen. Tot ziens!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Where else would I want to be today?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Spring, sprung

(photo credit: Jen Winston)

Spring has officially arrived in Amsterdam! This past week marked the symbolic arrival of spring. The weather, a harbinger for the week to come, has been warm and sunny since Tuesday and the entire city has seemed to blossom in response. Oh sure, there had been early bloomers: cafes putting tables on the street again, the occasional nice day; but, no doubt this week was, for me, the official arrival of Spring.

After weeks of travel, visits and then midterms, this past week was a welcomed respites from the (albeit, minor) pressures of life in Amsterdam. With no big assignments due, I was free to enjoy this week in utter relaxation, carefree and jubilant. My vernal week truly began on Tuesday, with a trip to the NEMO museum. NEMO is the children's museum, built to resemble a boat sitting in the harbor. The museum, while gauged to a younger audience, was fun and interesting. It brought to mind past fieldtrips.

Later that day, my friends and I met up at a brewery/bar that inhabits an old windmill that sits on the IJ channel. The afternoon sun provided an excellent setting in which to enjoy the good company and tasty beer. After a quick stop at home for a bite to eat, I met a few other friends and we all headed off to a Squatter bar that host a ping-pong night every Tuesday. For those unaware, Squatters have lots of rights in the liberal Netherlands and are even recognized as having 'squatter culture'. If any building is uninhabited for over a year, anybody has a legal right to live in it.

The bar was cool and its offer of ping pong wasn't wrong. The version played at the club was an elaborate ritual in which all of the contestants would line up in a circle with two stationed at the table, after each hit, the circle would rotate. If a player won a point, his opponent was booted from the game. This continued until the last two remaining players battled it out for victory. This spectacle, combined with cheap bear and good music provided for a wonderful evening.

On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of taking a leisurely bike ride up the Amstel river to the little town of Oude Kerk aan de Amstel. The ride begins in central Asmterdam but quickly gives way to quiter suburbs. Then, suddenly one finds oneself surrounded by farms and country living. Yet, the city (with skyscrapers and modern arenas) always stands paradoxically in the background either way you look. The Amstel River is a modern oasis in an urban city.

Upon my return, I went to the barbecue hosted by my dorm which took place on the patio next to the canal. The still beaming sun and the majestic canal provided a wonderful setting for our lively BBQ. Good times were assuredly had by all.

Thursday was a quieter day with Dutch class and an interview for a summer job being the most exciting parts of that day. But Friday. Friday is a different story.

On Friday, I visited the Keukenhof gardens with my friends Jen and Vivian. The gardens contain a huge variety of plants and flowers but specialize in the local Tulip. Open for only two months out of the year, the Keukenhof is the definition of Spring in Amsterdam.

After a short train then bus ride from Centraal Station, we made it to the gardens. It is hard to describe the astounding beauty of the gardens. Upon first glance in any direction, once is jolted with the panoply of colors and patterns, each great swath of vivid red, green, white combing to create a vernal quilt before one's very own eyes.

Yet, this romantic description does not accurately reflect the beauty of the gardens. The overwhelming sense of beauty is compounded upon the astonishing realization that every individual flower, every petal is beautiful and majestic in its own right.

And so I surrendered to the beauty of the Keukenhof. Giving in the the deeper, more sub-conscious delight of the experience. Perhaps it was in that garden that I suddenly was struck with the notion that it was officially Spring. but, how could one not be when presented with such overwhelming evidence in every direction.

As it is said on Passover, it would have been enough. Had I only managed to go to NEMO and take a great bike ride this week, it would have been enough. Had I only managed to go to NEMO, take a great bike ride and go to the Keukenhof, it would have been enough. But, I still had Saturday.

Yesterday, I embarked on yet another adventure with some old and new friends. For the shear hell of it, we decided to find "De Bezaar" a massive, part-outdoors market in the middle of quiet town (suburb?) in North Holland.

Having recently visited the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the contrast was quite evident. One is a centuries old center of trade where you could buy just about anything you could need. The other is an attraction that charges for entrance where you can buy just about anything you could need. As my companions in Istanbul know, roaming around a meandering bazaar can be quiet entertaining.

As we headed back to A'dam, we had to change trains in Harlem. As we stood on the 1st track, waiting off our train, one particularly eagle-eyed companion of mine spotted a carnival ride spinning in the background. Not yet ready to call it a day, the five of us fled the station and went off in search of the carnival. It was not hard to find as it was conveniently taking place in the city's main square. The more-adventurous among us, including yours truly, decided to take a spin on the aforementioned ride which took its riders on a big loop up and over; over and over again. The feeling of flying above this medieval city (the ride easily went higher than the majority of the buildings in the city) and then swooping by its magnificent Cathedral was unparalleled.

(photo credit: Jen Winston)

Our day concluded with a delicious Indian meal at a little restaurant we found on the way back to Harlem station. Today, alas, I cannot enjoy the still-beautiful weather because my week of relaxation means that I have to do my homework today.

Still, I can look back and marvel at a week I know I will never forget. The next few weeks promise to be just as fun as the last one was. April is a great month to be in Amsterdam, and I am not going anywhere until May. I hope all of you are enjoying your nascent Springs as much as I am.

(photo credit: Jen Winston)

And Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth's dark breast
rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.
~Percy Bysshe Shelley, "The Sensitive Plant"

Friday, March 19, 2010

Traveller's Tales: Two weeks, Two cities.

It's been too long since my last post, I have so much to update you all on. Well, what are my excuses this time? Nothing original, just school work and traveling all my time. There could be worse things, I suppose.

Now, when I last left off, I was in the middle of my weekend in Geneve. Geneva is a beautiful city, very reminiscent of Paris. The Alps in the background and the beautiful Lac Leman in the foreground create a magical setting. Geneva is not a student-friendly city however. No, true to its reputation, Geneva is a place for the rich and powerful to play.

But that doesn't mean that a poor student cannot appreciate all of the wealth that he will never have (thanks, worst jobs market in a generation!). Indeed, strolling along the broad Swiss streets, past the gilded, private banks, one is reminded of a simpler time. Before any recession or financial crisis.

Geneva certainly has its charms, the view from the top of the Cathedral (above) is simply stunning. I found a La Duree boutique and had macaroons. And the fondue, to die for. But, at the end of the trip I was relieved to return to youthful, relaxed, vibrant Amsterdam; a place where I could fit in.

The next weekend I went to Sevilla to visit my friend Christy. Christy had visited me about two weeks prior to my trip there and we were both excited to see each other again. After finding Christy and dropping my stuff at my better-than-expected hotel, we walked over to the river to saunter along in the warm, sunny air. Before long, we found a stand selling drinks and sat to enjoy a nice, cool glass of sangria while catching up.

For dinner that night we went to a local place that Christy knew and ordered Paella. While Paella is a dish that is found most often on the Eastern coast of Spain, the one we got in inland Sevilla tasted just fine to me. The paella was nicely complemented by more tasty Sangria. That night, I got a taste of Sevillana nightlife as Christy and her friends took me to a few bars.

The next morning, Christy and I got a (somewhat) early start to the day with a trip to the Museo de Bellas Artes. The museum specializes in Spanish masters. Following the museum, we walked to the Al Cazar, the original Moorish castle in the city center. Like most Moorish artifacts, the castle was re-appropriated by its Catholic owners after the Reconquista.

Even though the castle had been mostly destroyed and rebuilt after an earthquake, it retained its elegant, Moorish design. Particularly stunning were the formal gardens, which Christy and I took plenty of time to roam.

After a quick lunch of a small tapa and some fish, Christy and I ventured to the glorious Catedral. One of the largest in the world, the Cathedral of Sevilla is breathtaking. The site had been used thousands of years ago as a Pagan temple and had been appropriated by every group of people to control the city thereafter. The only remaining structures from the Moorish period is an outer wall and the amazing Giralda (first a minaret, now a bell tower). The Cathedral is as opulent and gilded as any church I have ever seen.

Having finished our touristic obligations, Christy and I returned to the river for a quick drink and a long walk. After a visit to her apartment to meet her roommate, Christy and I decided on traditional tapas for dinner. We found a place with an open table and proceeded to slowly stuff ourselves over the next two hours. A bottle of red wine completed the meal.

The next morning, I returned to Amsterdam. I have since had many more adventures both here and abroad! I can't wait to share them with you. I promise to try and be more prompt with my blog posting but be assured that If I am too slow it is because I am out doing things to tell you about!

But, since I have a few more minutes, I will give you all a quick update. About two weeks ago, Danny came to visit. We had a great time and saw a great concert! Then, a week ago Saturday the rest of my family and the entire Zimelis family came out for a visit. We spent a few days in Amsterdam then all went to Istanbul. It was great to see everybody and I had a great time in Istanbul, I will tell more about it later.

This month I will be just as busy! I just finished my last midterm today (!) so school work should quiet down for a bit. Which is good, cause I have a few visitors. This weekend my friend Sasha from Brandeis is coming to visit. The next weekend I am going to a small island in the north of The Netherlands with my group. The weekend after that my friend Nathan is coming into town for Queensday. Then its May. And May is already looking busy with visits to Edinburg and Budapest already planned.

I can't believe its already been so long since I have been here, it feels like nothing! Well, I better stop writing about living here and go back to actually living here before its too late!

Tot Ziens!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Traveller's Tales (and more): Copenhagen Follies

Its been a crazy two weeks for me here in Amsterdam and it shows no sign of stopping!Right now I am in Geneva with some friends and next weekend I go to Sevilla to visit Christy. My stories about this weekend will have to just wait for another post.

Let's start way back, Copenhagen. Copenhagen is a beautiful, seaside city in southwestern Denmark. I arrived to Copenhagen on a blustery Friday evening. Me, Sydney and our friend Ben beelined for the hotel, then a bar, then back to the hotel.

Saturday morning we met my friend Sasha from Brandeis who is currently studying in CPH. Sasha took us on tour of the city, stopping at some of her favorite places. Our tour started at the city hall square and continued down Stroget. Stroget is the major walking/shopping street in CPH.

Right off Stroget is a little gem know as St. Peter's Bakery. This is where you get the best danishes in Denmark. Ironically, the Danes call their pastries wienebrau (spelling is wrong) or Vienna Bread. I guess great artists really do steal.

Happily satiated, we marched off to Christiania. Christiania is an unincorporated section of Copenhagen that is essentially lawless. The denziens of Christiania do not pay taxes or follow Danish law. They are artists, squatters, free people. Christiania is an artist's colony, a hippie's dream and a general delight. But it will not exist for long. The Danish government does not appreciate the establishment.

My friend Sasha invited me to her visiting family's home for a home cooked meal. And while there was nothing too Danish about the experience, a good meal is always appreciated. Its funny, the suburbs of Copenhagen don't seem too much different than the suburbs back home. Somethings never change.

My next (and last) day in Copenhagen was spent avoiding the debilitating cold. We went to the Danish Design Center and learned about the future of design and sustainability. The exhibit was interesting and eye-opening. After that, we went to the sculpture and Danish art museum; a beautiful building with an intriguing collection.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing before I returned to Amsterdam. Copenhagen is a beautiful city, but too expensive. Not a place I could imagine living unless I was really making bank.

Last weekend I was visited by my friend Christy and we had a great weekend together. Some of the highlights include vising the Royal Palace, the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum. In addition to finally getting to the touristy places in Amsterdam, I also finally visited other parts of the Netherlands.

On Saturday, CIEE took us to Urk and Groningen (don't try and pronounce it, you will fail). Urk is a small fishing town which used to be an Island but is now connected to the mainland thanks to dyke-building and land reclamation projects. Urk provided a fascinating look into the regular lives of regular Dutch folk.

Groningen is a typical Dutch city in the very north. It has a university, canals, and beautiful architecture. I do not have much to say about the city except that it is a lovely place to spend and afternoon and fresh stroopwafels are un-freaking-believable.

Anyway, I am still in Geneve and have more to do. I will post on my trip here as soon as I can.

Bon Soir!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Short Update: Copenhagen and more...

Its been quite a busy week for me and I am only finally getting back to posting. Last weekend I visited Copenhagen and had a very nice time. I will write a full post on my trip soon, but until then I will give you three thoughts from my trip:

1) Copenhagen is too expensive
2) Don't go anytime that is near winter
3) The city is beautiful and a must-visit.

Despite the weather and the cost, Copenhagen impressed me with its physical beauty and foward-thinking attitude.

Besides traveling, I have been doing homework. My classes have been very interesting and informative but I have had alot of work (not fair!). I guess I am here to study, but I had hoped that I wouldn't be working so hard. This weekend I am being visited by an old friend of mine from High School. I am so excited. Besides having a friend in town, I finally get to do all the touristy things that I have been putting off.

On Saturday I am going to Groningen (a student city in the north) with my program and am excited to see what the rest of the Netherlands is like. Perhaps the most exciting upcoming event is the March 3rd World Cup prelim between the Netherlands and USA that I have a ticket to! A real, live, HUGE soccer game. We will be in the American section (too bad) but I will be wearing orange.

That's all for now! As the Dutch say,

Tot Ziens!