Thursday, August 27, 2009

Better things to do in Amsterdam

The Netherlands is a small country with a big history. In the two biggest art museums (Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh) you can see how many famous artists are Dutch. The Netherlands' extreme Protestantism and iconoclasm gave rise to the Dutch Golden Age, a period where painters started chronicling the life around them, showing the beauty in a servant girl pouring milk, rather than rendering yet another St. Sebastian shot full of arrows. We studied this period in high school and it was cool to see the actual paintings.

But the Van Gogh museum was even better. Why is Van Gogh so likeable? Maybe its his abandoning of darkly tinted realism in favor of brilliantly optimistic yellow sunflowers? It's easy to enjoy because it's pretty. Maybe we are struck by the fact that Van Gogh himself was such a tragic character, whose intense moods were not only his gift but the curse that drove away the companionship he so desperately sought. He's straight out of a Greek tragedy, and perhaps our archetype for the "tragic artist"? Is it naive to think you can understand a person you've never met? Its very cliche, and probably about as saavy as a college freshman, but Van Gogh is still my favorite artist. We bought a print of "Almond Blossoms" to hang in the living room.

Amsterdam is relaxing because it has a few big sites and lots of little ones, unlike Rome or Paris, you don't feel like you have to see everything on a giant list to have experienced the city. Amsterdam is best enjoyed at a cafe, or on a bicycle seat, zipping along the canals. Well, the bicycling is mostly enjoyable. I did get yelled at by another biker (in Dutch and English!) about something that actually wasn't my fault, which was very frustrating. I know tourists are annoying, but when you live in a capital city you've just got to learn to deal with it.

Except for the first day we had perfect weather during our whole trip. After living in Germany I really appreciate sunny, 72 degree days, and can't stand to be in museums when its so nice. So we enjoyed paddle boating, picnicking in Vondelpark, and bicycling in the countryside. We adopted the bikes after the first day, due to some massive blisters from Ryan's new sneakers. After a couple days on the bike, I was saddle sore and it was good we left the city when we did, because Ryan couldn't walk and I couldn't ride, so it looks like I would've had to run alongside him as he rode, or pull him in some kind of cart.

The only disappointment was Dutch cuisine. I wouldn't recommend it unless you absolutely love mayonnaise-coated fries and oily herring. But Amsterdam had a lot of good ethnic eateries, like any respectable capital city of Europe.

Its hard to rank Amsterdam. Its definitely a great city, far above duds like Brussels and Florence, but I don't know if its quite as good as Paris or Rome. I need to make a personal ranking one of these days....

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pot in Amsterdam

Every time I mentioned our plans to spend our 2nd anniversary in Amsterdam someone inevitably made an air joint with their fingers and mimed a slow and stoned inhale.
Smoking pot was not our reason for going to Amsterdam, though it eventually became an item on our itinerary. I had never even smoked pot before this trip, which may be surprising given my theater degree, but its true.

I was once sure that marijuana was every bit as evil and dangerous as harder drugs, but after reading articles on marijuana use and even having studied marijuana consumption in one of my sociology courses (at a good old Methodist university nonetheless) I figured it was probably pretty safe and non-addictive. I decided to give it a try.

Some English guides to the area will tell you how locals loathe tourists who don't come to enjoy Amsterdam's many cultural and historical sites, but only to get stoned and check out prostitutes. After reading this I expected to see red-eyed stoners lining the streets, feeling up lamp posts and raiding bakeries of all their wares. But it was actually kind of tough to find a "coffee shop." There are definitely a lot more bakeries and bars in the city than places to light up.

Ryan and I eventually found a coffee shop called "The Bulldog" in touristy Leidseplein square. We ducked in, feeling somewhat seedy. It looked like a rustic bar-- lots of lightly finished wood, some tacky neon lights, and video screens playing music videos. After chatting with the lady behind the marijuana counter we bought our marijuana-only joints (no tobacco), two teas (no alcohol in coffee shops), and a lighter. We sat down at a little table and Ryan showed me how to work the lighter, a task that would become increasingly difficult as the night went on.

We began to smoke, and it was horrible! I smoked one cigarette in college, but I didn't remember it burning my throat so badly. My throat and nose were scorched and half the time I felt like I needed to cough up my lungs. I kept waiting for some pleasant effects to kick in, but primarily I felt confused. My joint kept going out, and I forgot how to work the lighter or even which end the flame came out of.

Ryan seemed to be having a better time, but even he was hacking and coughing. He drummed his fingers on the table very quickly, and I asked "are you ok?" He replied, "My fingers feel sensational!" It was pretty funny. But that was about all.

A few nights later we went back to The Bulldog. They only sold joints in a four pack, so we had two more to smoke, and its only allowed in coffee shops. So I took a cue from some experienced-looking smokers and ordered an orange juice, which helped a little with the burning in my throat. We smoked our joints, drank our drinks, paid, and left, not feeling much different than normal.

Then on the way back to our bikes it hit me. I couldn't remember where I was or how we got there. Ryan must've been feeling it too because he splurged for Ben & Jerry's, which costs about €6 a pint! We ate it slowly, overlooking a meeting of two canals. When I closed my eyes I saw lots of faces of men with mustaches. Apparently I went on about how mustaches were a theme in my life. I don't remember that much. I'll bet it was very funny to someone who was sober.

So, I can no longer say I've never smoked pot. And having experienced being high, I still don't get how something so unpleasant could become a habit. My clothes stank after smoking, and my eyes and throat burned. Being high was an interesting feeling, but too out of control for me to enjoy. I would definitely say a cold glass of Riesling that dances on your taste buds and gives you a gently relaxed feeling is better than a smoldering joint that only brings mustache men and confusion.

P.S. I promise another post later detailing better ways to spend your time in Amsterdam

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Interview

After some deliberating I have begun looking for a job. It was my original goal to just take German classes until I could pass the C-1 German proficiency test (aka prove your fluency to get into German university), but have come to realize that I might not need to be perfect to get a job I enjoy.

So after some anxious phone calling and resume-sending I landed an interview on Tuesday with a ghost tour company. They're looking to translate their current tours into English, but I had to interview completely in German. I was pretty nervous, and went to my morning German class with a handful of translations to ask: "graduated from university", "improv group", etc. My classmates were very excited and chatty with me, and many have mentioned other jobs to me as well.

After class, armed with my extra phrases, I met the potential boss at a cafe. Luckily he spoke nearly the whole time and I only needed to interject a few sentences. Afterward he pronounced, "I like you, I think you're a good person. Come take a tour with your husband and see if this is the work for you!" I agreed to, and plan on calling him when I get back from Amsterdam next Monday. (Happy anniversary to us!) But now I have to decide what I want to do. Upside: it sounds really fun, and I could finally achieve my goal of becoming a historical re-enactor. Downside: not very many hours or much money. Luckily I have a week to think, and to check on the other irons I've got in the fire.

Friday, August 7, 2009

I Shame Me So.

There is a funny ad in the Berlin subway. They feature a woman with a turtleneck pulled up over her face and the caption "I shame me so for my English!" It is for English lessons, of course. I like when Germans make mistakes speaking English because it shows me how to say the equivalent in German. Thus you say "Ich schäme mich so für mein Englisch."

And today I definitely shamed myself. As I mentioned in the last post, I've been bumped up a level-- skipping the end of B-1 and the first half of B-2. Wednesday and Thursday I felt like I was holding my own, but we were primarily focused on speaking exercises. Today we were doing grammar and vocabulary and my teacher asked me questions like "do you know the difference between "wenn" and "wann"?" and "you don't know the plural of "kleidung"? It's "kleidung." " So, embarrassing.

But the final error was only my stupidity. We were playing a game with our new vocabulary about emotions. I meant to say "I am jealous of Angie's clothes." Instead said "I am disappointed in Angie's clothes." Everyone looked at me like I was a total bitch for a minute or two before I realized my error. I hope my teacher doesn't decide to bump me down a level. Uggg.....maybe Monday will be better.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Back to School, Back to School....

(feel free to sing that title "Billy Madison" style)

On Tuesday I started tracking down language schools. I did a google search, mapped out which schools were closest to my apartment and started pounding the pavement. I quickly discovered that schools are much more competitive here than in Berlin. Not only are programs cheaper, but courses throw in a trial class, books, even coffee and cookies. After visiting 4 schools and taking 3 placement tests, I was experiencing some major brain drain. I picked a little school with an intensive course and some nice social activities. (Ryan and I need to make some friends!)

Wednesday was my trial class. I had only tested into B-1, which was the course I was taking in Berlin, but after talking with one of the teachers they moved me up to B-2. Apparently my speaking and comprehension is a full level above my grasp of grammar! I was surprised to be the only American in the class; the others being Belarussian, Swedish, Norwegian, Indonesian, Spanish, Croatian, and Thai. Some are shy, and some are loud. All are quirky. In particular there is a Russian woman, Natasha, who speaks a mile a minute and likes to talk about things like "the eternal soul of a tree."

But the funniest moment came during our speaking exercise. We were doing mock job interviews. The class was divided into four "bosses" and four "applicants." I was an applicant. They tried to lob difficult and often illegal questions at us. After I claimed to have 20 years of IT experience, Natasha asked "ah but aren't you too old for this job?"

The Indonesian girl, Chila, interviewed last and was very nervous. She is petite and held on to the bottom of the chair the whole time. Magnus, a Swede, finally asked her "If you had to describe yourself in one word, what would it be?"

Chila smiled and said "Star!" She let go of the chair to trace an outline of a star. Natasha intoned "We have no Hollyvood here!" Everyone snickered, but Chila confidently continued. "I like the star. It is shiny. It is shiny and smooth and shines above all the world. If I work for your company, I will shine, and then your whole company will shine. And soon your company shine above the whole world. That is my dream. Thank you." With that she gave a slight head bow and sauntered out of the classroom.

And these cultural crack-ups are what I really love about school.