USA Trip Part 3: New York City

New York City: One of the top travel destinations in the United States (and the world). Many would argue that a trip to the United States is not complete without a visit to the Big Apple. So when Willem and I were planning our holiday, we included a few days in the city.

I should begin this post with a caveat: my “assessment” of NYC prior to this trip was not a  positive one. I had been to NYC before, and it does not exactly feature on my list of favorite places. In fact, I hate it. Now I’m sure some people will immediately stop here, enraged, asking “Who does this girl think she is, dissing the greatest place on earth?!” But the truth is that out of all the places I have been in my life, New York City scrapes the bottom of the barrel. It is not just that I dislike big cities. I absolutely loved living in London, and I enjoyed most other big cities I have visited in the past, but for some reason NYC doesn’t resonate with me. It is dirty, smelly, expensive, and people are just plain rude. I don’t care if it is just the “New York” attitude; a little decency goes a long way. Despite this, I tried to go into our trip with a good attitude, so that I didn’t ruin Willem’s experience there.

We started out on Tuesday by renting a car in Richmond and driving the 5.5 hours up I-95 to Secaucus, New Jersey, where our hotel was located directly across from Manhattan. We chose to stay there to avoid the exorbitant hotel prices in the city, and because we had no intention of driving our rental car into the city. Parking alone would have cost more than we spent on our hotel! Plus, the room we got was huge:

IMG_6448

As soon as we got checked in, we immediately walked down the street to the bus stop, where we were picked up by an express bus that goes “directly across the Lincoln Tunnel to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in 20 minutes”. Yeah right. We were unfortunate enough to catch the worst of NYC rush hour. It took us over an hour to go the four miles from our hotel to Port Authority. We arrived at Port Authority tired, annoyed, and sweaty. On the plus side, I am now intimately familiar with the tile pattern on the wall of the Lincoln Tunnel.

We bought seven-day unlimited metro cards (a great deal if you’re staying for more than two days) and rode downtown to Wall Street. Willem geeked out seeing the New York Stock Exchange in person. We took our time wandering around, and eventually found ourselves at the foot of One World Trade Center. The new building was quite beautiful, rising up high above us in the dusk light. The shape reminded me of the Shard in a lot of ways, and made me nostalgic for our neighborhood in London.

IMG_6456

We grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then walked to the South Street Seaport, where we got a gorgeous view of the Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhattan lit up at night. The area ended up being one of my favorite parts of NYC. It almost didn’t fit with the rest of the city. Where the rest of NYC is gray and hard to me, this had a quaint, timeless feel. The twinkling lights, laughter spilling out of bars, and dozens of couples strolling hand-in-hand on the promenade could have been a scene from any era.

IMG_6472 IMG_6474

We had had a long day of traveling, and by this time we were getting tired. Before we headed back to the hotel though, we went to see Times Square at night. It was everything you would expect it to be, and nothing more. Ridiculously crowded, full of blinding lights, and waaaay overrated.

IMG_6483

This is definitely one of those places you visit just to be able to say you’ve been there, because there is absolutely no other reason to ever go there on its own. I found myself wondering how in the heck Times Square managed to become famous in the first place. We gawked at the lights for about five seconds, tried to take a few photos (none of which turned out), bought a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt for Willem’s brother who collects them, and left.

We learned our lesson about NYC rush hour. The next day, we waited until 9am to catch the bus. This time the entire journey only took 15 minutes. We went straight to Grand Central Terminal, one of NYC’s architectural and historical gems. The station has featured in dozens of movies, but it is worth seeing in person. It is an amazing feeling to stand at the top of the steps on the main concourse and soak in the organized chaos going on all around.

IMG_6511 IMG_6506 IMG_6500

Don’t forget to look up though. The painted blue and gold astronomical ceiling of the main concourse should not be missed. The ceiling’s full glory was only revealed a few years ago when decades of grime and smoke were scrubbed off in a massive 12 year restoration. There is a single patch of unrestored ceiling above the Michael Jordan Steakhouse so that visitors can see the difference the restoration made.

IMG_6493

Since it was a nice day, we spent the next few hours after visiting Grand Central wandering the city on foot instead of taking the metro. We walked past the famous Plaza Hotel, pretended we weren’t tourists and walked right into Trump Tower, played with some toys at FAO Schwarz, and gawked at lots of things we were too poor to buy.

IMG_6523

The last time I was in NYC, it was the middle of winter and the weather was bitter cold, so I never got the chance to explore Central Park.  We spent a good part of the day on Wednesday doing just that. We leisurely strolled the length of the park, enjoying the summer weather in the shade of the trees. I liked that a lot of Central Park was kept natural, with huge sections of trees, lakes, and bushes. The greenery was definitely a welcome respite from the black and grey tones of the buildings that characterize the rest of the city.

IMG_6590 IMG_6584 IMG_6583 IMG_6574 IMG_6568 IMG_6555 IMG_6541

One of the things that we both wanted to do during our city trip was to go somewhere with a view of the New York City skyline. We decided to combine this wish with Willem’s love for fancy hotel bars, and found the perfect place to enjoy an afternoon drink while enjoying the city skyline at the same time. We changed into some nice clothes and went up to the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the 35th floor of the skyscraper at Columbus Circle. Entering the lobby from the elevators, we were greeted by floor-to-ceiling windows with the New York City skyline framed across Central Park. It was breathtaking.

IMG_6617 IMG_6611 IMG_6609 IMG_6606

The best part is that there is a lobby lounge there, where anyone can enjoy a drink or meal. We were seated right in front of the windows. Willem had a coffee, I had a soda, and we shared a slice of NY cheesecake.

IMG_6595

I couldn’t resist being a huge tourist and snapping dozens of photos from the  massive windows. Our very short time living like the rich and famous cost us an exorbitant $20, but the view alone was worth the price. Other people pay more than that to see the view from the top of the Empire State Building, but we got to be treated like royalty and enjoy a relaxed break from the hustle and bustle of the city at the same time!

Since we splurged on our treat at the Mandarin Oriental, we went for a more budget-friendly activity next. Willem still hadn’t seen the Statue of Liberty, so we headed back to lower Manhattan to catch the Staten Island Ferry.

IMG_6699 IMG_6644

This commuter ferry is quite possibly New York’s best kept secret from tourists, in my opinion. For one thing, the ferry is completely FREE, and it runs every half hour between Manhattan and Staten Island. If you are like me and don’t care to fight the crowds up to the Statue of Liberty itself (or to pay the almost $35 admission fee for two people), and just want to see the statue, then the Staten Island Ferry is a great option. You get wonderful views of the statue and Liberty Island from the ferry as it motors through the harbor.

IMG_6663 IMG_6649 IMG_6691

Even if you aren’t interested in spending time on Staten Island, you can just get off the boat, walk through the terminal, and catch the very next ferry back to Manhattan.

We took the subway back to Midtown, and along the way encountered some of New York’s finest specimens. I hope you can distinguish my sarcasm here, because these people were nowhere near fine. I have never seen as many panhandlers, scam artists, and people that have clearly just escaped from the asylum in my entire life than I did in a few days on the NYC subway. I could give you a whole soliloquy on this subject, but I don’t think it is difficult to imagine the crazy people you find on the NYC subway. And if you can’t, here is photographic evidence.

IMG_6633

Not impressed.

Our last two destinations for the day were the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Plaza.  We also saw the Chrysler Building along the way.

IMG_6701

The New York Public Library’s facade, with the two stone lions guarding the entrance, have starred in numerous films (does Ghostbusters ring a bell to anyone?).

IMG_6705

But what I really wanted to see was the library’s famous reading room; and it did not disappoint. The pictures I have of the room do not do it justice. Despite its beauty, I don’t think I would want to study there. I think I would find it extremely annoying to have my dream study space interrupted by tourists (like me) taking pictures every day, no matter how quiet and unobtrusive I tried to be.

IMG_6713 IMG_6715

Rockefeller Center was lively, but I found it to be much less interesting without the ice skating rink that takes over the plaza at Christmastime.

IMG_6722 IMG_6718

Our trip to NYC was a short one, and I know we didn’t even come close to seeing everything (we did not, for instance, have time to see the Met, go to a Broadway show, or walk the High Line), but we preferred to take our time and enjoy what we could see rather than run from place to place, checking things off the “list”.  Like I always say, this just gives us a reason to go back.

IMG_6721

USA Trip Part 2: Charlottesville, VA

The second part of our USA trip was probably the part I most anticipated.  We got up early on Saturday morning and drove to Charlottesville, Virginia, a city that holds a special place in my heart. Charlottesville is a relatively small town, nestled at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and home to the University of Virginia, a place where I spent four wonderful years.  It truly is one of my favorite places on earth, and I think it is a great example of small-town America.  As Willem can attest, I talk about my love for “Cville” and UVA constantly, so I was beyond excited to finally show him everything I had been telling him about for the past two years.

We timed our visit to coincide with the first UVA football game of the season, and I got my brother (who is a student there now) to get us guest tickets for the game.  We arrived in Charlottesville a few hours before the game, so I took Willem on a walking tour of Grounds.  We wandered up the lawn, around the rotunda and the pavilion gardens, and down the Corner, where we got lunch at Little John’s, a deli that is always a favorite with students.

UVA, Rotunda, University of Virginia

The Rotunda

UVA, Serpentine walls, University of Virginia

Playing tour guide for Willem at UVA. On either side of me are the famous “serpentine” brick garden walls, designed by Jefferson himself

After lunch we walked to the stadium. The game was set to start at 3:30pm, but it was so unbearably hot outside that we took refuge in the air-conditioned Aquatic & Fitness Center next to the stadium for a while before going in.  In fact, it was so hot that the University had to put its “heat management plan” in effect, meaning they made free water available to all students and had mist tents up on the concourse for anyone feeling ill from the heat.

All decked out in orange and blue for Willem’s first college football game!

The most exciting part of the game is the beginning.  I love when the stadium anthems get everyone pumped up, and when the team bursts out of the locker rooms behind the Virginia cavalier who rides out onto the field on his horse.

The cavalier riding out on the field on his horse

It is an amazing experience to be in a stadium with 60,000+ other people, all brimming with optimism for a new season and ready to go wild cheering for their team.  And despite an intense 2.5 hour thunderstorm delay, we stuck it out and were there to see UVA beat Brigham Young University in a down-to-the-wire finish. I freaking LOVE college football!

UVA, Football, Virginia Cavaliers, Scoot Stadium

The rain pours down in the stadium

The next day, we planned to do some more of my favorite Charlottesville activities—all of which involve the great outdoors.  Charlottesville’s proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains is one of its nicest features.  In less than 20 minutes, you can be out of the city, driving on Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway.  There are plenty of places to hike, secret picnic spots and swimming holes to discover, and during the wintertime, places to ski and snowboard.

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Country roads…take me home…to the place…..I belong

We tried to begin our day by visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, but the place was so crowded already we had to buy our tickets to tour the estate for later in the afternoon and plan to come back. So instead, we drove to Mile 5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the starting point for a hike to a place called Humpback Rocks. The trail most people take up the mountain is short (only about a mile each way), but it is extremely strenuous. The trail gains over 800ft in elevation in that short distance. Close to the top, the gravel and dirt trail becomes pure boulders that you have to scramble over to reach the end.  If you aren’t in shape or are unused to hiking, you will be sucking some serious wind by the time you reach the top!  When you reach the top though, you will be rewarded with some incredible 360-degree views of the mountains and valleys in the distance.  It doesn’t matter what time of year you visit, the views will be different (and equally worth the hike) every time.

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

The trail marker at the beginning of the hike

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

The first view from the top

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

Willem playing monkey on the rocks

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

You can see why these mountains are called the “Blue Ridge”

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

Victorious hikers!

Once we were off the mountain, Willem and I drove over to Carter Mountain, an orchard popular with Charlottesville residents and visitors alike.  The orchard is located on the top of a ridge, and has gorgeous views of Charlottesville down below. Depending on the time of year, you can pick your own peaches, apples, and other varieties of fruits.  There is also a traditional country store where you can buy all kinds of products made right there at Carter Mountain.  They are famous for their hot apple cider donuts, homemade pies, and fresh peach ice cream.  My mouth is watering just thinking about the food there.

Charlottesville, Hiking, Carter Mountain, Blue Ridge Parkway

Fresh picked peaches!

We brought a picnic lunch we had made earlier and ate it at the wooden tables they have scattered around.

Charlottesville, Hiking, Carter Mountain, Blue Ridge Parkway

Willem and his squinty-sun-face enjoying lunch

Sitting in the breeze at the top of the mountain, listening to bluegrass music in the background, enjoying melt-in-your-mouth apple cider donuts…that is pretty close to how I imagine the perfect afternoon.

With our bellies full and the car loaded up with apples, we drove back to Monticello for our 4pm tour.  Monticello was Thomas Jefferson’s home, and is now (along with UVA, which he founded) a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Every schoolchild in America knows Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of our first presidents, but few people know that Monticello was his true pride and joy.  Jefferson designed every detail of Monticello himself, and it is considered a masterpiece of neoclassical architecture.  He named the plantation Monticello (Italian for “little mount”) due to its beautiful location on the top of a hill.

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Monticello

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Monticello

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Pretty from all angles

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Not a bad view…

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Jefferson knew how to pick a nice vista!

The inside of the house is incredible, and the tour of the site is well worth the cost of admission.  I know my history, and I still learned things from the guide.  No matter how much or little you already know, you will come out of a trip to Monticello with an appreciation for the genius of the man that was our 3rd president.  I know when I build my dream house one day I am definitely going to be stealing some of his ideas for my own masterpiece!

USA Trip Part 1: Washington, DC

Since my post last week was on such a depressing topic, I thought it was time to lighten the mood and finally catch up on my trip posts that I have been intending to write. This trip to the U.S. was a first for me, because it was the first time I played tour-guide/tourist in my own country.  For the past year, I have been mostly on Willem’s turf, so it was fun to take Willem out of his comfort zone for once!

We left Haarlem early in the morning, and took the bus from a stop near our house to Schiphol.  Leaving Haarlem, I was very excited, but also sad because I knew it might be one of the last times I would see our lovely little apartment on the Grote Markt.

Passport, Flight, Ticket, Plane

Ready to go!

We flew United on the way over, which was my first experience flying an American-based airline transatlantically. It was not an experience I wish to repeat.  Usually I love flying…but 9+ hours on a plane with a 3-inch screen and no movies on demand?!?  Too bad I am too poor for airline loyalty.

We arrived in our first stop of the trip, Washington, DC at about 2pm. Miraculously, we made it through customs and immigration in record time. Our bags, on the other hand, did not.  We sat there for almost 45 minutes after we got through immigration waiting for the bumbling bag-men of United to get our luggage onto the carousel. Considering I had crammed my entire Dutch life into three bags, I was anxious to get my hands on them again. Luckily, they all made it safely onto U.S. soil.

Once we were out of the airport, we took the bus straight to the hotel to drop off all of our bags. Walking into the outside air was a shock.  I had forgotten how hot and muggy Virginia is in August. Oh, sweat and humidity, I did not miss you!  We were tired after an entire day of traveling, but we decided to immediately go out and do a little sightseeing before the jetlag caught up to us. Our hotel was less than a ten minute walk to the White House, so we set out with that as our goal in mind.

We made a loop around the center of DC, walking past the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Washington Monument.  Our pictures didn’t turn out the best because the skies had turned an ominous shade of gray in between our arrival at the airport that afternoon and our walk around the city.

The White House

The White House

The White House- the famous side

The White House- the famous side

Ignore how terrible we look after that plane ride!

Ignore how terrible we look after that plane ride!

Ominous thunderclouds behind the Capitol Building

Ominous thunderclouds behind the Capitol Building

We decided to walk back towards the hotel, but the clouds did not wait for us to get inside before the downpour began.  Of course my trusty umbrella was still safely stowed away in the dark recesses of one of my bags back at the hotel (I thought the Netherlands was supposed to be the rainy place!), so we got absolutely soaked through.   I don’t know if a violent summertime thunderstorm is supposed to be a good omen or a bad one, but it was certainly a welcome of some sort.

After going to sleep early that night, we woke up early on our second day in the U.S.  We got breakfast along the way (and promptly had to scarf it down when I remembered that it is illegal to have food or drink on the DC metro—seriously! Ignore at your own risk).   Our first destination of the day was the Library of Congress.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

Library of Congress

If you are a book nerd like I am, the Library of Congress is some sort of heaven. It is the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S. and one of the two largest libraries in the world (the other being the British Library in London).  It has over 32 million books in 470 languages in its catalogue!  We got there shortly after it opened at 9am.  We decided not to wait for one of the free tours, and took a self-guided one instead. The building itself was beautiful.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

A terribly bad quality photo of me playing tour guide

Library of Congress, Washington DC

The Great Hall

Library of Congress, Washington DC

The Great Hall

Walking into the Great Hall reminded me of some of the grand European cathedrals I have visited.  Souring ceilings, marble columns, rich paintings, and delicate gold filigree adorning every surface—it is truly a cathedral of learning.  The highlight of our tour was, of course, the famous main reading room, featured in many movies. It is as gorgeous in person as you could ever have imagined.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

Main Reading Room

I also enjoyed seeing Thomas Jefferson’s original library, which is located in a side wing of the building.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

Original books from Thomas Jefferson’s library

Since I went to UVA (founded by Jefferson himself) I am obsessed with anything to do with TJ. I didn’t know until our visit that the majority of the core collection of the Library of Congress comes from Jefferson’s personal book collection.  After much of the original collection was destroyed when the library was burned by the British during the War of 1812, Jefferson gave his entire collection of books (6,487 books—a VAST collection in the early 19th century) to replace the ones that were lost. His collection included many books of historical importance, including hundreds of books written in their original languages.

When we got out of the Library of Congress, we walked the short distance to the U.S. Capitol building.  We didn’t go inside, but we walked around the perimeter of the building, to see the view from both sides.

Willem at the U.S. Capitol

Willem at the U.S. Capitol

U.S. Capitol Buliding

U.S. Capitol Buliding

From the south side of the building, we walked onwards down the National Mall.  “The Mall” is a big, grassy area that spans the distance between the steps of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.  The entire distance is 1.9 miles (3 km) long!

Aerial view of the National Mall (click picture for source)

On both sides of the mall are various federal government agency buildings and museums.  Of these, the Smithsonian museums are by far the most well-known.

All of the Smithsonian museums are incredible, and they are also FREE, but it is impossible to see them all in one day.  You could spend a lifetime exploring all of the different museums here. We didn’t have forever, so we had to pick one—and, since Willem still hasn’t left his childhood dinosaur obsession behind, we chose the Natural History Museum (home to a legendary dinosaur display).

Dinosaur

For all your dinosaur fantasies

Elephant in the lobby of the Museum of Natural History

If you can only see one museum in DC, I would recommend this one. It is amazing that the place is free, because it is a high-quality museum.  We spent almost two hours wandering the exhibits, and we still didn’t see everything.  The best part about the museum being free though is that you don’t feel like you have to force yourself to suffer through an entire day in the museum just because you spent so much money on the entrance fee. We saw what we wanted, and then moved on.

At the middle of the mall is the Washington Monument. I would have loved to go up to the top, as was possible a few years ago, but currently the monument is completely closed and covered in scaffolding. It sustained structural damage during the earthquake in 2011, and is still being repaired. If it ever re-opens, going to the top of it is definitely on my DC bucket list.

This is what the monument SHOULD have looked like…

By this point we were tired of walking- the distance from the White House to the Capitol to the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial may look quite doable because you can see the landmarks everywhere, but do not be deceived: you will walk a lot in Washington.  One of the symptoms of walking so much in DC is that you will ALWAYS BE HUNGRY. We decided it was about time to find somewhere to grab lunch.  If you’ve ever been to DC, you will find out very quickly that there is a severe lack of lunch spots near the Mall (unless your idea of haute cuisine is an overpriced hot dog stand), so we got back on the metro and went to Chinatown to stuff ourselves with cheap, delicious Chinese food.

At lunch we brainstormed about what we wanted to do for the rest of the day.  During our past trips, one of the most enjoyable things Willem and I have done is to find a local sporting event to attend.  We decided to ask around and see if any of the DC sports teams happened to be playing that night.  A really kind woman we talked to told us that we could get $5 tickets to the Nationals game (DC’s Major League Baseball team) that evening if we got there at least an hour before the game started. We thought, “What the heck?”…so out of the blue we ended up on our way to Nationals Park to see an MLB game.

Entering the stadium

Entering the stadium

The stadium was really easy to get to on the metro, and it wasn’t crowded at all since we arrived super early to get the cheap tickets.  Washington was set to play Miami, a team neither Willem nor I knew anything about, but it didn’t matter. We were still excited. It was Willem’s first baseball game ever! I’m not the biggest baseball fan in the world, but it was still a perfect chance to see a truly American pastime.  How much more American can you get on your first trip to the U.S.A.?

DSCN8871

Nationals Park

DSCN8873

Nationals Park

A night at the ballgame

And even better? The Nationals scored two home runs, and Washington won! Willem was impressed with the relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere in the stadium.  In the Netherlands sporting events are more likely to end up with streakers, drunken fights, and police in riot gear than a hand-holding rendition of “Take me out to the ball game” followed by children running the bases.

Our choice to go to the ball game meant that we didn’t end up getting to see all of the monuments and historical sites we had originally planned to see that in DC that day, but honestly, we had a much better time at the game.  The monuments will be there another day. But our experience at the ball game was much more memorable. And our feet certainly thanked us.

Life in a State of Loneliness

For the past month this blog has been sorely neglected.  So much has happened in the last four weeks that each week it becomes harder and harder to write.  Where do I even begin when my life is so different now than it was a month ago?

I guess I should start by saying that I am no longer in the Netherlands.  I had been planning a trip back home for a long time, so I got on a plane with Willem at the end of August and we spent two weeks traveling the east coast of the U.S.  I had intended to post every few days during the trip, but we got so busy (and were having such a good time) that I never had the time to sit down and write. I am still planning a bunch of posts about the trip, so rest assured, they will come eventually.

But how did that two week trip end up with me in the U.S. and Willem back in the Netherlands? It feels like a long story, but in reality everything happened very fast.  As many of you may know, I have been trying to find a permanent job in my field in the Netherlands, but navigating the IND (the Dutch immigration department) and their convoluted rules and regulations regarding work permits has been a nightmare. I ended up with plenty of positive reactions to my applications, but no job offer because employers just weren’t willing to be a sponsor for my work permit.  I was getting restless, and generally just feeling like I was going nowhere.  It is really tough to get rejected time after time. Even if you know the rejections come through no specific fault or deficiency of your own, it is still hard to swallow.  But I think most of all I was tired and bored.  Tired of worrying all the time about what I was going to do with my life, and bored after going from being a workaholic grad student to suddenly having nothing worthwhile to do.

As much as I wanted to stay in Europe, to be with Willem in our wonderful apartment and life in Haarlem, I began to apply to places in the U.S, just to see what would happen. I didn’t set out to move back to the U.S. though.  Lo and behold, only a few days after I sent in an application to a really great non-profit think tank in Washington, DC, I got an email asking if I would interview with them.  I had my interview a few days later over skype, and the week after that I was offered an internship there.  And they wanted me to start as soon as possible.  This all happened less than two weeks before I left the Netherlands for my planned trip back home with Willem.  Suddenly, I went from sitting around all day with nothing to do but wade through job applications to a flurry of activity trying to sort out details before our trip.  How long would I have to be away from Willem? Where would I live? When would I start? What will I do with all my stuff? Could I really do this?

Long Distance Relationship, Globe, Heart, LDR

I ended up postponing my start date until right after our trip, but that meant that when Willem got on the plane back to the Netherlands two weeks ago, I wasn’t with him.  Instead, I drove straight to my aunt’s house, moved in, and started work the very next morning.  It was a shock to the system.  Everything happened so fast that I didn’t really have time to process how quickly my situation would change.  As a result, the past few weeks I have felt more conflicted than I have ever been in my entire life. On the one hand, I am happy to finally be doing something in my field, something that I am sure will move my career forward in a positive direction, and that I find both challenging and exciting.  It has been nice to recalibrate my thinking. To go from feeling like I wasn’t good enough to get ANY job (even through no fault of my own), to feeling like I can do anything again. I needed that confidence boost.

But at the same time, it seems like every time I get a step ahead in one direction, I get pulled back in another.  Being away from Willem is the worst feeling in the world. I didn’t think it would be this hard.  The first week we were apart, I had to fight back tears multiple times a day. Everything that reminded me of him, or that reminded me of how we weren’t together (which was everything) made me want to cry. I didn’t know it was possible to feel so lonely when I was surrounded by family, friends, and coworkers.  The time difference has been the worst part of the whole separation so far. Six hours doesn’t seem like much, but because both of us are working full time, it is impossible.  Every time I wake in the morning, he is in the middle of his working day. By the time I get off work and get home, he is already in bed. And when he wakes up, I am fast asleep on the other side of the Atlantic. There is no time to talk properly except during the weekends.   I know we love each other, and I am sure things will work themselves out, but that knowledge doesn’t make the situation any easier.

Long Distance Relationship, Cartoon, Heart, LDR

So what does all this mean for my blog?  Throughout the past year, this blog has been mostly focused on expat life in the Netherlands.  Well, I clearly cannot write about experiencing “expat life” without actually being an expat.  My Dutch adventures are on hold, at least for a while.  So just like my life, this blog will be re-focused in the coming months.  I plan to continue to travel (I definitely won’t ever stop doing that), and to explore the Washington, DC area as much as possible.  Maybe I will even come to a greater appreciation for the travel gems in my own country.

After all, if I truly wish to lead my life “in a state of wanderlust,” I can’t limit myself to Europe:)

Say Cheese: Day Trip to the Alkmaar Cheese Market

Cheese is a big deal here in the Netherlands.  Where else in the world can you find shops devoted entirely to this dairy delight? It doesn’t matter if it is breakfast, lunch, or dinner- cheese almost always makes an appearance somewhere during a typical Dutch meal.   The Netherlands is also one of the biggest exporters of cheese, with Gouda (the true Dutch pronunciation is how-da, not goo-da like we tend to say in English) and Edam cheeses recognized the world over.

Alkmaar, Gouda, Cheese, Dutch Cheese, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt

In four towns in the Netherlands, this long-standing obsession with cheese translates into major tourist dollars. These towns–Alkmaar, Gouda, Edam, and Hoorn–all hold traditional cheese markets (kaasmarkt) in the summer months in order to teach visitors about the history of the industry in the Netherlands.  Out of these four towns, Alkmaar is the undisputed mother of all cheese markets.

Every Friday morning, starting on the first Friday in April and ending on the first Friday in September, visitors flock to Alkmaar’s Waagplein (weighing square) for the market.  Anyone wanting a decent view should ensure they arrive long before the bell rings at 10:00am signalling the start of the market, because it gets very crowded. And Dutch people are tall, so unless you play professional basketball you are going to want to be as close to the front as possible to make sure you can see.

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Waagplein, Cheese, Dutch, Crowd

The crowd by 9:30am

Once the bell rings, a flurry of activity begins on the square.  Members of the historic Alkmaar cheese carrier’s guild (who are the only ones allowed to move and weigh the cheese at the market) rush around carrying eight cheese wheels at a time on wooden racks hung across their shoulders.

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein

In the meantime, sellers and buyers haggle over and eventually agree on a price for the cheese through a system called handjeklap (“hand clap”). The system involves both parties literally clapping hands together in a specific fashion to signal how much they are willing to pay/accept.

Alkmaar, Kaasmarkt, Cheese Market, Handjeklap, Hand Clap, Barter, Bargaining, Market, Dutch Cheese, Cheese

After a price is agreed, the cheese carriers bring the cheese over to the weighing station. Back in 1365, when the first cheese was traded on the Waagplein in Alkmaar, the city only owned one scale. Now three scales, each larger than a grown human being, are used at the market!

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Scale Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Scale Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Scale Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Scale Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein

The cheese carriers have to be incredibly strong to shuttle the heavy cheese wheels back and forth across the square.  Each wheel of cheese weighs over 13 kilos (29 lbs.)! Carrying a full load of cheese wheels on the wooden barrows means having to lift over 130 kilos (287 lbs.).  Now think about the fact that there are approximately 2,200 wheels of cheese displayed on each market day- an incredible 30,000 kilos (66,000 lbs.) of dairy.  Those guys deserve a reward!

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, WaagpleinMost of the market is purely a “spectator sport” with no active participation by the audience. However, one fascinating aspect of the cheese market that I got to partake in was the tasting of the cheese. The price of the cheese at the market is largely determined by the quality of its appearance and taste.  Trained inspectors use specially designed cheese scoops to bore cylinders of cheese out of the wheel in order to test the quality of the cheese before it is bought.  One of the inspectors came around with a wheel of cheese and broke off pieces of the fresh cheese for the crowd to taste.  My verdict on the product: that was some tasty stuff!

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Gouda Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Gouda

Although the market provides commentary through a microphone for the crowd lining the square, do not expect to get much information out of it unless you speak Dutch. The commentator translated the proceedings into English, German, and Spanish for the benefit of the mostly-foreign audience, but I know enough Dutch by now to realize that the translations were terrible.  Anyone visiting the market would get much more out of the experience by reading up on the market traditions and procedure before they arrive.  A great resource for this is the Alkmaar tourism website (VVV).

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Canal

Even if you get tired of the crowds at the cheese market (as I quickly did), there is still plenty to keep you occupied in Alkmaar for a few hours.  The medieval center of the town is very picturesque, and the Waagplein is surrounded by market stalls where Dutch handicrafts of all kinds are sold.  If you’re looking for a place to buy nicer souvenirs than the typical t-shirt and keychain-fare that line the streets of Amsterdam, Alkmaar is a great place to do it.

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Dutch Traditions, Wooden Shoes

A man makes traditional Dutch wooden shoes in Alkmaar

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Gouda

And, if you just can’t deal with the complete overload of cute, traditional Dutch things, then you can always head over to the museum dedicated to the Beatles (the band, not the insect).  Apparently John Lennon’s first guitar was made in Alkmaar. Who would’ve thought?

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Canal