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 🙂

A Few Words About Dutch Heatwaves

Even the sun is melting

A mere few weeks ago, I would have given anything to finally get some real summer weather here in Haarlem.  I should have been careful what I wished for.  As I write this I am slowly melting away in my apartment. Coming from a place where temperatures average in the 90s (with disgustingly high levels of humidity) during the summer months, I thought that handling a Dutch heatwave would be a piece of cake.  Unfortunately, I forgot that finding a place with air conditioning here is like finding the Holy Grail. The Dutch have also never heard of ceiling fans or shady front porches, either. I am convinced that the Dutch have superior sweat glands or something like that, because I don’t know how any normal person can operate in these conditions.  I certainly can’t!

These are hot commodities right now

So this week my life has been relegated to pouring buckets of cold water on my head, fighting for the last bag of ice at Albert Heijn, and typing ridiculous search terms like “places with air conditioning in Amsterdam,” “coldest Dutch places in summer,” or “where can you buy a fan in the Netherlands” into Google.  Now, excuse me while I go stick my head in the freezer for the twentieth time today.

Life’s A Beach: Summer Sporting Events at Scheveningen Beach

When I think of the North Sea, the first word that usually comes to mind is COLD! Especially when compared to the beaches I am used to on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the North Sea is downright frigid most times of the year.  But for the three days of the year that it actually gets hot in the Netherlands (okay, I am exaggerating a little here…it gets warm for maybe three weeks), the Dutch invade the beaches on the North Sea coast and the Netherlands feels like a proper beach destination.  And since yesterday was the hottest day of the summer to date, Willem and I joined everyone else in the country in a day at the beach.

We left the apartment around noon, and headed towards the Hague and Scheveningen Beach.  Even though Scheveningen is not the closest beach to Haarlem (Zandvoort and Bloemendaal are both lovely seaside resort areas only a few kilometers to the west of Haarlem), we drove the extra half hour to Scheveningen.  Why would we drive an extra 30 minutes when there are perfectly nice beaches nearer to Haarlem? Well, Scheveningen happens to be a paradise for beach and water sports!

This weekend, The Hague Beach Stadium, which sits right on the beach, was hosting a series of international beach soccer matches.

Hague Beach Stadium, beach soccer, Scheveningen, Netherlands, beach, summer

Amazingly enough, all events at this 2,000 seat stadium are free and open to the public. We walked right up to the venue, found some seats, and settled in to watch the final match of the tournament played between the Netherlands and Italy:

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While beach soccer was the focus of this weekend, the Hague Beach Stadium also hosts other national and international sporting events (beach volleyball, beach hockey, and beach tennis) throughout the summer.  If you are in the area, definitely try to catch an event at this stadium. It truly is a wonderful venue to enjoy some (free!) summer spectator sports.

After the Netherlands-Italy match finished (the Netherlands lost, boo!), we walked down the beach to catch some rays and check out the water.  The beach was PACKED.  I have only once seen a beach more crowded than this one, and that was in Alexandria, Egypt on a day with temperatures pushing 110°.  All of the people in the water made me lose my senses for a while and imagine that the water must be warmer than it was when I last touched it.  Nope. Either the Dutch have some strange evolutionary resistance to cold water that I am missing, or they are all insane (I think it’s the latter).

Scheveningen, Beach, Strand, Den Haag, The Hague

I walked in the shallows while Willem jumped in and tried to convince himself that “the temperature’s fine once you get used to it”.  A hundred meters down the shoreline, we found out that Scheveningen beach was also hosting the Nacra 17 Class World Sailing Championships while we were there.  We watched as the boats from 22 countries (including the USA!) came in to land on the beach after performing some practice runs.

Scheveningen, Beach, Strand, Den Haag, The Hague, Nacra 17, Rio 2016, Sailing World Championships 2013 Scheveningen, Beach, Strand, Den Haag, The Hague, Nacra 17, Rio 2016, Sailing World Championships 2013 Scheveningen, Beach, Strand, Den Haag, The Hague, Nacra 17, Rio 2016, Sailing World Championships 2013

I don’t know very much about sailing, but I looked up some information after we got home and discovered that Nacra 17 is the newest sailing discipline for the Olympics, and will be one of the medal categories in the Rio 2016 Olympics. Pretty awesome, right?  Like the events at The Hague Beach Stadium, the sailing competition is also free and open to anyone to watch.  The organizers also plan to have viewing areas with big screens set up on the beach so people can see all the action on the water as it happens. The competition is running through Saturday July 27th, so I may have to return and cheer on the USA later this week!

If you’re not interested in spectator sports, there are plenty of more adventurous activities on offer at Scheveningen.  We passed multiple surf schools and places to get windsurfing lessons, and there are places to rent stand-up paddle boats, kites, and jetskis.  I wasn’t about to try and get on a surfboard that day. With the number of people in the water, I probably would have run someone over on my first try. But maybe one day I will go for it, and come back to the U.S. with a new skill!

The Dutch Love Affair With Herring

The Dutch are not particularly known for their culinary delights.  There is one delicacy, however, that every visitor to the Netherlands must try: Dutch herring. This raw, silvery little fish is something that is enjoyed by almost every Dutchman.  Actually, enjoy is not a strong enough word to describe the Dutch love of herring.  Dutch people would probably trade their first-born child for a couple of these slimy buggers. Where we have taco trucks and hot dog stands in the U.S., the Dutch fill every street corner with designated herring stands.

The Dutch passion for haring is a long-standing one.  Herring, fished from the North Sea, has been a valuable commodity in the Netherlands for hundreds of years.  There is a Dutch saying that “Amsterdam was built on herring bones,” meaning that profits from the lucrative herring trade financed many of the beautiful buildings that line Amsterdam’s canals.  Today, the Dutch empire may be lacking but the demand for herring continues unabated.

Herring, Haring, Hollandse nieuwe

Small fish, big influence

Every year in June, the seaside town of Scheveningen (try saying that five times fast) celebrates Vlaggetjesdag (“Flag Day”).  On Vlaggetjesdag, the fishing boats (grandly decorated with flags and pennants–hence the name “flag day”) sail back into the harbors of the Netherlands with the first catch of Hollandse nieuwe herring of the year.

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The captain of the first ship that reaches port was traditionally given the honor of bringing a crate of herring to the Queen.  Today, the first barrel of herring off the boat is auctioned off for charity. In 2012, the first herring barrel sold for a record price of 95,000 Euros!

The 95,000 euro barrel

So why is the Hollandse nieuwe herring harvest such a big deal? For starters, this particular Dutch delicacy could traditionally only be caught between May and July each year.  Any earlier, and the fat content of the fish was too low; any later, and it was too high. Now, of course, raw herring can be frozen and preserved year-round, but the Dutch still prefer to eat it fresh off the boats.  The Dutch also pioneered their own way of preparing herring for consumption:

“The fish are gutted on board the fishing boats, leaving the pancreas in place. The pancreatic enzymes do most of the conservation, so that the brine they are kept in needs much less salt. This could explain why Dutch herring is so much more flavorful than other salted or pickled herring varieties in the rest of Europe.”

Yum. I know I love to eat my fish with pancreas intact.

This year’s Vlaggetjesdag provided a great excuse for me and Willem to get out of the house, and for me to learn a little more about this Dutchiest of Dutch delicacies. I was pleasantly surprised at how much there was to see and do.  We were able to tour fishing boats and ships of the Dutch Royal Navy, see how traditional nautical handicrafts were made, and of course eat herring.

Dutch herring in all its glory

Willem, the good Dutchman that he is, downed three of them in the span of about five minutes.  I chose not to partake this time, as I have already had the honor of tasting herring.  Let’s just say, it was not my favorite food.  Supposedly herring is an acquired taste. After my experience with herring though, I don’t really want to acquire it.

Should you choose to try a herring when you visit the Netherlands (to anyone who visits us in Haarlem- there is a herring stand 50 meters from our front door, so prepare yourselves!), you cannot just eat it any-which-way.  The correct way to eat a herring is to 1) pick it up by the tail; 2) dip the herring in raw, diced onions; and 3) tip your head back and throw that slimy thing down the hatch!

Haring, Herring, Vlaggetjesdag, Hollandse nieuwe

Look at that technique!

Now doesn’t that sound delicious?

Road Trip Part 1: Fast Cars, Medieval Castles, and Big Hills in Germany

The following is Part 1 of a three part series detailing my road trip to Luxembourg via Germany and Belgium. You can read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

This past weekend was a holiday weekend in the Netherlands (Hemelvaartsdag, celebrating the Ascension of Jesus on the 40th day of Easter).   Willem and I decided to use the extra day off as an excuse to get out of the city.  Road trip time!

The Toilet Seat Art Museum

I grew up taking family road trips, and while I absolutely love flying, I still believe there is no better way to see a place than to take a road trip.  On a road trip, no one will stop you if you realize you just can’t miss the Toilet Seat Art Museum in Texas.  And when you decide your life won’t be complete without witnessing the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Missouri (surprisingly enough, there are multiple contenders for this tackiest of all tacky titles), you can fulfill your dreams without difficulty. They’re right off Exit 14 on highway 66 (not really).  Sometimes it is just nice not to be at the whim of public transport schedules.  It is difficult to really get “off the beaten path” when you have to limit your travels to places you can get by train, bus, or foot power.

Suffice to say we were excited to go on our first road trip together, and with our very own car! This would be the first real test of our little hybrid Honda Civic. And thanks to Willem’s job at Deloitte, the car is free for us to use as much as we want, with all gas paid for within Europe.  We deliberately did not make many plans aside from booking our hotels, so that our trip could be as relaxed and stress-free as possible.  I had never been to Luxembourg, so we ultimately chose to use Luxembourg as a rough destination, driving there via Germany on the way there and via Belgium on the return trip.

Even the German police have fast cars

I drove the first leg of the trip, which was nice because I haven’t driven since the last time I visited the U.S. last year. I had forgotten how nice it is to just turn on the radio and drive on a highway, the wind in my hair and on my way to an exciting unknown place!  Willem was a little jealous that I got to drive this leg, because we went through some of the fabled sections of Germany with no speed limit.  It was slightly nerve-wracking at first, having all those Germans in their BMWs and Mercedes zooming past at 180km/hr or faster.  *Don’t worry mom and dad, I didn’t drive that fast—just fast enough to keep up with traffic in the slow lane*  Even if I wanted to drive fast, our poor little car was already protesting mightily at anything above 130km/hr, which was the “recommended” speed for the autobahn.  A hybrid Honda cannot exactly compete with a Mercedes in that arena.  So after a few seconds of speed just to say I did, I slowed back down to a leisurely 125 and drove in the slow lane with all the other cars with Dutch and Belgian license plates.  A need for speed must be a German thing.

After about 4 hours of driving, we reached our stopover destination for the night: a little town called Kastellaun, in the  Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany.  Willem and I have a mutual friend from LSE that comes from a very small village in Germany,  and when we asked him if he knew anything about Kastellaun he replied, “How did you two find Kastellaun? If there is any place in Germany smaller than my town, it is Kastellaun!”

It was perfect:

A medieval drawing of Kastellaun, Germany

Despite being officially labeled as a town in the middle of nowhere by our German friend, Kastellaun was a wonderful place for a stop-over on our road trip.  We stayed in a small B&B/hotel called the Altes Stadtor.  The name literally means “Old Town Gate”, so named because the structure is literally built into the medieval town gate and walls.  The owners did an amazing restoration of the building. They left many of the old stone walls exposed within the structure, and furnished it with antiques.  The whole place had a very gemütlichkeit feeling to it.  If I owned a hotel, I would want it to look exactly like this place did.

We also had our best meal of the trip at the cozy restaurant attached to the hotel, where one of the hotel owners cooks all of the meals.  The place only had ten tables, and it was clearly popular with the locals.  We arrived at the hotel too late to do any exploring of the town, so we put that off until the next day and just enjoyed some relaxed drinks after dinner at the hotel (and did I mention how CHEAP food and drinks are in this part of Germany compared to the Netherlands? It was amazing), with Willem practicing his German while we chatted to the wait staff.

The cozy restaurant at the Altes Stadtor in Kastellaun, Germany

The cozy restaurant at the Altes Stadtor in Kastellaun, Germany

The next morning, Willem got up extra early to go running, since he is (supposed to be) training for a half-marathon in Brussels that is coming up in a few weeks.  The sight of him returning to the hotel for breakfast was hilarious.  Something he never considered was how easy running on the flat Dutch landscape is compared to running up the inclines of the German countryside.  He came in the room, breathing hard, and just managed to gasp “HILLS!” before collapsing on the bed.  I’m sure it did nothing for his ego to have me practically rolling on the floor laughing at him (I should be nicer to Willem; he is, in fact, a very good runner, and in much better shape than I make him sound!).

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At the ruins of Castle Kastellaun

After breakfast we explored the town a little bit before moving on to our next off-the-beaten-path village destination.  The castle in Kastellaun is actually quite beautiful. It was built in the 13th century on the hill above the town (one of the same hills that got the better of Willem earlier that morning), but was occupied during the Thirty Years’ War and then later destroyed by French troops in 1689 during the War of Palatinate Succession.  Most of the castle is in ruins now, but it still maintains a dominant position overlooking the town.  The nicest thing about the castle is that the ruins are free and open to wander around.  None of those silly barriers (like the one that prevents you from getting within 100meters of Stonehenge in England) stand in your way from exploring as you please.  There was barely anyone nearby, so it felt like we had the whole ruins to ourselves. From the top of the castle keep is a beautiful, expansive view of the German countryside.

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The beautiful German countryside

We had lunch in Herrstein, a village about an hour south of Kastellaun that was recommended to us by our new friends, the owners of the Altes Stadtor.  Herrstein is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Germany.  We ate outside in the sun at a beautiful German café tucked away off a path in the village center.  I am pretty decent at reading menus in German or Dutch, but this menu had so many local word variants even Willem had to ask what some items were. Every dish included some form of wurst, potato, or sauerkraut, and there were no fruits or vegetables in sight.  It was exactly what I imagine to be perfect old-fashioned country food—hearty and filling.  Willem went for the full German meal, meaning a massive plate of sauerkraut and leverkloße—some sort of liver sausage. I wasn’t quite so adventurous.

Our final stop of the day before reaching Luxembourg was Trier, Germany.  Trier holds the distinction of being the oldest city in Germany. It was founded as early as 16 B.C. and was an important Roman city. Many of the famous sights in Trier date from Roman times, the most obvious of which is the Porta Nigra (Latin for “Black Gate”).

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The Porta Nigra

The Porta, which looms over the entrance to the Old Town, is a designated World Heritage Site and the largest existing Roman gate north of the Alps. Other famous sites we saw in Trier include the Constantine Basilica and the Trier Cathedral.  The cathedral in particular was fascinating because it holds the Holy Tunic, a relic that is said to be the robe Jesus wore when he died.  We could only see the secure chest where the garment is held, and not the robe itself, because the relic is only exhibited to the public every few decades.

To read about the rest of our road trip through Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium, read Part 2 here…and Part 3 here!