Gambrels of the Sky

Raindrops on Rooftops and Whiskers on Turkeys

I had to remind Dave during our dinner of leftover quiche and soup on Thursday that it was Thanksgiving. It’s a bit sad to be away from family this weekend, but we celebrated belatedly with some nice fellow expats on Saturday, so we still ate the traditional fare. It has been a busy and happy November here in this dark, rainy place we now call home. The last few mornings, the sky had just started turning from black to dark gray when we rolled out of bed around 8:00. And by 4:00 all the lights are blazing. The towels never dry. The electricity is too expensive. We have a leaky bathroom celling/roof. Etc. But these annoyances are, of course, so, so small. We have our health, relative prosperity, wonderful families, and great friends.

On Thursday we got a letter from the Amsterdam Gemeente (city government) that, starting in the new year, we will have 350 refugees settling into a newly renovated, recently vacated building down the street from where we live. This was an informational letter and also included contacts in case we want to volunteer to help out. Let me first just say I think it’s fantastic that the newest arrivals will be housed right in the center of town—not shuttled off to some outer suburb. Amsterdam is hanging on (though I’ve heard this is changing somewhat) to its policy of offering mixed-income housing scattered throughout the city. There are certainly more/less expensive neighborhoods to live in, but if you qualify for subsidized housing, as many people do, you can still sometimes snag apartments in posh locations. Anyway, I’m considering adding another volunteer activity to the roster. The biggest language need for the refugees will certainly be Dutch, but I’m going to see if there might be any need for volunteer English tutors.

How appropriate that this letter arrived on Thanksgiving. Life feels very rich at the moment. I know I need to savor it and keep it in my mind for when harder times come. So I’ll jump on the bandwagon. Here is a small sample of the things I’m thankful for:

1) Languages. It feels like I’m at a pivotal moment with Dutch learning. I took a killer quiz in class last week on the 700ish new words we were supposed to have learned over the last three weeks. They were hard words—all abstractions (to prepare for, to lack, etc.) rather than concrete objects or actions. Not all of these words have lodged themselves in my brain yet, but some of them have, and lately, when I’m walking around the city, it’s like a collage of new things I can suddenly understand. A collage with a lot of holes, but still. I listened to a Dutch storytelling podcast today while cooking, not really concentrating, just letting the sentences drift past. Then I was telling Dave about how I couldn’t really understand what the lady was saying, and I realized that I actually did get about 70% of the story. Huh?

My teacher gave us wearable buttons that say, “Wilt u Nederlands met mij praten?” (Will you talk with me in Dutch?). Obviously, I feel like a prime dork wearing mine, but it’s a good accessory because a) it encourages strangers to make excited small talk with you, and b) it discourages shopkeepers from automatically switching to English once they hear the accent. On a side note, the Dutch expression for “to make small talk” is “praten over koetjes en kalfjes,” or “talk cows and calves,” which is quite cute.

I have the same feeling now that I had while living in France a million years ago: learning a language adds a layer of complexity, but also excitement, to the everyday. So long as you’re comfortable feeling a bit silly, you also get to have a series of small communication victories. As a bonus, the people here are nicer than in France.

Last weekend, after two successful Dutch exchanges, first at the cheese store and then at the wine store, I marched across the street to the chocolate store (can’t beat my neighborhood), and bought myself a bonbon to celebrate. I’m thankful for all these luxuries, but especially that I can take some time off work to learn the language.

2) New Friends. I hosted about ten women at my apartment last week for coffee and a knitting lesson. I have one friend who is an amazing knitter, and she and I (mostly she) tag-team taught the basics to the beginners. I have found it so much easier in Amsterdam to meet friends than in Milwaukee. This is not to say that I don’t love my Milwaukee friends, but it took a while to find them. Milwaukee is a hometown kind of city, and many people there seem to gravitate toward family and old friends. Here, almost everyone I know is an expat from somewhere, and I attribute the ease of socializing to the fact that there are lots of new like-minded arrivals who don’t know many people and have a decent amount of time on their hands. English is the lingua franca in these international groups, which—though not great for the Dutch learning—makes things easy.

3) The End of Paperwork. Well, it’s not never really over, but the end is in sight for the first round, anyway. Over the last couple of months, we’ve had many meetings with Immigration Services, the bank, the lawyer, real estate agents, the city municipality, the Chamber of Commerce (to register for me to work independently), etc, etc. Now Dave has gotten his long-term residency card, and I’m just waiting and hoping for a letter to arrive saying I’ve been approved as well. There have been some stressful moments, but it wasn’t all that bad (famous last words) given that we moved here with no connections and not much knowledge about what we were doing. The other expats we have met here (see point two) have been the best resource in helping us figure things out.

4) Our Apartment. Finally, we’re done schlepping our suitcases between Airbnb places and have moved into our “own” (rented) apartment in a beautiful old neighborhood. The apartment came “furnished,” but we did have to buy a number of items to get it livable. I have mixed feelings about procuring new stuff only a few months after the difficulty of getting rid of so much old stuff, but c’est la vie, I guess. It’s a small, two-floor apartment, complete with a treacherous Dutch staircase and steep ceilings. We love it. Here are few pictures.

Views out the front and back. Our building (like most here) is tall and narrow. No Gambrel roofs in sight—just a lot of rain-covered peaks. The second shot shows the complex arrangement of terraces and gardens behind our building. We want to get back there to explore, but we don’t have seem to have access.

I need to bring some quilts over from the States to hang on the walls.

I don’t have a picture of it, but we do also have an office/guestroom, which is open for visitors…

We’re headed back to the U.S. soon. Dave will be returning to Amsterdam at the end of December, but I’ll be staying with friends and family until mid-January, so my next post will likely come from there. Cheers!