Amsterdam

I finally made it up to the Netherlands this past Saturday. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Amsterdam, and was excited to check it out! I was able to save quite a bit of money by taking a bus to and from Amsterdam in one day, leaving really early and returning quite late. This was a full day!

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Amsterdam Central Station – pretty grand for a train station!

When we arrived, I had the intention of heading straight for the Anne Frank House, as lines there get really long and I knew I wanted to see it. Upon arrival, however, coffee and food took priority and I could not be bothered to do anything else right away. I really did not mind this, because Amsterdam was great to just wander through. I ended up searching in the Haarlemmerbuurt neighborhood, which was a very pretty and nice area. Plenty of good shops, bakeries, and cafes. I settled on the local breakfast/lunch chain, Bagels & Beans. They were very reasonably priced, had free wifi, and the coffee was great.

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Everything bagel with walnut and honey cream cheese and a latte (6€)

Bagels and Beans was nice, but it definitely was not the quickest option. After I finished eating, I continued my wandering. Unfortunately, rather than in the hour or so I spent inside eating, the rain waited for me to be outside 😦 A huge downpour! Fortunately I had my rain boots on, and eventually I found a grocery store to duck inside of for a few minutes. I love going to grocery stores in other countries — they always have slightly different and unique stuff! I stocked up on some chocolate, and cheese while I was in the store and by the time I left it was only drizzling.

Amsterdam is a great city for wandering. The canals and canal houses are beautiful, there are markets scattered throughout the city, and lots of pedestrian/bike-only streets to walk through. I wanted to see the status of the line at the Anne Frank House, so I headed in that direction. I found myself in front of something advertised as “The Cheese Museum” while I was enroute so I  had to stop in. It was actually more of a store than a museum, but that worked out for me because they had about 41641315 cheeses out for you to sample. Can we please just take a moment to appreciate a well-aged Gouda??!!? The shop was great, the owner was obnoxious, but I overlooked him for the sake of Gouda. This cheese shop was Step 1 on the bombing my budget took in Amsterdam.

After eating a meal’s worth of cheese samples, I finally ended up at the Anne Frank House. By now, it is around noon and the line is RIDICULOUS. So I veto that and continue onward. I walked by the palace in Amsterdam, really not anything special, and went down to take a canal boat tour. I took a tour with the Rederij Kooij company, and felt like it was informative and nice. It was also the cheapest one I found, for €10.50. I had about half an hour between buying my ticket and the boat leaving, so I went to find some fries at the nearby Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx, which were really good! The Dutch eat their fries with mayo, which I don’t really care for usually but decided to try anyways. I’m glad I did, their mayo is different… sweeter, less oily. Good.

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My tour started shortly, and I learned a lot! Most interesting thing: in the 17th century, canal houses were taxed based on their width. This is why houses in Amsterdam are so narrow and really deep. Also, if you look towards the gables on the houses, they all have hooks, because staircases are too narrow to carry furniture. Everything is done through the windows.

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If you look closely, you can see a small ledge at the top of all the houses, that is where the hook is.

After the tour, I went to Museum Van Loon. This is a smaller museum, but I really really liked it! It belongs to the Van Loon family, one of whom helped found the Dutch East India Trading Company in the 17th Century. The house has been restored and shows what a formal canal house would of been like in that time period. I felt like I was in Pride & Prejudice. The kitchen, garden, and coach house were especially cool. Many canal houses have gardens in the back, which were quite, pretty places to relax. In June, you can go visit many of different gardens throughout Amsterdam. I wish I could come back then!

I went to go to the Museumplein afterwards, where 3 of the biggest museums in the Netherlands are, as well as the IAmsterdam sign. I would have liked to go to the Van Gogh Museum, but that will have to wait for when I am a better financed traveler as admission is €17!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I still went to the museum store and bough some Van Gogh art postcards, my favorite souvenirs when I travel. I somehow also convinced myself I needed a Van Gogh cookie jar. Not sure why, I mean I like it, but another case of bombing my budget. 🙂 The park/place here got a lot of hype but I regretted walking over there as it was just way too busy to be enjoyable.

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not worth it

At this point, I wanted to get some of the market food before it closed, so I went over to the Albert Cuyp Market, which was pretty close by. One of the best things I’ve discovered in traveling is the “List of Pancakes” Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pancakes). Every time I go somewhere now, I have to know what their pancake is and how I can eat it. In the Netherlands, it is the poffertjes and they are like mini pancakes served with butter and powdered sugar. mmmmmm good. I also got a stroopwafel while at the market, which is two thin waffles with a caramel/syrup concoction in the middle. The stroopwafel, while fresh and nice, was not that good, especially compared to the poffertjes.

 

Now, I decided to test my luck and return to the Anne Frank House. On Saturdays, they are open quite late, so I was able to get in within about 90 minutes. Advice on waiting in line: bring a coffee or tea as the line is outside and it is cold & you can access the museum’s free wifi from the line.
Anyways, I was really glad I made it into the house before I left. It was really incredible to see what the area was like where the diary was written, and to have a visual image of how small and confining (physically + emotionally) it would have been to live in that space silently for two years. The museum was well done and told a story of the experience. I ended up eating dinner in the museum cafe before taking the bus back to Lille.

All in all, Amsterdam was great! I would love to go back!

A bientôt,

Amy

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Fitness in France

Okay… Lets talk about health and activity in France.

We’ve all heard it – Americans are disgustingly obese, French people eat smaller portions and walk everywhere and are all the vision of health, all striking the seemingly-impossible balance between being able to eat dessert and baguettes every day without eating the entire dessert and baguette everyday. Exampe: the book French Women Don’t Get Fat. After living here for a few months I can’t say I fully agree.

First of all, there is a stereotype that everyone here is slender. Nope. I can definitely attest to the fact that that is not true. Yes there are plenty of slender people, but there are overweight people all over the place. There are plus size clothing stores. Statistically, France is around 40-50% overweight (including ~15% obese). What I have observed is that people in general are smaller than in the US. Whether or not they are overweight, their frames are just smaller than those for Americans.

I find the French approach to activity hilarious. I shouldn’t… it is probably much more balanced and sustainable than the way Americans do things. I have concluded that whatever Americans do, we do to an extreme. Fit people in America tend to be really fit. People who don’t exercise in America really don’t exercise. In France, I routinely see people running home from the boulangerie carrying a couple baguettes. Women wear their scarves at the gym, and Nike wedge heels have somehow been accepted as workout shoes?!?

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WHY ARE THESE EXERCISE SHOES?

The French (Europeans in general, really), walk and bike places so much more than we do in the US. Cars are not very practical or really necessary, so there is more activity weaved into their daily and weekly rhythm than a lot of people in the US. A number of the French, however, don’t go to the gym or do routine workouts. Since I joined my gym here, I’ve seen their idea of a workout. Yes, there are some people here who are really quite fit. The majority, however, are not. Their workouts are much more mild than what you tend to see in the US. You just aren’t going to see very many really athletic people here. I’ve never felt as strong as I do here…. I lift just as much or more than so many of the men in my gym (can’t complain about that!).

As a competitive, all-or-nothing type of person, I can’t say I don’t catch myself looking down on the French style of activity and movement. But, the truth is, they have a much more balanced + accessible movement lifestyle than what people think of fitness in the US. This is probably also related to the prevalence of sports in the US vs. France. Sports are not a big deal here, only some people participate, and they are not nearly as time consuming… there isn’t really a competitive side to exercise.

In terms of diet, it is another case of extremes. I’m not sure they ever got the memo about a lot of the popular diet ideas in the US (like no white starches, for example). A balanced French meal has a starch (rice, couscous, pasta, potatoes, bread), a meat, some veggies, bread, and a dessert (often a fruit + dessert yogurt). Let me tell you…. these meals can be BIG & rich. Frenchies won’t snack in between meals though, which is a huge difference. But this way of eating is standard, even for the body-builder types I’ve observed.

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What we eat for lunch at the lycée, a pretty standard example of a cooked French meal. (zucchini soup, beets, potatoes, cauliflower with sauce, cassoulet, a pudding type dessert)

I can say the French style of eating does NOT work for me. I can’t eat really large lunches and dinner everyday. It feels like too much, and I find it very difficult to not snack in between meals (regardless of how much I ate with my meal). Moreover, I find that eating a dessert at most lunches and dinners (even if it is just fruit or yogurt) makes me want to keep eating desserts after I finish eating. Also, once I start eating a baguette, I can’t really stop 😉

Anyways, these are my generalized observations and opinions. Not true for everyone, but definitely what I’ve noticed up here in Nord-Pas-de-Calais

Autumn à l’Etranger

There are few interesting things about experiencing the Fall in a different place. America’s autumn is marked by pumpkin, Halloween, Thanksgiving, football, harvest festivals and all they include (corn mazes, apples, hay bales, etc.). In France, automne has chestnuts, amazing winter scarves, mushrooms (especially in the rainy north), and delicious creamy soups. Both have apples and squash, thank goodness!

In France, Halloween is celebrated a bit…. although I don’t think they really understand the idea. In supermarkets, you can find a small costume section, some candy, and carving pumpkins. They have themed nights at clubs and bars, but that is about the extent of the celebration here. The French do not understand trick-or-treating. Which, when you really think about it, trick-or-treating is really strange. Also, in order for trick-or-treating to be common, a lot of people need to participate. Obviously, that works in America because it is an established tradition, but here, I’m not even sure where people would go if they wanted to take their kids trick-or-treating.

I took it upon myself to introduce my Chinese roommates to American Halloween traditions. They dress up for Halloween parties, etc. in China, but didn’t really know about pumpkin carving and trick-or-treating. So I made them carve a pumpkin and then force-fed them roasted pumpkin seeds and pumpkin bread. I think they think I’m crazy. But I did catch them taking about a million pictures of their pumpkin later, so I mean how crazy can I really be?

Working on their pumpkin!
Working on their pumpkin!

You can’t buy canned pumpkin puree here, so I’ve had to make my own in order to really be in the Fall spirit. They serve a pumpkin soup in my school’s cafeteria sometimes, but in general, pumpkin isn’t a common flavor here. So I get my fill each morning with a bit of pumpkin oatmeal. So good. And I’m having a vegetable for breakfast! Love it. I’ve decided that the French version of pumpkin is chestnuts (marrons). They love them. Chestnut paste, chestnut tarts, chestnut cremes, chestnut soups, chestnuts everywhere!

I've heard its good, but I have yet to try it.
I’ve heard its good, but I have yet to try it.

Thanksgiving is, obviously, not celebrated in France. There are two main impacts this has on the Fall. Firstly, the food in a grocery store is different. Good luck finding a turkey, because turkey is really only eaten at Christmas here. Similarly, it is difficult or impossible to find yams, pumpkin puree, and cranberries/cranberry sauce. Secondly, there is nothing to mark the start of the Christmas season. In the States, Christmas is nicely contained by Thanksgiving and New Years. Obviously, in the interest of capitalism these limits are not always observed. Nonetheless, it is known when the Christmas season officially starts – the day after Thanksgiving. Without Thanksgiving, Christmas starts so early! It’s November 6th, and there have been Christmas decorations at the local mall for a week. The stores have had Christmas decorations for weeks. The Christmas market is getting set up (!!!).

One last observation on Fall is the lack of evergreens here. Lille has a similar climate to Portland, but doesn’t have big evergreen forests. There actually just aren’t a lot of evergeens. I miss the Douglas Firs! But for the moment, this means all the trees are changing color and altogether, they look beautiful. I’m not looking forward to a dreary, barren winter, once all the leaves are gone. For now, though, it is nice 🙂

From a couple of weeks ago.
From a couple of weeks ago.

A bientot,

Amy