The Amazing Adventures of an Australian in Amsterdam

My adventures of life as an Australian adjusting to life in Amsterdam

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The Charm of Champagne

IMG_0902In my early years of drinking alcohol, my preferences tended toward bubbles. Passion Pop was a great bargain at $5 a bottle. Then I stepped up to some nicer, and slightly more expensive Australian sparkling wines: Yellowglen, Yellowglen Bella for special occasions, and Domaine Chandon for even more special occasions. At my first promotion at work, I even bought a bottle of Moët to celebrate – and vowed for every promotion I ever received, I would mark the occasion with champagne.

So you see, I like bubbles. When I go out to dinner, I am the one on the table asking for sparkling water. It’s much more exciting than still.

You can imagine, then, that there is a place in Europe that has a special place in my heart … and my taste buds (though possibly less special in my liver): Champagne, France.

IMG_0910A group of us first went down there in 2012: ten Australians flying and driving in from Amsterdam, Zurich and London. We’d found a fabulous chateau online, Chateau de Mairy, and we visited a couple of big champagne houses – Moët and Mumm. With their dramatic, cinema-like presentations of their stories, and visits to spectacularly large caves, these were impressive.

But we soon learned the real charm of Champagne lies in visiting the smaller houses. Now, these are literally homes of families. They grow grapes, most of which they sell to the big houses. That’s their primary form of income. But in addition, they make some champagne of their own, which they sell … if you’re there at the right time.

Haven’t made a reservation? Well you can’t just turn up! Especially at lunchtime… “Sorry,” they’ll tell you, “we’re eating lunch. Come back in a couple of hours.” And that’s even if you’re a big, thirsty looking group, begging to buy magnums of champagne from them.

Speaking of reservations, don’t count on making one on the weekend. A lot of them aren’t open then. Remember – selling their champagne is not their primary form of income, so they pick and choose guests and visiting times.

Oh, and with a few exceptions, expect to speak French.

The first small house we visited was the delightful Eric Phelizon. Along with two of my friends, Sarah and Bec, I’d arrived earlier at the chateau than the rest of the group. We headed off just the three of us on our first adventure, after the kind chateau owners called and made a reservation for us.

When we arrived, a gentleman – who turned out to be Eric Phelizon himself – was watering his large garden. We explained we’d been sent by the chateau in faltering French. He fired back at us in much smoother, faster French, which we didn’t really understand, and beckoned us to follow him toward a little outhouse-type building.

“I think he thinks we want accommodation! He’s showing us a room!” Bec hissed, hanging back.

But Eric just opened the door, and inside was a cute little room with a few different sized bottles of champagne as decoration, and a large table in the centre. Eric encouraged us to sit at the table, while he opened up a bottle of champagne for us to taste. It was delicious.

Now the glorious thing about tasting champagne from these little houses is that they tend to take the attitude, once it’s open, better to drink it all. So we sat around the table, the three of us plus Eric drinking up this bottle. His English was non-existent, so Sarah and I relied on our school girl French. And it turned out we brought two different, but equally valuable, skill sets: Sarah is great at listening comprehension, and I am great at speaking. But Sarah struggles with speaking, while somehow I struggle with understanding. So a hilarious conversation ensued, with Eric posing questions in French, Sarah translating into English, me then responding in French, and Bec looking between the three of us like we were crazy!

 

me with my parents at Chateau de Mairy in 2012

Me & my parents at Chateau de Mairy

I’ve since been back to Champagne five times, each very special: with my parents when they visited Europe (with Sarah and Bec accompanying for a re-visit to Eric!), with Dutchie for a romantic/cycling weekend away, this year to see Le Tour de France as it passed through the region, and twice more with a big group of friends – most recently playing a murder mystery party in the old chateau, which was great fun.

I’ve visited in summer, spring and autumn now, and each season casts a new light of beauty on the land. (I am sure winter does also, but I’m not much one for enjoying winter holidays…)

And I’ve eaten one of the most enjoyable meals of my life here too – and not at one of the two finest French restaurants which we’ve discovered in the region. During one of the visits with a big group of friends, we crammed a lot of champagne house visits on a Saturday morning. So many, in fact, that it was early afternoon before we had time for lunch – and everyone was absolutely starving. Picture us: three cars in a caravan driving in search of a restaurant. Each one we found was fully booked. Eventually, we came to the idea of stopping at the giant Carrefour supermarket and buying what we’d need for a picnic lunch, which we could take to a nearby park. All 12 of us wandered around the supermarket, picking up random ingredients – including baguettes, cheese, and a hot roast chicken. We met at the checkout and agreed in unison: we were all too hungry to find a park for a real picnic. We would eat here. So we piled back out to the parking lot, found an empty parking space next to one of our cars, gathered in it, and laid everything out on the ground. There we were, squatting to fill baguettes with cheese and cold meats and eating roast chicken with our hands, in the middle of a Carrefour parking lot. Our hunger drove us to enjoy that meal – but so did the atmosphere – with many French people stopping as they drove past to wind down their windows and call out, “Bon appetit!”

If you enjoy champagne, make a visit here at least once in your life. But remember to brush up on your French, book the little champagne houses in advance, and bon appetit to you – even if you’re eating in a parking lot!

Enter Hugo Continued: He’s Here to Stay

I woke early, and took Hugo on a 4km walk. If I could tire him out, hopefully he would be demure and not further intimidate Dutchie while I was at work.

Throughout the day, I received mixed messages from Dutchie. On the one hand, I had reports Hugo was being very sweet. On the other, it appeared he was still not understanding the sofa is off-limits concept.

I arrived home after work, to find Hugo was still there. But six kitchen chairs were piled on the sofa, making it look like a hobo’s fortress. “At least he’s staying off the sofa!” Dutchie said.

He had survived the day … this was a good sign.

Hugo the Dutch Dog

The Trust Grows

Over the next few days and weeks, the trust between Dutchie and Hugo grew. They stopped glaring at each other across a sea of kitchen chairs, and started “training”. (I put the word in quotes because I would get confused when I arrived home after work and hear Dutchie say he and Hugo had been training. Swimming? I’d think. Riding? Running? Oh no, wait – there is actually training outside of triathlon!

First there was Blijf/Stay. Then Lig/Drop. Rol/Roll over. Poot/Shake.

Unbelievable. Dutchie had taught this one dog more in three weeks than I had taught my three beagles the ten+ years I had then. The Dog Whisperer II.

The Surveillance Begins…

Despite all the training, Dutchie was still concerned about leaving Hugo home alone, so he installed a surveillance camera at the house, and an application on our phones so we could see what he was up to.

My friends remain incredulous each time they hear me mention off-hand, “… and you can see from the surveillance footage …”

“Wait a minute. Go back. You have a surveillance camera for your dog?!?!”

Well, Dutchie suggested the idea so naturally, that I never questioned it. I mean, when you think about it, people have surveillance cameras to make sure their babies are safe. We just have a surveillance camera to make sure our house is safe.😉 And it hasn’t always been … Take, for example, the time he went through my bag, found a little pack of tissues, and took each one out, strewing them across the house.

The aftermath of destruction

The aftermath of destruction

Or the time he thought he’d been left home alone – when, in fact, Dutchie had gone out and I was sleeping in – and he went through Dutchie’s backpack, and found a bag of pistachio nuts. He’d had a red hot go, but obviously the shells weren’t to his taste – so pistachios were littered across the lounge room.

Or my favourite: when he jumped up and pulled some stuff off the bureau – some papers, passports, a set of speakers, oh – nad my wallet. He even managed to open the wallet up, and pull some stuff out – including a five pound note. This was discarded next to the wallet. I imagine him finding the money and thinking, What? British pounds? These are useless! I can’t buy kibble with this!

 

high five hugoDespite all of this naughtiness, we adore our little beagle – he has brought so much joy to our lives.

And his latest trick? High five!

Enter Hugo

So there I was, living with the Dutchie, working in my new job, feeling settled … but what was missing? A dog!

Growing up with three beagles, I missed the company and calming influence of dogs. Dutchie was … reticently keen, shall we say. He likes dogs, but had never owned one. He spoke wishfully of having a dog which would walk off lead beside him, and perform all sorts of tricks, from sitting on command to playing dead, and easily picking out the blue bunny from the grey mouse soft toys… Good luck, I thought. My experience with dogs was that it’s not so easy to teach…

Of course, I didn’t want to say that – why ruin his fantasy when it seemed to be adding to our shared desire to get a dog? Besides – maybe that was just beagles – who consistently rank in the top ten least obedient dogs. We had already agreed we would get a big dog – a labrador or german shepherd would be well suited to us.

I wanted a shelter dog, so would check daily on ikzoekbaas.nl (rough translation: “I’m looking for an owner.com” actually maybe best not to click on the link – it’s addictive, and somewhat heartbreaking). Over many months, we whittled through the list of dogs, all the while watching The Dog Whisperer diligently.

Our core requirements:

1. Not a puppy. Preferably a year or so old. Why? So the dog would already be trained.

2. Able to stay at home alone.

Every dog I saw, my heart would open up and bleed. “Check this dog out!” I would say/email. “I love him already!” I would announce.

“I could never love him,” Dutchie would reply, citing (mostly) valid concerns.

Eventually, we opened our criteria to “senior dogs” (9+ years old), with the reasoning that by definition such an old dog would be pre-trained, and easily able to stay home alone. I mean old dogs sleep all day, right?

Hugo

Hugo

And then, I found Hugo. Eleven years old. No, not a lab or german shepherd. A beagle. (“Of course you’ve found a beagle!” my dad said to me. “I never expected you to go for any other breed!”) On ikzoekbaas, a video of accompanied a brief description. Hugo ran after tennis balls, sat for food, enjoyed a cuddle with the shelter workers. I had fallen in love again, and this time, Dutchie was reasonably convinced. We headed to the shelter.

When we were let into Hugo’s “cell” it was obvious he was a really sweet, affectionate dog. I was hooked. We took him for a walk, it was obvious he was smart enough – he knew the command “sit”. Dutchie was quite convinced.

My dad once said to me, half jokingly, “When you think about evolution of beagles, you have to come to the conclusion that they evolved to be extremely sweet looking – and through that people loved them, cared for them and fed them – and they survived.

And so, with this sweet face and the face of the woman he loved looking pleadingly at him, Dutchie relented. The three of us traveled home together.

A Rough First Night

Hugo liked our house well enough, and liked our sofa even more. That was something we’d agreed up-front would be “off limits” for him. Dutchie ulled him off immediately and Hugo responded with a small growl, but hopped down.

The second time he jumped onto the couch, he curled up and settled in – clearly not planning to be removed again. I walked over.

“Off!” I told him.

Here was this poor dog: uprooted from the shelter, after a 90 minute car ride, in an unfamiliar place, with strangers yelling at him.

I reached toward him, thinking as I did, this dog could bite me. Mistake #1. In a perfect example of The Dog Whisperer‘s hypothesis that dogs feel you energy, he did just that: bit me. A small snap which broke skin (I still bear the scar almost a year later).

We put him into his big, new, airy crate. Mistake #2: we’d made a punishment out of what was supposed to be his bed.

Later, after we’d let him out and walked him, we put him back in the crate for bed time, turned off the lights, and retreated to our bedroom. He started to whine and back.

“He’ll stop,” I told a frazzled Dutchie, who was wondering what he’d got himself into, while I was stoically not mentioning how much my wrist was throbbing. None of this was part of his dog fantasy.

Two hours later, Hugo was still crying.

Dutchie: “I give up. Take him out. But we’re taking him back to the shelter tomorrow.”

Heart sinking, I let Hugo out. He immediately jumped onto the sofa, curled up, and went to sleep peacefully.

I went to sleep fearful of what tomorrow would bring…

 

Dating Dutchie

A Love Story in Two Parts … Part II

… And then, one day, I met a very nice Dutchman. And a fine specimen indeed: six foot six, blond, and even beginning triathlon! Let’s call him … Dutchie. After meeting at drinks and staying in touch via facebook a few months, I received the question: “What are you doing this weekend?”

Obviously, I could not read anything into this. So I replied, “Saturday I have a brick session: ride-run-ride-run. I’m doing in along the Amstel. Would you like to join me for the ride parts?”

Dutchie agreed. We rode together – and he even rode slowly next to me while I ran.

The next weekend rolled around. Again the question, “What are you doing this weekend?”

Agin the answer, “Ride and run.”

And again, we rode together, this time with him riding in front of me to shelter me from the wind.

A third weekend approached. This time the question was different – and the meaning unmistakeable – “What are you doing Saturday night?”

Well, not training, I thought, confused. And then followed the explanation, “I’d like to take you to dinner and a movie.”

To which I responded, “Sure, but I’ll pick the restaurant and movie.” Despite my previous comments regarding the age of chivalry, the truth is, some people might consider me a little bit of a control freak. In my defence, I am gluten intolerant and a movie buff, so I don’t want someone taking me to pizza hut and an Adam Sandler flick on a date,

An Australian in Amsterdam and her Dutchie

An Australian in Amsterdam and her Dutchie

With some back and forward, we split the duties. I picked the movie (The Amazing Spiderman, if you’re wondering. Yes, I’m a movie buff, but I’m also a comic-book-on-screen nerd.) He managed to pick an amazing little Italian restaurant, Sogni del Sud, which served gluten free pasta, and, as the waiter explained the dishes, everything was made with the secret ingredient, a little bit of love.”

Well, to make a long story short, the success of the first date continued, and two years later, Dutchie and I live together. I guess the only disappointment is that he doesn’t do my ironing. His attitude toward clothes than need ironing is even worse than mine: “Just don’t buy them.”

 

Living the Single Life in Holland

A Love Story in Two Parts … Part I

When I first moved to Holland three and a half years aho, I slipped right into life. When going out to restauarnts and pubs with friends, I don’t think I reaized something was a little bit … different.

In fact, it may not have been until I makde a trip over to London that I realized it. Walking down Oxford Street, I was a little bit taken a-back by the open eye-balling and ogling that many men did when I walked past. When one man visibly looked me up and down, it clicked: this wasn’t happening in the Netherlands! After looking down to check that I didn’t have my fly undone, the buttons on my shirt open, or a horribly mis-matched outfit on, I began to ponder this … It seemed that in the Netherlands, men do not open gawk at women. Reflecting, I realized they weren’t approaching in pubs, cafes, etc.

I turned to my expat girlfriends for the explanation. “In general,” they told me, “men wait to be approached by women here. It’s just the way it is.”

Well, coming from Australia, this was a cultural shift for me. There, men do the work. In fact, I was brought up with my parents and friends advising me: “If a guy doesn’t approach you / ask you out, he’s not interested.”

But then I realized expats were also not approaching me. So either I’d become unattractive, or something else was going on… A make expat friend confirmed it: “We don’t have to do any work here – the women approach us!” Translation – and gross generalization – the men become lazy.

In addition, I heard the men didn’t pay for dates. “Where do you think the expression ‘going Dutch’ came from?” someone asked me. But what about being a gentleman? I thought. The age of chivalry? Not to mention everything I read in the book He’s just not that into you!)?

So the Mexican stand-off began. I didn’t approach them, they didn’t approach me.

My girlfriends encouraged me to make the first move. Two Australians were dating Dutch men. “Ask a Dutch man out!” they told me. “They’re amazing! They’ve all been brought up really well. They do all the cleaning, and even do your ironing!”

While this sounded very tempting, particularly as my attitude toward clothes that need ironing generally is put it on the creases will fall out during the day, old habits die hard. Sure, there were some dates and even short-lived relationships (with expats) here and there, but in general, I lived the single life…

World Cup Madness

None of these is me

None of these is me (From gnews pics – thanks!)

 

With almost no interest in soccer/football/whatever you want to call it, I was showing less enthusiasm than most as the World Cup approached this year. But it turned out to be a real people watching experience, as those around me went … a little bit mad.

 

 

Incident #1: The Train Conductor Updates

I sat on a train from Paris to Amsterdam the evening of Holland’s first big match. A group of guys at the other end of the carriage suddenly erupted into cheers at one point.

What’s going on? I thought. (Remember – no real interest – no idea when matches were being played.)

Suddenly, I found out – because the conductor suddenly jumped onto the loud speaker and announced the Dutch goal. From there on in, i would hear cheers down the other end of the carriage, followed shortly after by the conductor, excitement lacing his voice – gradually growing more incredulous as Holland ran away with it.

Incident #2: Passenger Requests Update on Flight

Well, it seems my surprise at the train updates was misplaced – most people nodded at this when I told them, like it was no big deal. Some people even seemed to expect it – which was the case for one passenger on the same flight as me from Barcelona to Amsterdam.

“Will you be providing us with updates on the match during the flight?” he asked the pilot as we boarded the flight.

Incident #3: “I will watch this at ALL costs, until the last possible moment”

One Dutch passenger was sitting next to me on said flight, and as we prepared for take off, he  had his smart phone out, streaming video of the match. This went on as long as possible.

It wasn’t the “turn off your electronic devices” announcement that saw him stop watching and turn off his phone.

It wasn’t the starting of the engines, nor the taxi through the runways.

It was the phone running out of battery completely and shutting itself down. Literally. I saw the “plug your phone into a battery immediately” sign pop up a number of times, and the look on his face grown increasingly desperate.

But seriously – was this guy thinking about how much this was costing – streaming video whilst on data roaming?!

Incident #4: The Captain’s Updates

Well, the plane captain stayed true to his word. Somewhat into the flight came the announcement:

“Attention all passengers. Unfortunately for all the Hollandia passengers on board the Netherlands is losing by one goal to zero.”

A moment of shocked silence followed, and then murmurs of concern.

But lucky for all those Hollandia passengers, a few minutes later the pilot was back:

“I have good news for you. Hollandia has jus won: 2 goals to 1. I repeat, Hollandia has won.”

The flight erupted into cheers and wilder applause than if we were on an Al’ Italia flight successfully landing in Rome.

The Dutch Update

Let’s start off with an update of where I am with my Dutch right now … I know when I first arrived I was shocked by how few expats were fluent in Dutch. “But you’ve lived here for ten/five/two years!” I would think. 
 
For my friends with Dutch partners, I would be even more incredulous. “But you have an opportunity to practise every day! If I were living with a Dutch partner, you can bet I’d be making the most of it.”
 
Well, as the old adage goes, judge not, lest ye be judged … I am still not fluent, despite being here for three and a half years now, the last of which I have spent living with my Dutch boyfriend.
 
So what happened? How did it get to this? And did I ever finish reading “Harry Potter” in Dutch? (Short answer: no.)
 
It’s tiring!
 
I finally get it. I know why people don’t utilize their Dutch partners in learning Dutch! Because when you finish a long day at work, you’re tired. You don’t have the energy to come home and challenge your brain in another language…
 
I Lack Discipline
 
It’s certainly not for lack of ideas that I don’t speak Dutch. I’ve come up with heaps of creative ideas on how I can practise my Dutch, but these are never long-lasting:
Dutch Lunch Day Mondays. Only speaking Dutch over lunch with colleagues on Mondays. I started eating at my desk on a Monday.
Nederlands Zondag Sessies. Sunday afternoons at the pub speaking Dutch, meant to be once a month. I stopped organizing them – excuse: it was complicated with all the expats’ travel schedules…
Shopping in Dutch. From visits to the grocery store and beyond, an agreement to only speak Dutch with my boyfriend. We’re starting to do more and more shopping online.
Tuesday and Thursday nights are Dutch nights! Agreement to speak only Dutch on Tuesdays and Thursdays at home with my boyfriend. I started scheduling social activities on Tuesdays and Thursday with expats…
 
We Lack Discipline
 
Always happy to shift the blame slightly, so as to not bear it all myself…
 
My boyfriend’s father recently asked me:
“Hoe gaat het met je nederlands?”
 
As usual, I cringed inwardly, and gave my usual answer: “Niet zo goed als ik wil…” (Side note: my boyfriend has corrected me this would be better said as “niet zo goed als ik zou willen.”)
 
A couple of days later, Easter Sunday, my boyfriend arose and started speaking to me only in Dutch. “What’s happening?” I thought. Easter Sunday, new beginnings? He explained that he felt bad that my response to the question of how my Dutch was going was something he could actually do something about. So here he was, doing something about it. If we practised every day …
 
The next day we were back to English. That’s easier for him too – even he needs to think harder when I’m speaking in Dutch, trying to decipher what I am trying to say…
 
Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall… 
 
 
Image
Or as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers sang in Swing Time, “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again!”
 
So I continue to inject Dutch interactions into my life. Last weekend I went to a new optometrist. I started the appointment in English, but when the going got tough, explained, “Ik spreek nog een beetje Nederlands.” (I only speak a little Dutch)
 
My new optometrist took this in stride, explaining he thought it was GREAT that I was practising, he was really impressed, so he would just slow down and speak more clearly. That was not the response I was going for … Truth be told, I am not 100% confident of how to say all the letters in the alphabet in Dutch. I’m really only 100% confident with the letters in my name… When confronted with the letter G, was he hearing me say G or should that be pronounced differently? The letter J? We completed the session in Dutch. End result: apparently I need a new prescription. I feel like I am waiting for school-end exam results until new contact lenses arrive! The ultimate test in Dutch, with real life consequences. The stakes are high…
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