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A Summer in Amsterdam

As I settle back into life in Vancouver once again, I am also reflecting on the summer I’ve had. For those of you who are wondering, I won’t keep you in suspense: I eventually did reach what I call the fourth and final phase of adjustment to living in another country and culture.

It happened on my last Saturday in Amsterdam. Taking advantage of the gloriously warm, sunny weather, I was enjoying a long walk through the city’s centre. My mind was preoccupied with everything I had to do before leaving Amsterdam (a not insubstantial list). At the same time, I was feeling slightly sentimental about the sights and sounds around me, knowing it might be a long time before I would once again walk along this canal or across that bridge or hear the ding of a tram.

As I made my way past a tour group outside the Oude Kerk that was blocking my way, the guide’s voice caught my attention. She was holding up a laminated map of the Netherlands and explaining how much of the country lies below sea level.

And that was the moment when it hit me: I was actually going to miss the place. This overrun-with-tourists, charming-to-the-point-of-kitschy, historical-but-oh-so-modern city had completely captured my heart in a way I did not expect it to. And in acknowledging that, I knew I was — finally — feeling completely at home in a city that was not my home.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that I came to this realization on the same day I learned the mystery of Amsterdam’s traffic rules. I’d been puzzling over them all summer long.

There are no yield or stop signs in the centre of Amsterdam and no cyclist slows down — ever — at intersections. And so, within a day or two or my arrival in Amsterdam, I had learned that the bike is king. Pedestrians may walk on the road (indeed you often have to because your path is blocked by the many bikes parked haphazardly on the sidewalks), but as you walk, you always, always keep an ear tuned for the ding-ding of a bicycle bell — which is not a toy in Amsterdam. If you don’t immediately jump out of the way, the inevitable “pas op!” (watch out!) is hollered by the cyclist bearing down on you. At intersections, even when you have the green light, you make like an owl and spin your head 360 degrees to check for bikes. Because the bikes are everywhere.

All of which makes walking in the centre of Amsterdam rather stressful. You can’t not pay attention.

But even knowing all that, I could not figure out how the cyclists did not ride into each other. Finally, on my last weekend in Amsterdam, the mystery was revealed to me.

Yield to the right.

Suddenly everything fell into place. So, so simple. But then, the Dutch are masters at simple.

Some other, not insignificant, observations from my summer in Amsterdam:

  1. There are two Amsterdams: one for the tourists and one for the Amsterdammers. You’ll have a much better time if you try to avoid the first as much as possible.
  2. The Dutch know how to have an awful lot of fun with minimal fuss. There’s an important lesson here: keep it simple. (See above.)
  3. Travelling by train is by far the most civilized way to get around.
  4. There is far too much water in the Netherlands, but the Dutch — out of necessity — have been so creative at finding ways to live with it, beside it, and on it, they hardly seem to notice.
  5. Amsterdam is a twenty-first century city in a sixteenth-century setting and the only reason that is possible is because, unlike Canadians, the Dutch aren’t compelled to pull down any building older than, oh, 50 years.

I also learned not to bat an eye at the massive amounts of alcohol consumed in the streets during festivals such as Amsterdam Pride or the Prinsengracht Concert, at male cleaners in women’s public bathrooms while in use by the women, or at people setting a table on their front stoep, complete with cloth napkins and long-stemmed wine glasses, to enjoy their dinner on a warm summer’s evening.

One lesson I wrestled with all summer long was coming to an understanding of the Dutch notion of tolerance, which they call gedogen. I finally clued in that gedogen is nowhere close to Canada’s notion of tolerance. (We like to define it as acceptance of or openness to diversity.) In the Netherlands, something might be illegal (say, smoking weed), but if it doesn’t bother anyone, the law is not enforced. That’s gedogen. It has nothing to do with acceptance; rather, it is all about pragmatism, which is a personality trait all Dutch people possess. (And pragmatism, I should think, is fundamental to living easily and comfortably in one of the most densely populated countries in the world.)

My most important lesson of my Amsterdam summer came to me from the girl in the phone shop, however. I had popped in to find out why my mobile phone had stopped receiving data, and she went totally out of her way to walk me to the grocery store down the street where she said I could buy a new SIM card for a few euros less than what she was selling them for. To make conversation as we walked back to the phone shop, I asked whether she gets a lot of dumb questions from tourists.

“Well, yes,” she said in that way the Dutch have of not mincing their words. “But I always am happy to help because when I am somewhere on holiday (she pronounced it hol-LEE-day), I always hope that someone will help me.”

Gulp. I realized I could do far better in being a kinder host to the tourists who overwhelm my Vancouver neighbourhood every summer.

It would be a shame if I spent a summer in another country and did not come home a little poorer and a little wiser. So I am happy to say that was not the case for me this summer. And as I looked through my collection of photos, trying to decide which one to include with this post, a wave of homesickness for Amsterdam came over me.

It was the best feeling.

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Zandvoort aan Zee

I realized something today. No matter what side of the pond you’re on, the first weekend in September feels exactly the same: you’re mourning the end of summer and slowly, surely, starting to feel a wee bit excited about the new season ahead. Even the high school next door to me, after weeks of silence, came alive this morning.

But before I get too maudlin about the end of summer, here are a couple of photos from my day at the beach, which is where I spent one of the hottest days of my Amsterdam summer. As soon as I saw the forecasted high was going to be a delicious 26°C, I got myself down to the station and hopped on the next train to Zandvoort aan Zee, which is the closest beach to Amsterdam.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one to do so.

But crowded beaches are terrific people-watching places, and I learned that the Dutch are no different than Canadians when it comes to worshipping the sun, the sand, and the surf. I learned another thing as well: the North Sea is cold — far colder than the bay in my backyard.

But that didn’t stop any of these people.

Through My Lens: Jardin du Luxembourg

It’s been more than six years since I was in Paris and although it felt like I had never been away, one of the hardest things for me to get my head around this time was the weather.

On my last visit, I struggled to keep warm during a snowy winter that felt far too cold for my thin Vancouver blood.

This time, we were immersed in heat and humidity. Although we were spared the experience of one of Paris’s infamous heat waves, I did wonder which is worse when travelling: being too hot or too cold? I don’t know the answer, but the question is a reminder that weather always plays a factor when forming an impression of a place.

However, this I do know: a definite bonus about visiting Paris in the summertime is being able to see the gardens in full bloom. One of my favourites is the Jardin du Luxembourg, or Luxembourg Gardens. Located in the 6e arrondissement, they were built for Marie de’ Medici, widow of King Henry IV, to go with her new palace, called, appropriately, the Luxembourg Palace. That’s it in the photo. These days, it’s where the French Senate meets.

Through My Lens: Sunset at Sunset Beach

And … boom.

No sooner is it officially summer and we’re in the middle of our first heat wave. Heat waves in Vancouver are rare, which means few homes have air conditioning.

Which means I’m awfully warm.

Some friends surprised me with a picnic at Sunset Beach this evening, and instantly I was able to cool down. There’s often a breeze that comes in off the bay, but it also helped that the clouds moved in to block the sun’s heat from us as we enjoyed our meal.

Which means I didn’t take this photo tonight.

But you get the idea. There’s nothing like a picnic on the beach while watching the sun set.

Through My Lens: Music Under the Sun

It’s the first day of summer! Finally!!

This week also marks the start of Vancouver’s outdoor music festival season. The big ones are the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, which starts this weekend, and the Vancouver Folk Music Festival at Jericho Beach in July.

Vancouver is not that different from other Canadian cities in having great outdoor music festivals, but what we do have that is uniquely West Coast are some pretty spectacular settings.

Like the stage at Jack Poole Plaza with the North Shore Mountains as its backdrop. This photo is of Spirit of the West performing on Canada Day a few years ago.

Through My Lens: Celebration of Light

For three nights every summer, three different countries compete in Vancouver’s annual fireworks competition, known as the Celebration of Light. More than half a million people from the ’burbs descend upon my neighbourhood to watch some pretty impressive pyrotechnic displays set off from a barge moored in English Bay. This year will be the 27th consecutive competition. It’s the longest running offshore fireworks competition in the world and, I am told, BC’s largest event.

Which is obvious once you’ve tried to make your way through those crowds.

I used to overlook English Bay from a ninth floor apartment and I could watch from my balcony. Now, I walk down to the beach a few minutes before they’re scheduled to start and I always have a great view.

It’s one of the perks of living in the West End.

Through My Lens: Pool With a View

One activity that is definitely possible here only in the summer is swimming in one of Vancouver’s five outdoor pools. This being Canada, the pools are only open between May and September. Two of them front English Bay, so they qualify as “oceanfront pools.” (The mountain views are a bonus.)

By no means is Vancouver a tropical destination, but for a couple months every year we put on a pretty good pretense.

Through My Lens: Siwash Rock at Dusk

After a miserable fall, a weird and wacky winter, and a cold, wet spring, we are finally experiencing some summer weather. And you know what? It’s absolutely spectacular.

Vancouver is at its best in the summer. Because of that, and because summer is usually the busiest time in my line of business, I rarely do my travelling in July and August.

This year is going to be an exception, however, as I’m gearing up to spend the summer in Europe. I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity that has come my way. But I am also feeling just a little bit wistful about all the fun I am going to miss right here at home.

And so, for the next few posts, I’m going to show you what is so spectacular about Vancouver in the summer.

For my first photo, I give you Siwash Rock at dusk. Dusk in Vancouver in the summer is late — I took this photo in early August just after 9 p.m. — and that means there is no excuse for not going for a long walk after work.

Walking the Stanley Park seawall is probably one of the city’s most popular activities for locals and tourists alike. And although we locals do it year round, it is so much more pleasant on a summer evening.

Canada 150: Edmonton

Canadians are known for playing hard in the summers. We like to spend as much time outdoors as we can, which is easy, because the days are long, and necessary, because the season is short.

Also, for the most part, the weather is awesome. Not too hot, not too humid.

One of the ways we play hard is by going to outdoor festivals. We’ve got a few, ranging from the traditional fairs and exhibitions and rodeos to theatre (from Shakespeare to fringe) to music of all sorts, including jazz, blues, and folk.

One of the best festival cities in the country, in my opinion, is Edmonton. And one of the best outdoor music festivals in the country, in my opinion, is the four-day Edmonton Folk Music Festival held every August at Gallagher Park. The park is a ski club in the winter, but in the summer, its hill serves as a natural amphitheatre with spectacular views of the city’s skyline.

The Edmonton Folk Fest is one of the largest and best-attended folk music festivals in North America, and attracts musicians from around the world who, once they’ve played the Folk Fest, are always eager to come back. Celtic, country, blues, gospel, soul, and world music — you name it, they’ve got it. It sells out every year, typically within minutes.

If you’ve never been, you don’t know what you’re missing. Seriously.

Through My Lens: Pender Island Sailboat

Sailboat

Yeah, I know. Summer’s over. I can no longer deny it.

But here’s a summer photo anyways. Just to say “until next year.” I took this from Pender Island a few years ago.