Moving to Holland is not easy, but it's worth the effort. This blog tells the story of shifting from American life in Pittsburgh to Expat life in the Netherlands,
and all of our European adventures that follow.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bavaria City Racing

Once again, Rotterdam hosted the Bavaria City Racing demonstrations. And, as can usually be predicted for a festival day, it rained. haha. Nevertheless, it's fun to go and see.
They have Formula One & Grand Prix cars, as well as giant racing trucks (I don't know their official name). They close off the major streets in the city center between the red bridge and the Hofplein fountain circle, and people line the streets to watch. The cars really make such a loud noise when they speed by!
I suppose if you're really into cars, you might find this a bit more interesting than we do, but it gives our friends an excuse to get together and have some drinks on a Sunday afternoon. ;)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Ahh… weekends in Europe; Part Twee

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a random weekend day that we’ve had in Holland. This Saturday was a wonderful day, and the weather was lovely (a.k.a. warm and sunny, which is what it should be in August, but rarely is here).

We decided to forgo the gym so that we’d have more time to relax. We had a bit of good luck to start the day off, because we needed to take our bikes in for some minor adjustments, and were able to do so quickly and easily. This may not seem like a big deal, but these types of things are big victories for us, because typically things that should be “quick and easy” here are difficult, frustrating, and take forever.

We then took a stroll around the market in the city center. We didn't buy anything, but I still like to look at all of the displays of fruit, fish, bread, and everything else you can imagine from bicycle parts to clothes to furniture.
Because the weather was so nice, it was absolutely packed. So we quickly made our way over to our favorite bagel shop (and the only one in Rotterdam), Bagels and Beans. We sat on the terrace & enjoyed our bagel with cream cheese & coffee. Chad had his favorite: multigrain bagel with honey walnut cream cheese. And, I had mine: everything bagel with sun dried tomato cream cheese. Lekker!

The weather was so nice, that we decided to bike out to the lake in Kralingen, on the east side of Rotterdam. We first stopped by Albert Heijn (the grocery store) to pick up a couple cold beers. We biked once around the lake and found a bench in a beautiful area near the bridges, windmills & trees. We sat and talked for a couple hours and had a couple beers. It was really relaxing.

On the way back to our place we heard the loud horn of the giant cruise ship that was parked in the river. This typically means that they are calling for everyone to get on board because the ship is leaving. So, we biked down to Veerhaven (just down the block from our apartment) and found a spot in the grass to sit and watch with the other people that had gathered. The ship is really huge in the water, and taller than most of the buildings on the shore. When it turns around it takes up the entire width of the river. We waved at the people on board, and they waved back. :)

That night we met up with Erin & Jake to watch the movie Inception. Great movie, and it provides a lot to debate about afterwards. We had some drinks at O’Sheas and then called it a night. Keep in mind, everything we did today was within walking or biking distance from our apartment.

Now that we are in our last year here, I’m starting to think about things that I am going to miss when we leave. Days like today are definitely one of those things. Simple but great.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

(and buses, trams, metros, boats, bikes...)

People often ask us how we travel around to so many different countries, when we don't know where to go, and don't speak the language. I thought I'd share some of the tips and tricks that we’ve learned that help us plan our trips. Maybe you’ll find them helpful.

(*Note: now that Chad is equipped with an iPhone, many of these things are much easier to do now. However, I’ve listed the “old fashioned” non-iPhone methods for those of you (such as myself) who are still in the stone ages.)

Everyone likes to prepare in different ways when they travel. Some what to know every detail, others just hop on a plane and wing it (no pun intended). Me? I'm a PLANNER! This involves lists, reservations, researching the area, etc. Lists make me happy. :) Chad is a good balance for me because he reminds me to keep a certain amount of spontaneity in our trips. The times when we just wander around a new city without any plan or agenda are usually some of the best experiences we have.

I apologize that this is a bit of a long post, but once I get going, it’s sometimes hard to stop myself. Here’s what I’ll lay out for you:
  • Picking a Location
  • Determining How to Get There
  • Finding a Place to Stay
  • Planning the Fun
  • Handling the Languages
  • Arriving and Getting Around
  • Our #1 Travel Rule


Picking a Location

This is the fun part. For us, we have such a long wish-list of places to visit that it is easy to identify the options, but it is sometimes also hard to decide because they are all so nice. The countries closest to us, and therefore easiest to travel to, are the Western European & Scandinavian countries: Belgium, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, UK, Norway, Sweden, Finland, etc.

There are the usual famous cities to see (Paris, London, Rome, etc). But, we also like to see some of the smaller, less touristy cities. When we went to Paris, we also rented a car to drive up to see the beaches at Normandy. Our first trip to Italy, we went to the tiny coastal villages of Cinque Terre. When we went to Barcelona, we planned an extra four days to relax on the island of Mallorca. And so on. Sometimes, getting out of the big cities, or at least out of their centers, is the best way to get a more authentic feeling of what an area is really like.

Determining How to Get There

Some countries like Belgium, France, Germany, and even the UK, we can easily reach by train. Others, while physically accessible by train, are much quicker to get to by flying. For example, you could spend 20 hours traveling by train if you really wanted to get to Italy that way, but it’s more time efficient to hop on a 2 hour flight. So, I first look up how long the train ride would be, and weigh the time & cost with that of a flight.

To check the train schedules, you often have to look at the country’s own website. For the Netherlands, it is, which we are very familiar with. But, if we are taking the train to Germany, we may need to also check their website.

How do we do this? First, I’d throw the words “German rail” into Google Translate (my Favorite Google feature!) It returns the German words “Deutsch Bahn,” which I then throw into Google. The first hit happens to be the correct one: Luckily, most of the country specific train sites have an “English” button at the top to switch the language to English.

Usually, when we are booking multiple country train travel, we first check the times and prices online, and then we go to the train station to buy the tickets directly from the ticket office. For some reason which we don’t understand, they always seem to use their magic powers to find cheaper options than what we see on the website.
If we decide a city is too far to go by train, then we look into flights. Two great search sites are & However, Europe also has a few discount airlines which make hopping from country to country very cheap, and these don’t always show up on the search sites. Ryan Air and Easy Jet are the two most common. These airlines sometimes don’t fly to the major airports, because this helps them to save money. For example, when we flew to Cambridge, we flew out of Eindhoven, instead of Amsterdam’s Schiphol.

Finding a Place to Stay

After we’ve chosen where we’re going, we look for a place to stay. Our favorite website to find cheap hotels is, but we’ve also used,, and the like. A simple Google search for “hotels in Paris” will also do the trick.

We may also check out the local hostels, which can be a wonderfully cheap option. Two of the many websites are, or Contrary to popular believe, you don’t always have to share a bedroom and bathroom in a hostel. Often times you can book an entire room with a private bathroom all to yourself. Sure, the room may have 4-6 beds in it, but who cares. We are only sleeping there, and we are out exploring most of the day.

It is also important to know that the place you are staying is not a roach motel, or on a sketchy street, so before booking, we always check It is a great website that houses a collection of unbiased personal reviews, from people that have actually stayed there before. You can get an idea if the place is ‘as advertised’ on their website, or if you should avoid it and find another place. I also try to do my part and write brief hotel reviews after our trips.

Planning the Fun

When we first moved to Holland, we bought a 'Let’s Go, Western Europe' book. It’s a very thick book, but we just cut out the pages from the city we are going to, and only take those with us. It also has some helpful city & metro maps. This book offers a lot of suggestions including places to eat, sites to see, and things to do.

For the larger trips to Paris & Barcelona (and Amsterdam because we are there all the time), we bought a book called 'Top 10.' This has lists of the top 10 of everything in each section of the city (i.e. museums, parks, restaurants, tapas bars, pubs, city views, etc). Trip Advisor is also a good place to see reviews on the top activities that people enjoy in a city.

We usually do a bit of research and identify the main things that we really don’t want to miss. Then we also leave plenty of time open & unplanned, so we can stroll around without a map, get lost, and find some of our own hidden treasures. Like I said above, these are usually our most memorable experiences.

Handling the Languages

Yes, it is true that most people in Europe know at least a little bit of basic English, and many speak it fluently. However, we don’t like to take advantage of this if we don’t have to. It feels like cheating. Plus, you will not get as much of an authentic experience if you don’t try to speak the native language.

(*Tip: Do remember, that no matter where you are, people can understand what you are saying because you speak English, so no bad mouthing or gossiping at any time.)

Now, obviously we can’t learn 10+ languages fluently in a matter of days. But, we do learn a few simple words and phrases that get us through 95% of the situations we encounter.

You’d be surprised how far you can get with just:


  • Hello
  • Goodbye
  • Please
  • Thank you (very much)
  • Where is… (the toilet)
  • I would like…
  • How much…
  • The bill, please
  • Numbers 1-10
While we are on the plane or train traveling to the country, we will try to study & familiarize ourselves with these, and other simple words. Also, in our Let’s Go book, there are usually a couple of pages of phrases & words, which we carry around with us. Then, we can check the pages for a quick reference before we need to order food or ask for something. We usually practice saying it to each other first, which can be quite funny. We say the same word or phrase over and over until we think it sounds ‘right.’

Many times we don’t pronounce thing perfectly, or we are using the incorrect word order, but it is rarely a problem. The people we have encountered always appreciate that we are giving forth the effort to try to speak to them in their own language. They are happy to help correct us, or teach us how to say something, or even switch to English if needed.

I always try to consider being in their position. If someone came up to you in the US and just started speaking French, you would look at them like they were crazy, & maybe even be offended because they are in your country and not speaking your language. However, if someone is at least trying to communicate to you in English, even if it’s bad pronunciation or grammar, you will be more sympathetic towards that person and very willing to help them try to find what they need.
Arriving and Getting Around

I think one of the toughest parts of the whole trip is when you first step off of the plane or train in the new city. It can be slightly overwhelming to see all of the signs in the new language, and a bit tricky at first to get yourself orientated. Usually if you walk around you can find a public map of where you are, and this will help to at least identify which way is North.

If you’ve planned ahead, you can really help yourself out by having a printout of walking, or public transport, directions from the airport or train station to your hotel. And for you iPhoners… don’t bet on the fact that you will have wifi or internet available right away, even when you plug in that local sim card, so paper printouts are still the safest bet.

Once you have checked into your hotel or hostel, it’s smooth sailing from there. This will be your home base, and you can then figure out how to get to everywhere else from this location. They will also usually have a helpful map of the city, highlighting the main attractions and public transport stops. Now go out and put those new language skills to use!

Figuring out the local public transportation can also be tricky. Each city is different, but generally all follow the same general format. You normally purchase tickets beforehand, from a machine (if it has an English option), or from a ticket office. Sometimes for buses you will purchase them directly from the driver, but not always. Then, make sure you are going in the right direction by checking the map for the name of the last stop on the line towards where you want to go, and hop on board the one that is headed in that direction.

For trams, metros & buses you normally scan or stamp your card when you get on and off. Other times, like on a train, you just get on and sit down, and an attendant will come around and check that you have a ticket. Public transport is generally very efficient, cheap (much cheaper than a taxi), and gets you exactly where you need to go.
And finally, I want to share one last thing with you:

Our #1 Travel Rule

#1. Don’t complain.

We adopted this rule early on, and we’re glad that we did. The point of traveling to another country is to experience something New. This means that not everything will be the same as what you are used to. Besides, wouldn’t it be boring if everything was the same?
  • Hotels, shops, and restaurants may not have A/C
  • You may not get ice in your glass every time
  • Service may be slow
  • The TV channels and movies won't be in English (*gasp*)
  • Your US credit card may not work in every restaurant or store
  • When you ask for water, you will likely have to pay for a bottle instead of getting free tap water
  • They may not have the foods you are used to
  • People don’t clean up after their dogs, so watch your step
  • The local foods may look strange (Try it anyway!)
  • The ticket machine may only take local bank cards or credit cards
  • Public transport may be late or cancelled, or just completely crowded & hot
  • People may push or bump into you more, as their personal space may be much different than in other places
  • Lines may be long


Not complaining is not an easy thing to do at first. But, simply starting to become aware of when you complain, and gently pointing out to your travel partner when they do, is a great start. In the end, it makes the trip that much more positive and enjoyable for everyone.

It has also helped us to really expand our capacity to be patient, which will help us no matter where we go next in life (including *eh hem* possibly New Hampshire).

I guess if we had a #2 travel rule, it would be to Have Fun. But, for us that goes without saying. ;)