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.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

100 Days of Night

Daylight Savings time has come, winter is approaching, and we are again setting in for the long haul of the darkness that accompanies it. Living in Northern Europe, we sometimes forget how far north we are, especially because they have a relatively temperate climate here in Holland, thanks to the weather patterns. However, if you take a look at a map, you'll notice that Rotterdam is well North even of Quebec, Canada. This means that there is a much more drastic change in daylight hours than we previously had in Pittsburgh & WV.

In the height of the summer, the daylight seems almost never ending. The sun rises around 4:30 AM, well before our morning alarm. So I end up needing to use my sleep mask to get those extra 3 hours of sleep after the sunlight comes blaring in our bedroom windows. Then in the evening, the sun starts to set around 23:00. So, we have to make sure we watch the clock to know when we should go to bed. Otherwise, it will be almost midnight before it's finally dark, and we would have no idea it was so late. I never realized before now how much I use the sunset as an indication of when to start getting ready for bed.

Of course, on the opposite side of the calendar from those long summer days lies the equally long winter nights. This is the part that we really don't like. In the depth of the winter, the sun does not fully rise until around 9 am. This makes it incredibly hard to get out of bed in the morning, because it is still pitch black. The one upside of this is that we can watch some beautiful sunrises from our office windows. haha. I work on the 9th floor of the Maersk building, and Chad is on the 16th floor at Erasmus MC, so we both have a great view of the flat horizon.

In the late afternoon, the sun begins to set around 15:30-16:00. If you notice, this means that it is dark when we leave for work and dark when we come home. It is remarkable how much the lack of sunlight can drain the energy from you. It is hard to get going, and to keep up the energy throughout the day. It's even harder to try to gather the energy to go to the gym after work.

Chad exploring the rocks with Shiva at sunset (3 PM!) in Larvik, NO

I can see now why the Scandinavian countries, which are even farther North, have a high rate of depression in the winter. I can also understand, then, why people use those sun lamps in their homes, to give themselves some more light & vitamin D. We experienced these ├╝ber-short days when we visited Norway for Christmas two years ago. The sun never fully rises, it just comes up halfway in the sky, hovers across the horizon for a couple hours, and then drops back down. As tiring as these short days can be, at least they can sometimes show us beautiful colors, like this sunset in Oslo.

We only have one more long & dark winter to get through, so we just need to hunker down. Maybe we'll have to plan a trip down south to a warmer country this winter, to break up the darkness. Until then, I'll try to soak up every last ray that I can (and stock up on Vitamin D).


Monday, October 18, 2010

Czech out Prague!

What a beautiful city. This is the overall impression that I am left with after our trip to Prague.

As one of the few European cities that was largely undamaged during WWII, Prague has retained much of it's Medieval and Bohemian beauty from the past centuries. To make our trip even better, we were able to meet up with Chris & Brandy, and their main man, Austin. It was great to explore the city with them, and catch up on their new adventures in Germany (they just moved to Dresden).

It was also an incredible honor to get to know Austin as a big-little guy, since the last time we saw him, he was 3 months old. He is at such a cool age, where everything is new and exciting to him. He talks up a storm, and is endlessly in motion. I found him quite entertaining. ;) I like the way he eagerly exclaims "OK," and especially liked his Scarlett O'Hara-esque cry of "Help Me" whenever you are tickling him. (I could just hear her: 'heylp me Rhett, heylp me!' hehe)
The apartment we stayed in was located in Wenceslas Square, which is less of a square, and more of a long wide road lined with restaurants, bars, and shops. At the top of the road and slight hill lies a National Museum. The front of this museum is quite impressive, and was used in Casino Royale. Speaking of Hollywood, while we were in Prague this weekend, they were shooting the final scenes of Mission Impossible 4 (or 5, or 6... I lost count). We saw a lot of trailers, lighting equipment, and security about, but unfortunately no signs of Tom Cruise. Who knows, though, maybe we'll pop up in the background of one of the shots! ;)

We were staying within walking distance to the Old Town Square. One of the major attractions here is the Astronomical Clock: correctly described as one of the biggest "is that it" attractions in Europe. It is a beautiful clock, with a lot of detail, statues, and dials representing the sun, moon, and a calendar. Every hour the bells chime and little doors open beside the clock and show a parade of the 12 Apostles. Thousands of people gather to watch each hour, and after the show you can see they are sort of waiting for more. That's if folks... nothing more to see here.

We were fortunate to be on time for an Autumn Festival in the Old Town Square. There were numerous vendors in wooden huts with all sorts of delicious food including smoked ham, kielbasi, jacket potatoes, and pretzels. My favorite, though, was a sweet roll called Trdelnik. It is like a cinnamon roll cooked over a campfire. Yum!

We walked for miles and miles around the town, including the old Jewish Quarters, or Josefov. This neighborhood has roads lines with beautiful, colorful buildings. This area also contains the oldest Synagogue in Europe. There is a legend that Golam lives in the attic of this synagogue, and that anyone who goes into the attic to look for him is never seen again (we didn't test this theory).

The Charles Bridge is a famous pedestrian bridge that connects the Old Town to the lesser town and Prague Castle. It is lined with statues and vendors selling the usual jewelry and paintings. In the middle of the bridge is a plaque that everybody rubs as they walk by. One side is supposed to bring you good luck, and the other side, with the dog, is supposed to make the women who touch it pregnant. It's safe to say that Brandi and I both stayed away from that dog!

Prague Castle sits on top of a huge hill... which we had the pleasure of walking up (while pushing a stroller... good practice!). It was an amazing walk, though, because the streets of the town below are so old and lined with the same colorful buildings. The castle is more of a 'gated community,' comprised of several buildings and a huge cathedral.

On Friday night, Brandi and I took a walk on the wild (or wicked) side, and partook in a haunted walking tour of Prague. The best part came at the end when we went down into the dungeons under the Astronomical clock. This is where they used to keep prisoners before their executions. No actual ghost sightings, but it was creepy down there. On Saturday night, we stayed in, and the guys went out and made their own mini bar crawl to experience all of the wonderful Czech beers (again).

It was nice not only to explore such a cool old city with our friends, but also to catch up and spend some time relaxing in our apartment. We really enjoyed playing with Austin (says the couple that does not have to get up and change diapers at 3 am). ;) And, as it turns out, Chad is not smarter than a 2 year old. Chad and Austin were playing tug-of-war with one of the couch pillows. Austin distracted Chad by saying "hey Chad, how's Chuggington doing?" (with a look referring to his cartoon video playing on the iPod next to them). When Chad looked down, Austin seized the opportunity and the pillow as his!
I imagine this is the mischievous
face he was making at the time. ;)

We saw every possible corner that we could of Prague. Though it felt like a bit of a short weekend, the good news is that we are going to see the Taylors again this December, when we go to Dresden for Christmas. And that also means more German Christmas markets... YEAH!


*See all of the pictures from our trip are on Flickr:

Also check out the Taylor's pics:

Monday, October 4, 2010

Berlin, Germany

Berlin has always been a destination on our list of places we definitely want to visit while living in Europe. Since it is close, though, and relatively easy to get to, we've been putting it off. This month, we had the incentive we needed to finally plan the trip. Our friends, Josh and Mitch, were stopping by Berlin as part of their trip around the world (yes, literally around the world... wow!). We decided to meet up with them this weekend and explore the city together.

For us, it is about a 7 hour train ride from Rotterdam. The trip went surprisingly fast, I think mostly because we were excited about getting there. Our hotel turned out to be in a great location, and was only 60 Euro a night (including a private bathroom). It was right next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Ged├Ąchtniskirche (Memorial Church). This church was bombed in WWII, and left in it's post-bombing state as a silent reminder of the impact of war. We could hear the church bells chiming from our hotel room. A memorial was built next to the church, with blue stained glass covering all of the walls.
Our hotel was also on the southwest corner of the huge Tiergarten which is an expansive intercity park which larger than Central Park in NYC. In the center ring if the park, there is a golden statue of the goddess Victoria on top of a large pillar, which locals affectionately call 'chick on a stick.' Unfortunately she was under scaffolding, so we couldn't see it. We arrived in Berlin a day before the guys, so we explore the shops in our area and parts of the huge garden. We found a nice beer-garden hidden in the park. The back deck area overlooked a small lake, and was lined with the typical long wooden tables and benches, with white strings of lights strung between the trees, making for some cool ambiance.

On Friday, we all put on our sightseeing caps and headed into the Mitte (middle) area of the city, formerly in East Berlin. First, we headed to the Sony Center, which is a plaza in between several buildings that is covered with a modern glass ceiling. The ceiling is pointed in the center with large tarps hanging down, and resembles a circus tent, especially with the changing colors at night.

Nearby, we passed the Holocaust Memorial. This was a very interesting memorial, consisting of hundreds of large, rectangular, cement pillars lined up in a perfect grid, but all with varying heights. The ground itself is sloped as you walk through the pillars, so you end up being submersed & surrounded by them. Underneath the entire area is a memorial museum, which was very impacting and sobering, and helped to put things in perspective and remind us of exactly what happened during the war.

Walking further down the street we came upon the famous Brandenburg Gate. Since this happened to be the weekend of the 20th anniversary of the official reunification of East & West Berlin, they were having a huge festival, and the gate was surrounded by fences, a music stage, and various vendors. It is quite a large gate, and you can almost picture troops marching through the pillars.
We walked up the famous street Under den Linden, and up to the Berlin Dom. It is a massive and beautiful cathedral. We went up in the top of the Dom, which provides a great 360 degree aerial view of Berlin. You can get an especially good view of the TV Tower, which shows a cross when sunlight hits it (a secret addition from the Swedish engineers who built it on commission by the 3rd Reich).

We went to the Newton Bar, rated one of the best bars in all of Berlin. German-born photographer Helmut Newton's giant photos of naked ladies adorned an entire wall. It had nice comfy leather chairs, and a huge drink menu. Next we went to the Augustiner Brewery, where we had a couple Mass of Oktoberfest beer, pretzels, and crispy pork knuckle (Chad's dinner).

This night was our epic adventure to find The Green Door. The whole journey to find the city's number one ranked bar is not worth explaining because it's sort of a 'you had to be there' moment. But to give a brief synopsis, we were originally turned away at the locked door by a large German lady that said, "No Way." To our pleasure, though, we were validated and granted entrance an hour later (after two 'courage' beers at the bar next door, haha).

On Saturday, we went to see Checkpoint Charlie. This was the border between the American and Soviet sectors of the city. There is still a little checkpoint booth in the middle of the road, and a large white sign that says "You are now leaving the American Sector," in English, Russian, French and German. We went in the museum there which gives details and shows actual articles from the wall, and all of the ways people tried to go through, under and over it. Nearby, we also saw a huge portion of The Wall that was on display.

Everywhere you turn in this city, you are reminded of just how much history is around you. We walked to Bebelplatz, where the huge book burnings took place during WWII. On the ground in the middle of the plaza is a plaque that reads "Where books are burned, in the end people will burn." The most interesting part of this quote is that it is from 1820, more than 100 years before the Nazi regime. There is also a window down into a small room in the ground with four walls of empty white bookshelves.

After wandering around the festival by the Brandenburg Gate for a bit, we headed out of the Mitte into the old East Berlin area. This was such a lovely neighborhood area with beautiful gilding on the houses, parks, and cafes & trees lining the streets. There are also quite a lot of old warehouses in this area, some formerly bombed out, that have now been converted into bars, clubs and restaurants.

On Sunday morning, before we went to the train station, Chad and I managed to wake up early and head to the Reichtstag (had to be there before 8 am to beat the crowds from the tour buses). The building is a massive old stone government building where the German Parliament sits. After most of it burned during the war, it was renovated, and recently they added a huge glass dome on the top which overlooks the parliament. This dome symbolizes the transparency of the democratic government.

We highly recommend Berlin to anyone considering a trip to Germany. We really had a great time this weekend, not only seeing this incredible city, but catching up with old friends. We did a ton of sightseeing, but we also spent a lot of time talking, laughed a ton, and retelling old stories, which is always great. It's nice to sharing experiences like this with good friends. Hopefully we'll be able to do more of this in our last year here.


See lots of more pics on Flickr: