Back in Amsterdam: Catch-up with family

It appears I managed to miss the first good weekend in Amsterdam (weather wise) by being in London. Anyway, it has markedly improved making wandering about town much more enjoyable. To my surprise, my dad was here for a few days, so after I don’t how many years, we could catch up on life. Right after my sister arrived and we enjoyed a day on the bikes and an entertaining time with her friends. I am back at school as well.

Surprising catch-up with dad: I haven’t had much contact with my dad throughout my life. In fact, the last time we met is more than 10y ago. We are, however, on facebook where he did congragulate me on my Lhotse summit last year. On the occasion of his birthday last week I asked if his river cruise would take him to Amsterdam anytime. To my surprise, he said that he will be here only few days later. Time to catch up with what has happened over the years, other siblings, relationships etc. Hope we won’t wait another 10y for the next time.

Cruising the canals with sister’s friends: Frances was the first to book a flight to come and visit. Her visit turned out to coincide with that of herr good friend Johanna who visited their common Amsterdam based friends. They have been here for a while and own a canal boat. After a solid day out on the bikes (a first for both of us in AMsterdam), we had a great time floating around in Amsterdam with the friends and finished it off with a nice dinner at their local restaurant. Even the weather played ball and provided for a fair amount of sunshine on the fine afternoon. Thanks again!

Upgrade at school: I decided to take another 2w of Dutch classes. When interviewed on the phone (something i didn’t immediately realised), the head teacher suggested to skip the A1/2 level and go straight for A2/B1 – a level I am working on still for Russian and Spanish. German knowledge clearly helps. The class is pretty fun with 3 new faces (Abdo from Lebanion, Katya from Moscow, Akin from Jamaica) though i can feel the step-up in level and homework now takes a little longer than I was used to. But its coming together. I guess one grows with its challenges.

Fun night out with the Irish: Sean, an Irish chef, I met pretty early on in Amsterdam. A man with an incredible amount of optimism! He invvited me out while his friends were visiting. Great fun to hang out in my favorite Irish pub on Rembrandtsplein  and a coffee shop nearby, confusion included ;o)

“I arrived in Amsterdam with three fucking lighters and have none left. I am here not even 24 hours!”


Amsterdam walking tour: Fun facts

I seem to enjoy the free walking tours wherever I go (more or less). They often offer a more fun way to explore the city and feel less like an outdoor history lesson. So after my tour in Lisbon in February, Amsterdam was naturally next this time with At last, I need to gain some knowledge prior to the arrival of visitors later in April. So below is what I will tell them (so if you are coming over … please stop reading here ;o).

Where does the name Amsterdam come from? Amsterdam was built on swamps as a fisher village in the 12th century in the location that is now central station. Water ingress was obviously a big nuisance, so the people built a dam on the river Amstel. As you will have undoubtedly guessed by now, thats what gave the city its name. 

Why the narrow (squeezed) houses that never look entirely straight? Back in the days, the taxation of houses was by width and I guess land wasn’t cheap either. So people built narrow, high houses instead. The staircases are worthy of a mountaineering training session. Given the complications that implied for moving places, all houses are fitted with a hook and pulley at the building’s gable to move stuff through windows. So that you don’t hit the wall constantly, the houses are also forward leaning. Further, since the Dutch built on a swamp the houses needed some form of stable fundament by ramming tree trunks into the ground. On average its 40 trees for a normal sized house.

What do Amsterdam, sailors, prostitutes and children have in common? They have in fact the same patron saint – Saint Nicolas. He is also the saint of pawnbrokers, merchants, the country of Russia and the city of Moscow. 

Sex business & the church: That goes back a long time and is closely related to the Dutch marine efforts. Back then, sailing was a high risk job as many boats didn’t return from their expeditions. Naturally, the surviving sailors partied hard before heading to their next quest. Prostitution and partying sailors went hand in hand even though it wasn’t legal at the time. As so often, the Dutch took a pragmatic approach of tolerance. They preferred the sex trade to ‘good girls’ falling into sailors hands. Now, another thing with sailors was that they were rather superstitious. So they felt uneasy to leave the shore as sinners … and got absolution from the local churches (either before or after the act had taken place). Good business for the church and one reason why there is quite a lot of churches in Amsterdam. 

Why is it called the ‘red light district’? The name seems to originate from the red lights that were used to indicate the business is open. It also has a favorable side effect to wait for customers in red light since it gives you a nice makeover and lets your skin look better. There are also blue lights to be found in Amsterdam – they indicate transsexual workers. 

The miracle of Amsterdam … be underwhelmed! Even before the Spanish arrived the city was a pilgrimage destination owing to the ‘miracle of Amsterdam’. A dying man was given his holy sacrament e.g. given bread representing the body of christ. He vomited and the vomited bread was put into the fire. While the man died, the bread survived the fire and was then recognised as a miracle. A pilgrimage church was erected and many people came to the city (more business!). 

Talking religion: Being home to some 250 nationalities, the city has to be reasonably pragmatic when it comes to religion. Originally Holland was Catholic owing to the Spanish king, himself a catholic, running the country. That, however, changed when Martin Luther entered the stage. You see, as a catholic it was always a little troublesome to be too rich while it is much more tolerated for protestants. The Amsterdam’s, especially in the golden age of the 16/17th century, liked that (e.g. now they wouldn’t have to go to hell).

The Spanish sent an army to mend things, but were defeated in the 80 year independence war under the leadership of William of Orange. Catholicism was then outlawed for 150y, but again in Dutch style tolerated if practiced behind closed doors. That’s why you have many hidden churches that were constructed in normal residences and often are still in service today. Being now on the side of non-catholics caused a major influx of people especially in the period of the spanish inquisition including many jewish people (that further brought sea maps to holland from the then pre-eminent marine power – Portugal – helping the rise of the dutch east & west indian companies and a key fundament for the Dutch golden age).

Coffee Shops & Marihuana remain a grey zone with a lot of tolerance and a good portion of looking away: If you thought weed was legal in Holland – think again. It is not, but tolerated. You can possess 5g and even grow up to 5 plants and coffee shops can sell the gear. They can’t, however, buy the gear legally wholesale and so it magically appears in their storage. Weird, but politicians turn a blind eye (although there were coffee shop closures nearby schools to avoid being only able to sell weed to locals in Amsterdam). Coffee shops also can’t advertise, are called ‘coffee shops’ rather than ‘weed shops’ and also tend to pay higher taxes. Why is the government looking away? Well, that goes back to the hippie days in the 60’s & 70’s when Amsterdam had a drug/heroin issue. Nowadays large coffee shops like the Bulldog sold gear already then illegal. The governments approach was similar to the sex trade centuries earlier – rather than banning it outright, it decriminalised consumption in coffee shops it get people off the streets. And it worked. Italy, France and Spain have something to learn judging by user statistics. 


Dutch courage – heard that before? As the story goes, the Dutch used to drink Jenever (Dutch gin) before heading into battle with the english during the Anglo-Dutch wars in the 17th century that gave them courage. So basically they fought intoxicated. Later on, the english developed gin based on Jenever. 


The Dutch going state side: The Dutch were among the nations trying to discover a North West passage to India and commissioned capitain Hudson to do so. Instead of India, they ended up with a East US settlement that was named New Amsterdam. During the Anglo-Dutch wars (I think the second), they lost it to the britsh who renamed it New York in honor of the Duke of York. Still, there are many areas in NY left that have Dutch origin such as Haarlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Wall Street was a defense wall back then and the not so grid like streets below wall street still rem ind of that today.


Amsterdam: Catching up with friends, school done & the english were in town

Since my last update from Amsterdam a few things have moved on. Sadly, my flu is not one them and keeps me on low energy mode and often indoors after school (well, the weather was far from inviting to go outdoors anyway!). But that didn’t stop me from still doing a few things, catching up with friends Liselotte & Jan and completing my A1 in Dutch. Happy Easter everyone. 

Catching up with Jan: Jan was the first dutch person i managed to catch up with. And fun it was to review the Russian farm stories over a beer or two. He also moved on in life, with his studies and now even has a girlfriend (… clearly he ignored my horror stories in his considerations ;o). Hope to catch up with him over kings day for his crash car race.


Catching up with Liselotte: We met back in Thailand training at Diamond Muay Thai since Liselotte is well into kickboxing. Liselotte took me to nearby Westerpark. There was a nice sunday market (I scored a nice sausage there) and, in the cold weather, we enjoyed a few glasses of mulled wine before hitting a bar with old school arcade games. Liselotte is hard to beat and I literally lost every match until i found the right street figher character to help me out. fun afternoon with even a few easter bunnies hopping around.

A night out in the red light district: One Friday night turned out to be really good fun when I met a Latvian couple visiting town. We met at the old sailor pub (see cover picture) in the red light district and had some good entertainment watching the crowd gazing at the women in the windows. Funniest was when a guy tried to take a picture of one of the pro’s (a no go!) … he almost lost his mobile as the girl jumped out of her box and grabbed it.

Netherlands – England match: the english were in town for a pre world cup friendly (well, no world cup for the dutch side) and they make it felt. 6000 supporters need entertainment. And to be fair to them, i loved the atmosphere they created with their chants (‘please dont take me home’) around the embankments of the red light district and the fun conversations (here a youtube video of a guy jumping into the canal). Never really felt there was a safety threat though c100 got arrested. England won 1:0 by the way. 



School already behind me – A1 in Dutch: on Friday we completed our A1 level course and it does help. Key issue remains laziness to try it out given everyone and his dog speak english pretty well. The group changed a bit with a new girl joining and the Indian restaurant owner not turning up anymore. I had lost a little drive given the flu, but overall think made some good progress (a statement that holds for all participants). In fact, i was racing through the dutch grammar and writing homework (not entirely without mistakes for full disclosure) and felt that i acquired some good talking basics. We even had a little look at swearwords on our last day – a lesson that shocked & entertained alike. Very Dutch – rather then picking it up on the street, the word is spread in a controlled manner … just like dope in a coffee shop ;o)


Thanks go to the patient & fun teachers and all the best to my fellow students. Teacher roos said good bye with a bottle of prosecco – nice touch i think and a first for any of three language schools in been too since last summer. Let’s see, maybe i am back for A2 later. For now … vakantie!

Interview at on Monday morning i went to a 3h assessment center for a german speaking partner executive role at booking. They are originally from Amsterdam before being bought by a US player and a major employer (16k globally) as the #1 booking site globally. So far i haven’t heard back. Maybe after easter. 

Ik hou van Amsterdam!

When i drew up my bucket list, Amsterdam was the first city i wrote down in the section of places where I want to stay a little longer than a fun weekend away. After St Petersburg and Medellin, it is the third city i am now getting to see. i have been here many times with work or privately, but always felt there is more to this great city and its people than a short visit would reveal. My first visit private visit was in 2000 after a nights long rave at the Hanover world expo, the last one in October 2016 where i got stuck in heavy fog (bonus night for me i guess). This time i give myself more time to immerse myself here. Let’s see how that goes!

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So what’s the plan? Learning a little Dutch is a thing of courtesy and hopefully less painful than Russian. Then the ambition is to also to work if I can find something. Let’s see how this will pan out. What i really look forward is meeting friends / family from Germany (Frances, Steve, Max already signed up), some of the many Dutch people i met on my journey such as Jan (Issad farm experience) or Frits (Diamond Muay Thai) and a visit from a very good friend from far away. Fun times ahead. 

Setting in slowly: Since my language course only kicked off Monday, I had the best part of last week to settle in. After settling into my studio in Haarlemmerbuurt, which is right by baba coffee shop, I spent most time strolling through town, watching football and celebrating St Patrick’s day. Given the expectedly long list of visitors in the next weeks, i skipped visiting museums for now. i love the architecture here in a city on the shores of the same water that runs through london and st petersburg. its just amazing to get lost in Amsterdam, wander along the canals and check the vibe in bars, cafes and coffee shops. Sadly, the cold weather gave me my first flu of the year. should have stayed in thailand a little longer ;o)

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Top bars / pubs so far

  • Cafe Chaos: Formerly an orphanage nicely decorated with lots of angel figures. As tradition goes, you through the empty peanut shells on the floor (no joke) as the oil is apparently good for the floor. 
  • Grasshopper: A touch touristic, but always feels good to stop by for a beer or two. 
  • De Sluyswacht: Fantastic ambiente in this little pub/cafe. Just take a look at the picture and you will understand. Biggest memory is the weekend that I spent here with Tibo in 2010 – when the icelandic volcano eruption grounded world travel … purple stuff everywhere ;o)
  • Blarney Stone: An irish pub right in the centre that is close enough to walk over for a footie match, or indeed, St Patrick’s.

First days back at school: Learning dutch is so far much less painful than any other language. Its a mix of German, English and Swedish. Homework is usually done very quickly, as i don’t stumble over all the small words that drive me crazy in other languages and the grammar is very much like german. however, understanding what people say on the street will still take a while (especially since everyone speaks english here). The school ( feels a bit different than the schools in St. Pete or Medellin.

There are 6 of us in the beginner class – from Italy, India, Australia, Switzerland and Germany. Most of the students live here already a while (partners, work etc) and now take up the studies. So not people that just visit for a few weeks, as was the case in other schools. there are no group activities after class, which is a bit sad. One challenge for me is to juggle learning three languages at once – dutch, russian and spanish. teachers kindly scaled back the homework outside dutch a little. Still, i am looking at 40 hours of language related time (school, skype lessons, homework) each week. So it certainlky doesnt get boring.