Monday, May 5, 2008

Keukenhof - Tulip Gardens & Fields

I will let the photos speak for themselves!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Queen’s Day

Every April 30th, the Dutch let loose to celebrate the Queen’s birthday by putting on the world’s biggest yard sale with lots & lots of alcohol! On this day it is a sea of orange in the streets and on the canals. The national colors are red, white, and blue (sound familiar?) but orange is the royal family’s last name so the patriotic color. The population of the city, which is around 1 million normally, swells to double that for this celebration. There are live bands, beer gardens, food stalls, parties on boats, and virtually every resident of the city outside their homes selling their old junk. My neighborhood is in the heart of a lot of the fun, so I actually had to navigate a path out of my front door as some from the neighborhood has staked out my front door as their selling location!
After a BBQ at Steven’s house, we walked around to take in the atmosphere. It was cute to see the things kids set up for money – posing for pictures, lemonade stands, break dancing, a brother & sister treating other little kids to a fishing game. Adults also came up with other things to do like my personal favorite of the day, an older couple in traditional Dutch wear…wooden shoes and all...playing the accordion. As the day wore on, the people got drunker and way more funny. We stopped at a bar, called CafĂ© Zool that had a DJ outside mixing up anything from Bob Marley to Justin Timberlake. It was hilarious watching all the dance moves on display in the street. I was highly annoyed when our entertainment was cut off at 10pm, but I guess the residents have to sleep even on Queen's Day.
The day was a whole lot of fun and the best part is that May 1st is European Labor Day so another day off work -- aka recuperation! I do have to say that all the litter and streams of urine – yep, urine – trickling down from the pee stations was really disgusting. I’m glad I was here to enjoy this major party holiday!


I would have never guessed, but the UK’s second largest city is a party central! I had little expectations of Birmingham before I went, so I was excited to find a Cadbury (chocolate) World nearby as well as an entire area of the city called Jewelry Quarter, but when I arrived to the Jury’s Inn on Broad St. I quickly became aware that this city has a lot more to offer. The first tip off was a huge group of guys walking past en route to the “executive gentlemen’s club” next door. Throughout the rest of the weekend it was a constant parade of partiers, and as the English do many groups were dressed in all sorts of crazy get-ups… 70s themed, 80s themed, men in dresses, women in nun habits, etc.
There were probably 20 bars along our street, and each one had at least a 10 minute line outside on both Friday & Saturday.
Work was a nice retreat from the mayhem during the day. It in a very nice, clean area called Bindey Square with lots of great restaurants and views overlooking the pretty canal system and interesting narrow boats that navigate them.
Fun fact, the English do not eat regular buttered popcorn like we do in the states. Instead they like kettle corn, which has a sugar seasoning making it sweet.
Friday night dinner was the first outing from the hotel & arena. I had done some googling and found what I thought was a very trendy restaurant in a up and coming part of town. The second surprise I had about Birmingham is that there is a vibrant gay community and I had chosen to dine right in the heart of it! My male colleagues nearly turned around as soon as we saw the rainbow flags and cuddly men in the bar, but we stayed and had quite an entertaining night people watching – we were particularly interested by a women with biceps bigger than my head and her drag queen friend next to us!
The third Birmingham surprise we uncovered was the amazing shopping district just by (Queen) Victoria Square! There were at least three huge malls and tons of shops on the street, it is the shopping capital of the UK from what I read according to the shopping guide, watch out London you have some competition apparently!
Saturday afternoon, was St. George’s Day – the equivalent to St. Patrick’s Day in England but with more street festival-type wholesome entertainment, I had the opportunity to visit the Jewelry Quarter. I found no less than 100 jewelry shops in an area the size of one square mile, unfortunately all of the styles & prices were far too much for me but I did get a free tour of a factor dating back to 1890. The business was closed in the 80s and when the owners left it, they literally shut the doors and walked away leaving everything in tact. It was interesting to see how they pressed gold to create the different patterns and shapes of jewelry. We learned how inventive the owners had to be when it came to looking after their investments. Instead of the factory sink draining directly to the sewage system it would funnel to a sawdust pit in the basement and every so often the owners would burn the sawdust to reclaim all of the gold dust that had been washed off their workers hands. They accumulated enough money from the dust & shavings annual to buy themselves a new car annually.
My trip to Birmingham was surprising fun & interesting so I’m very glad I had the opportunity to go. It was nice being in a place where English was the first language and being able to visit a Tesco, the English answer to Wal-Mart, which I have been deprived of in Amsterdam.

Life without a car

Inconvenient or genius? The day to day getting around isn’t so bad, and I never mind sitting in rush hour traffic, but the weekend shopping excursions to Ikea can be painful. I’ve been forced to buy a “granny” bag on wheels and although it is quite embarrassing to drag that thing around, running over people’s feet and hoping you don't knock anything off the shelves, it is really the only reasonable option for getting extensive purchases home.
On the positive side, purchasing is limited to what you can carry home so the wasteful shopping I was doing before –buying bulk to stay well stocked, but then never eating or using half of it – is over.
I visit my local Albert Heijn grocery store 2-3 times per week for dinner food and the Etos for toiletries only when I have run out of something. It’s an adjustment from my American lifestyle of grocery & Target shopping every weekend, but I am enjoying the buying for necessity concept… and certainly having the weekends open to relax or get out and site see!