In June of 2004, just after T and I got married and spent two weeks honeymooning in the interior Yucatan, we hurriedly packed up our Boston apartment and moved to Amsterdam. Tom was between years of business school and had secured an internship in the electronics division at Philips. I loathed my job in Newton, MA, had applied and been accepted to graduate school and so had every reason to enjoy the summer off as a newlywed in Europe. Philips rented us a roomy duplex on Jacob Obrechtstraat, just steps from the Vondelpark (the Central Park of Amsterdam); it was way more apartment than we could have afforded on our own, and we were dumbstruck by our good fortune. We were a half-block from a movie rental joint, the Gall & Gall wine store and the tram stop at J.O. and Willemsparkweg as well as a quick walk from Museumplein (the Van Gogh museum, among others) and the Concertgebouw (a gorgeous hall in which the symphony played).
Though the weather is sometimes Seattle-like, Amsterdam is both utterly walkable and bikeable, and it soon became clear that owning bikes was a must, not least because bike lanes were as ubiquitous as those for cars. Three blocks down Willemsparkweg, away from the Museumplein, was the romantically-named Emmastraat on which resided Tweewielers Emma, a shop that both sold and repaired all manner of bike. The used bikes were the only affordable ones but were mostly reclaimed cycles from the Dutch politie. Because you can't be an effective bike-mounted policeman on a flimsy bike, these were seriously heavy, indestructible steel-bodied rides. Tom immediately bought a black one as well as a heavy-duty lock and a canvas bag that mounted over the rear wheel.
I chose a not-much-lighter white bike and a double bag for groceries and picnics. Biking home from a market with fresh baguettes and flowers trailing behind us was a joyous way to live. Carrying the bikes up our steep front steps was less thrilling but necessary.
While Tom worked, I explored. Quickly, I discovered appeltaart, a butter crust tart stuffed with cubed apples tossed with a generous amount of cinnamon-sugar, and that if I turned left out of our front door and left onto Willemsparkweg, I was just one block from Small Talk Traiteur, a plate-glass-windowed bakery with exceptional appeltaart by the 3.25€ slice.
I frequented the Albert Cuypmarkt (a street market in the De Pijp area of Oud-Zuid), coming to know the cheese- and fish-mongers, the stands with the best fruit and those with the best vegetables and breads. It was in Amsterdam, and at the Cuyp specifically, that I learned to shop like a European, buying just what I could fit in the various packs and pockets on self and bike and still get home. Cook, eat, market, repeat.
In Amsterdam, the complete benefit of multilingual'ness showed everywhere. All Dutch citizens speak Dutch, English and either German or French. And those are the underachievers. It's amazing. At the Cuypmarkt one day, some Spaniards were attempting to buy a cheese but hadn't the slightest idea what knoflook was. "Knoflook es ajo," I was able to tell them. "Garlic (in Dutch) is garlic (in Spanish)." Everyone smiled, cheese was purchased and I wished more than ever to be a true polyglot.
As such, and because I was determined to force France on Tom as often as we could get away, I put out the word that I was looking for a French tutor. A highfalutin American expat named Suki (I met her during my one-time foray into the American Women's 'Club') suggested her nanny, a young gal named Lisa. Lisa, an Australian exactly my age who was fluent in French, and I (and T) hit it off grandly, and many of my fondest 'dam memories involve her. She was a great teacher and a ton of fun (and she left Suki), and we remain in touch to this day despite the distance between D.C. and Sydney. In fact, today is her birthday. Happy Bday, Lis!
During weekends T and I didn't take the train from Centraal to France or Germany or beyond, we biked and ate and drank our way through Amsterdam. It's a remarkable city; progressive, sophisticated, energetic yet calm, worldly, outdoorsy, healthy yet not remotely ascetic. I couldn't have enjoyed our time there more. Except for the time someone spat at a friend and me as we walked in the park; anti-American sentiments were heightened in some quarters then. Can't say I didn't understand to some degree, after the ludicrous Shock and Awe campaign and such.
Prior to weekends away, I would pick up sandwiches on the very fancy P.C. Hoofstraat -these incredible hunks of brood stuffed with oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, grilled artichokes, cheese and on and on- and then meet Tom at the station for a train to elsewhere. We traveled throughout France, Germany, and points in Eastern Europe that summer.
In Vienna, because we couldn't warm to the city at all, we stayed in our outrageously luxe hotel (thank you, Starwood Points gleaned from Tom's job of consultant before business school) room, pretending we were a couple of leisure, leaving only for Sacher Torte (totally overrated), meals (better) and the fancy-schmantz gym that was decorated in the way I imagine the interior of the Playboy mansion to be but offered free guest passes to guests of our hotel.
In Prague, we bought absinthe but were too nervous to try it. We walked the Charles and went to the Jewish Quarter, and I was able to sate my love of Mucha's art nouveau work at the eponymous Mucha Museum. There, in the gift shop, T sweat buckets because I clearly did not understand or care about the exchange rate which wasn't in our favor.
In Budapest, just in the E.U., we discovered Cafe Pierrot, dined there repeatedly and during glasses of icy Tokay enjoyed fascinating talks with Hungarians worried about the way E.U. inclusion might dilute their nationalistic identity and pride.
In Paris, we ate banana and nutella crepes near the Seine and raced for cover with our picnic after a sudden rainstorm washed us out of our spot in the Jardin du Luxembourg. We huddled on a narrow stoop under an ancient eave, drinking our wine, eating and laughing.
In Normandy, we ate crepes and huitres from the sea and drank calvados. In the Loire we downed crisp Sancerre and ate fresh crottins de Chavignol (incredible pucks of goat cheese). IN Chavignol! It was after his first bite of a sandwich which consisted simply of French bread stuffed with a fried crottin that Tom declared his love for France.
At Charles de Gaulle, we were told, on a rainy night, that our flight back to Amsterdam had been cancelled. Grudgingly Air France agreed to put us up for the night and did so by busing us to a suburban dive whose lobby was chock full of prostitutes. We awoke the next morning to find that Metro Transit had gone on strike and so basically had to hitch our way back to the airport.
In the Mosel Valley, we stayed at the Prum vineyard and toured it with the vintner, Red, a huge hulk of a man whose friendly smile and generous pours made us sentimental fans of good Kabinett Riesling forevermore.
In Cologne, we arrived and immediately tried to leave.
We thought about all this tonight as the Netherlands trounced poor Brazil. About how we always root for the Orange when they play anyone but the U.S. because of a magical adventure ten years ago. About how unbelievably long ago this feels -a lifetime, really- but how clear the memories remain. About how much we hope to go back. To rent a house and live there with the boys for a few weeks. But mostly about how lucky we were to have this unencumbered jaunt with little in the way of plan but much in the way of spontaneity and love, and what a gift we had in that.