Happy 2012! We have exciting news…

We are back in Amsterdam after a wonderful two week visit in Louisiana and Florida with our family and friends for the Christmas holiday.  Our second year together in
Europe brought many adventures in France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, and of course The Netherlands.  And we added a few “new” countries to the list…Scotland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.  It’s really hard to pick a favorite since every destination has been unique in its own way.  Our travels over the last two years have bought us to more places than I ever imagined I’d visit in my entire life.  But we’ve only scratched the surface with all the amazing places yet to be discovered.

Which leads to our latest update:  Another year in Amsterdam!  G is now officially a Dutch employee and we are excited about another year of European Adventures.  Here are a few highlights from 2011…we’ll see where the wind blows us in 2012.

Wishing you and your family good health and happiness in Twenty Twelve!


Making the Ultimate Sacrifice

With the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday approaching, it is quite fitting that Veteran’s Day is also observed in the same month.  To the thousands of women and men who give and have given so much to their country, I say Thank You.  Especially to my father, my favorite veteran.

Last June, G and I spent a weekend in the Normandy region of France.  Resting on a bluff above the beaches is the Normandy American National Cemetery & Memorial, appropriately the largest American cemetery in Europe.  It cradles the graves of 9,387 American soldiers which include 41 pairs of brothers.  There is also a memorial to 1,557 soldiers who were never found.  Upon entering the cemetery, you are led on a short walk surrounded by trees.  As you round the corner and look to your left, the initial sight of thousands of grave markers stretched out for acres is one of the most sobering feelings I have ever experienced.  Then, it’s hard to compose yourself as you look to your right.  Omaha Beach is serene and the tide quietly laps at the shoreline.  Yet 66 years ago, it was where many gave all.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre ~ Italy

The last two days in Amsterdam have been beautiful crisp sunny days.    Days like this are rare as October tends to be a generally wet month leading up to the very soggy months of November and December.  We rolled our clocks back this past weekend and the days are now terribly short.  So when the sun peeks out, your spirits are lifted and you soak up every moment of golden goodness allowed by the ticking clock…because you know it’s only a matter of time before the typical fall Dutch weather rears its dreary head.

And that’s what I woke up to early this morning.  Clouds of dense fog hovering in the street as if perfectly placed for a Halloween party.  The sky is so grey I find is hard to believe the sun could actually exist beyond those layers of gloominess.  And you wonder if any minute now, the rain will begin to fall making you a wet mess on your bike with no way to seek cover.

But that’s not what this post is about.  While trying to perk myself up with my morning coffee, I read about the devastating rain storms which struck Vernazza just a few days ago.  It immediately put my “dreary” morning into perspective. To many people, it’s another freak accident procured by Mother Nature.  I realize there are natural disasters occurring at any given moment around the world.  But when you read about a town where you spent time and created memories, it tugs at your heartstrings in a completely different way.

Courtesy of the Wandering Italy Website

Before moving to Amsterdam, I heard small bits about the Cinque Terre region of Italy.   Once I moved here, it didn’t take long to meet handfuls of people who raved about the amazing hiking trails, picturesque villages, and breathtaking views.  We spent two [short] days in Cinque Terre during our summer holiday in Italy.  We stayed in Monterosso al Mare and made the round trip hike to Vernazza on the last day of our vacation.  The heat was in full swing by the end of July and I was happy to be burning the countless calories I had consumed in Lake Como, Florence, & Tuscany.  The hike exceeded my expectations and I made a mental note that this was a place I wanted to revisit in my future travels.

Cinque Terre (The Five Lands) is composed of five small villages nestled in the cliffs and overlooking the Mediterranean.  Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, & Riomaggiore. Due to the topography of this area, it’s difficult to reach by car.  The suggested mode of transportation is to hike (some are more of a leisure walk) from town to town.  Trains also run frequently along the coast line; however, I think it robs you of an experience unique to Cinque Terre.

The damage caused by the storm and landslide are still fresh.  While clean up is the immediate focus, I have faith that rebuilding and recovery will follow close behind.  And hopefully the tourists will too.  Just like New Orleans, it’s just too beautiful and unique to let it become a ghost town—as some Vernazza residents already fear.  

Click here to read more from travel expert Rick Steeves’.  And here for a before/after slideshow.

I am awestruck by the force of Mother Nature and what she can do in mere moments.  Just a few months ago, we walking around this area snacking on pizza and gelato before hiking back to Monterosso.

Click here or here for clips on You Tube. 

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Costa del Sol ~ Spain

Two weeks ago I was fortunate to spend a few days in Southern Spain on the Costa del Sol. As August came to a close, the local Dutch weather bureau noted we had just experienced “the wettest summer since 1906”. As you may have read in my last post, I have tried to maximize any opportunity to soak in the sun in an effort to ward off signs of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). While some people think SAD is a bunch of hokey baloney, I honestly believe my mood is quite vulnerable to these long periods of rain and gloomy skies.

Enter my friend Barbara and her offer to spend a few days at her seaside property just outside of Marbella. How could I say no? The weather forecast was perfectly sunny with temperatures in the mid 80’s F (~30 C) all week…which I guess is just par for the course since the Costa del Sol receives an average of 320 days of sun. Compared to Amsterdam’s average of 200 days of rain per year, this was a no-brainer.

During the week, we enjoyed lounging by the pool, walking on the beach, gorgeous sunsets, and terrace dining. From the terrace, we could see across the Mediterranean to the coast of Africa. Looking west also afforded views of the Rock of Gibraltor. Throughout the week we grazed on fabulous tapas of pimentos pardon, pulpo, jamon y manchego, gambas pil pil, Spanish meatballs, and melon wrapped prosciutto— I was glad I packed my running shoes to burn off a few calories!

The day before we left, Barbara drove us to Casares; a white-house village in the Sierra Bermeja with a population of about 3,000 people and beautiful views. The remains of a 12th century Moorish castle linger at the peak of the town and provide panoramic views of the picturesque town of Casares set against the mountains. The sun sparkled against the red-brown mountains which are dotted with orchards, olive trees, and cork woods. As we wandered the steep and narrow walkways nestled between the ancient white homes, the town was busy preparing for the upcoming annual festival, Feria del Cristo. Seeking shade under a patio umbrella, we enjoyed lunch at the tapas bar in the town square and noticed a few women gathered at the public water fountain chatting away. As I sat with a cold cerveza in hand and enjoyed the last few hours of warm sunshine tingling on my skin, G sent a message “Do not come home unless you bring the sun with you.” The last few days in Amsterdam had been a soaking wet and windy mess.

By some crazy miracle, I managed to fill his request. Upon my return, the weekend weather turned out better than originally forecast and the following week was filled with more sunny days than we have seen in weeks. Thank you Mother Nature.

CLICK HERE for a quick slideshow of my photos from Marbella and Casares.

If you plan to visit the Costa del Sol, check out Barbara’s property for your holiday stay. It’s a beautiful apartment with spectacular views, lush gardens, and pools all over the property with the beach only a few minutes’ walk away.  CLICK HERE to view property details.

Beethoven, Bikes, & Behinds

Cabin fever can lead to overzealous planning which later leads to physical pain.

With rain nearly every single day last week, I was like a prisoner at my parole hearing and ready to get out.  The forecast for the weekend held partly sunny skies, mild temperatures, and NO RAIN!  Finally—a rain-free weekend.  To G’s “excitement”, I was set on spending as much time outdoors as possible.  I lined up an outdoor movie, a bike ride to a nearby town, and an outdoor music concert…not once giving a second thought to the cumulative effect this would have on my behind.

August sunsets are still as late as 9pm and the perfect time for a post-dinner movie.  The Oscar nominated movie Easy Rider (1969) was scheduled for  Friday’s Vondelpark’s Sunset Film Festival so we packed a few adult beverages and biked to the EYE Museum…as did many other Amsterdamers.  Tickets (read: seats) were sold out; however, you were welcome to cop a squat on the pavement in front of the screen at no charge.  And we did.  And after 10 minutes, the lower half of my body was quite uncomfortable.  Having just run 5k in the park didn’t help either.  Fortunately we live close by and a quick trip home procured two, albeit thin, cushions making the next 95 minutes possible to bear.

With partly sunny skies on Saturday afternoon, I was not going to miss the opportunity for a long bike ride.  Oh, and photos.  I suggested Naarden for our bike ride, but with an ulterior motive.  The World Press Photo Exhibit is currently on display at the Grote Kerk and with World Photography day the day before, I thought a perfect opportunity to indulge…regardless of the fact I had already seen the exhibit in Amsterdam (shhh, don’t tell G!).

The ride to Naarden was typical of the Dutch countryside complete with our own bike lane 90% of the time…I LOVE biking in this country.  A lot of cows, sheep, goats, and farmland for our viewing smelling pleasure.   Getting to Naarden required passing through the town of Muiden.  Our ride was slowed to a walk due to their Spiering Festival in full swing on the main street coupled with draw bridge traffic from large ships entering the canal.  Another 9km stretch of farmland and we made it to Naarden.  Click here to see the route.

Naarden is small town southeast of Amsterdam with well-preserved fortified walls, an encircling moat, and a distinctive star shape best viewed from above.  Dead center in the town is the Grote Kerk (large church) rising tall above the surrounding buildings.

Aerial view of Naarden, NL © http://www.naardel.nl; photo editing by Connie Ricca

We refueled with traditional Dutch broodjes (sandwiches) and Belgium beir.  The larger Uitsmijter  for G and a smaller tosti for me.  With full tummies, we entered the Grote Kerk and enjoyed the photo exhibit.

I continue to be inspired by the amazing photographs captured by photojournalists and documentary photographers.  Each photo at the exhibit is like reading a short story.  Each photo captures so much information, detail, and history that I could spend hours at the exhibit.  And at least one photo, even if you only glance at it for few seconds, will resonate with you after you leave.  A new exhibition begins each April so try to catch one in a town near you.

After satisfying my sweet tooth with some ice cream, we were back on the bikes ready to conquer another 25km to head home. But no time for a leisure ride home.  The Prinsengrachtconcert was starting at 8p and we hoped to arrive early enough for a nice spot canal side to enjoy the live classical music.  With a quick change of clothes and a stash of adult beverages, we arrived 45 minutes early…nearly half the town of Amsterdam was already there.  Once again, we plopped our behinds on the pavement (sans cushions!) and enjoyed the people watching until the concert began.

Despite a physically worn out body come Sunday, I was mentally rejuvenated and prepared to take on another rainy Amsterdam week ahead.

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Vertically challenged in the tallest country in the World

In college, one of my friend’s boyfriends nicknamed me “squirt”.  At my last job in NYC, two of my colleagues I worked with daily were over 6 feet tall.  When I take group photos with friends, I am again reminded I am still the shortest one…despite the height of the heels I may be wearing.  On the other hand, it does come in handy as airplane seats seem to get smaller and smaller.

But when you are only 5’2” (1.57 m) and move to the country which has the tallest people on average, it’s time to digest some extra patience.   However, I’m not taking my own advice very well.

The Dutch, on average—yes AVERAGE, are 6 feet tall (1.83 m).  Recently the Dutch government adjusted building codes to increase the height of doorways. I’ve read that doors must now be 7′ 6.5″ inches (2.30 m) high.

Last summer we went to Museumplein to watch the Dutch play in the semi-finals of the World Cup.  A jumbo screen TV was set up and we arrived early to stake out a “good spot”.  We were there early enough to plop down right in front of the screen, but it didn’t seem necessary as I noticed everyone was camped out on their blankets sitting on the ground.

As soon as the game was underway, it was like a whistle blew and everyone suddenly stood up.  I thought it was just to get things going, cheer on the Dutch team, and then everyone would sit back down.  Nope.  I was dumbfounded when I realized that everyone was going to stand for the entire game.  Foolish me to think the protocol and manners would be anything similar to the Philharmonic Concerts in Central Park or Film Festivals in Bryant Park.  My unsuccessful attempt at standing on a crate only brought more frustration which led to anger which prompted pouting which called for more beer.  Luckily by half time, my (normal and tall sized) friends were annoyed as well so we walked to one of their apartments to watch the rest of the game.

My view...while standing on a crate

On a daily basis, I am cursing the top shelf in our kitchen or the top shelf at the grocery.  Our kitchen is typical European with open shelves.  No cabinets or pantry.  Just open shelves for the dishes, cups, food, etc.  Sometimes my cereal (and a multitude of other things) gets shoved to the back and I can’t reach it while standing on my tip toes.  I’m left with the option to forego the cereal or climb up on the counter like a 5 year old trying to steal from the cookie jar.  Either way, the words coming out of my mouth at this hour of the morning are not pleasant.  The grocery renders the same fuss.  I usually step up on the bottom grate so I can reach what I need…all the while some 2m tall Dutch person is giggling away.

But after nearly 2 years here, I’ve come to terms with it all and have adjusted.  Until tonight…when it crossed roads with ballet.

The Grachtenfestival  has been going on this week and I had been looking forward to tonight’s performance.  While the festival is mainly a classical music event, a few of the performances this year include dance and tonight’s performance had excerpts from Swan Lake performed by The Dutch National Ballet. It began with an ensemble playing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  The live music was lovely and I had a decent view.

Then they prepared the floating stage for the ballerinas and I was eagerly waiting.  The dancers placed themselves on stage, the music began…

…and suddenly everyone stood up.  Why?!?  You are sitting on the edge of the canal with an completely unobstructed view of the stage…why must you now stand up?  After bobbing around in an attempt to reposition myself, I felt like I was participating in a sparring session rather than enjoying a classical performance.

Foiled and frustrated, I left.  Fortunately, the same friends who offered their apartment to watch the World Cup semi’s last summer were the same friends waiting to meet me for dinner…and a beer.

Nero Pasta con Frutti di Mare e Salsa Fra Diavolo

You don’t need Google Translate to decipher this tasty dish.  Just as our holiday last summer to northern Spain left us craving more of their culinary delights once we returned home, our recent return from Italy has been no different.  We haven’t wasted anytime popping open bottles of wine, using rosso pesto on everything from sandwiches to pasta, and savoring the sweet honey on fresh bread.  Now it’s time for the squid ink pasta.

As many people know, squid excrete a black ink as their defense mechanism to confuse and elude predators.  As many cooks know, it’s a wonderful element to add flavor and color to a variety of dishes, pasta being the most common.  The flavor is described as “briny and seafood-y”.  Big surprise there.  And naturally, best paired with seafood.

Amsterdam has been nothing but a daily soggy mess for over a week.  But we managed to hit the fish market to grab some fresh squid and clams during a brief dry moment.   The recipe is really easy and takes under 30 minutes to prepare, especially if you buy seafood that has already been cleaned.


Add Chianti

Add tomatoes and seafood of choice

Mmmm, squid!

Nero pasta, al dente

Mix it all together...

...and enjoy!

There are several great recipes on the web using squid ink pasta, we just happen to choose this one and somewhat halved the recipe to accommodate two people.

  • 1 lb (about 500 grams) black squid ink pasta (regular pasta can be substituted)
  • 2 lb whole baby squid (or 1 lb cleaned baby squid bodies or pre-cut rings)

[we also added clams; I think any kind seafood will pair well if you don’t prefer squid]

  • 1- 28 oz can whole peeled tomatoes, use the best you can find
  • 1/2 c Chianti Wine
  • Olive oil as needed
  • Garlic, 2-3 cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 large shallot, chopped
  • Lots of crushed red pepper flakes for heat

[we love heat and added a chili pepper as well]

  • Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
  • Garnish:  Fresh or dried parsley and/or grated parmesan

Preparation:  Before you begin anything, clean and prep the squid by gently but firmly grabbing the “head” of the squid and pulling away from the body. This should remove all insides including the ink pouch. Careful to not break the ink pouch, it will get EVERYTHING black. Next, rinse out the squid body and pull out the “bone” – it runs down the body of the squid and looks and feels like thin clear plastic. It should come out in one clean piece. Next, gently tear off the “flaps” on the body and this should bring all the skin with it. You are looking for a shiny, white, clean squid body which you then cut into rings, rinse one more time and set aside. Want less mess and a time saver?  Buy cleaned squid or pre-cut rings (we did!).

Next, cook pasta to al dente, drain and reserve about 1/2 c cooking liquid. Meanwhile sauté garlic, shallots and red pepper flakes in olive oil, careful to not burn garlic. Add wine and bring to a boil, reduce by about half…add tomatoes, simmer, adding salt and pepper as needed (to taste).

Add squid to tomato sauce, along with drained pasta and reserved cooking liquid. Simmer, tossing frequently, and turn off heat before mixture nears dry (and before seafood becomes tough). Squid, like shrimp, cook within minutes and will be tough and chewy if you overcook it.

Garnish with crushed red peppers and chopped parsley, serve immediately (preferably with your favorite Chianti Classico!).

Eet smakelijk and Buon Appetito!