Thanksgiving Dinner: A Comprehensive Guide

Last Saturday we invited some friends over to our apartment for an early Thanksgiving dinner. It felt strange to celebrate the holiday on a Saturday, but for obvious reasons Holland doesn't give people the day off on Thursday, so Saturday it was! This Thanksgiving was not only my first attempt at cooking the entire meal myself (ok, maybe the husband helped a bit), but it was many of our friends' first Thanksgiving meal as well. I felt very lucky to cook for so many first-timers as I was guaranteed not to have to compete with Grandma's Famous Stuffing or hear about how someone's mom's sweet potatoes are the best ever. No, all I had to compete with was the oh-so-famous Norman Rockwell painting, so I made sure to have the turkey proudly displayed on the table when everyone arrived.

Feeling oh-so-happy that my attempt was a success.
Everyone was quite impressed (and probably feeling a bit hungry) at the sight of that large, lovely bird on the table.

Everyone, that is, including myself. I knew cooking Thanksgiving was going to be a huge undertaking (and it was!) but it went much more smoothly than I could have imagined (after I spent about an hour converting all my recipes from US measurements to metric units). The only thing I would change for next year is to try a more impressive pumpkin pie recipe, to set the table earlier (a difficult task in our apartment as the lack of counter space dictates that the table is also used for meal preparation), and also to start the day-of preparation a bit earlier.

That said, I will provide a little guide for putting together a nice Thanksgiving for anyone who may be interested!

Thanksgiving Menu
Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Sweet Potato Casserole
Green Bean Casserole
Corn Casserole
Pumpkin Pie
Rice Pudding

Day 1: Grocery Day

Shopping List for eight guests:
a turkey*
white bread (to yield 4 cups cubed)
baguette (or two) for serving
baking potatoes (2 kg or 9 medium-sized potatoes)
sweet potatoes (1 kg to yield 4 cups cubed)
garlic (4 cloves)
1 apple (I used Granny Smith)
2 onions
carrot (just one or two large carrots is all you need)
1 bunch celery
fresh rosemary
fresh thyme
fresh parsley
dried sage
black pepper
ground cinnamon
ground ginger
ground nutmeg
vanilla extract (1.5 teaspoons)
chopped pecans (50g or 1/2 cup)
frozen cut green beans (500g or 2- 9 oz. packages)
French fried onions (1- 6oz can or 2- 100g cans )
chicken broth (400 ml or 14.5 oz can)
1 (10 3/4 oz. or about 320g) can cream of mushroom soup
1 (15 1/4 oz. or about 425g) can whole kernel corn, drained
1 (14 3/4 oz. 
or about 425g) can cream-style corn
1 (8-ounce) package corn muffin mix (recommended: Jiffy)
1 (15 ounce or about 425g) can pumpkin
1 (14 ounce or about 400g) can sweetened condensed milk
golden raisins (1 cup optional for rice pudding)
shredded cheddar cheese (1 cup)
eggs (6)
butter (500g or five sticks -- will yield extra for the table)
milk (1 liter or 4 cups -- plus a few tablespoons more for mashed potatoes)
whipped cream
sour cream (300g or about 12 oz.) 
all-purpose flour (40g or 1/3 cup -- plus a little more to thicken the gravy)
brown sugar (110g  or 1/2 cup)
white sugar (240g or about 1.5 cups) 
white rice (to yield 3 cups cooked)
1 (9 inch) unbaked pie crust (I made my own as unbaked pie crusts are very difficult to find in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, I was not happy with my crust so I will not post the recipe here).

*Turkey tips:

  • I read that you need anywhere from 1-2 pounds per person, so I bought a 15 pound turkey. This turkey was big enough to feed everyone and yield some yummy leftovers.
  • Keep in mind that a frozen turkey can take at least three days to thaw and plan accordingly.
  • For all you Americans in Amsterdam, I bought my turkey at Kema Vlees on the Kinkerstraat. I ordered it on Monday and picked it up fresh, not frozen, on Friday. Other American-specific ingredients (cream-style corn, corn muffin mix, can of pumpkin, sweetened condensed milk, and cream of mushroom soup, etc.) were purchased at Eichholtz on the Leidsestraat.

Day 2: Initial Preparation

On the second day of Thanksgiving preparation I made the pumpkin pie, rice pudding, and herb butter for the turkey, started the sweet potato casserole and began to prep the stuffing. While cooking, I couldn't help think of my aunt Marcy who used to make Thanksgiving dinner for us every year in her tiny kitchen. She would make the desserts the day before and then line them up on the stairs to her attic which was unheated and as cold as a refrigerator. Though she would make anywhere from two to three pies and two kinds of pudding, I scaled back a bit and picked my favorite two.

I started by making the rice for the pudding and, while waiting for it to finish, made the pie. I set aside the rice when it was done, and continued the pudding when the pie was in the oven. Also important to note is that listening to Christmas music makes this process much more fun.

Pumpkin Pie

1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 (9 inch) unbaked pie crust

Preheat oven to 220 degrees C / 425 degrees F. 
Whisk pumpkin, sweetened condensed milk, eggs, spices and salt in medium bowl until smooth. 
Pour into crust. Bake 15 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 175 degrees C / 350 degrees F and continue baking 35 to 40 minutes or until knife inserted 1 inch from crust comes out clean.

Creamy Rice Pudding

Cooked white rice to yield 3 cups cooked rice
700 ml  or 3 cups milk
134g or 2/3 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup golden raisins (optional)
30g or 2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla


In a clean saucepan, combine cooked rice, milk, sugar, and salt. 
Cook over medium heat until thick and creamy, about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring constantly. 
Stir in eggs and keep over heat until the mixture thickens. 
Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla. 
Serve immediately or pour into casserole and place plastic wrap directly over warm pudding to keep a skin from forming. 
Place in warm oven to warm up prior to serving, or serve at room temperature.

Once the rice pudding was finished, I chopped the bread, celery and onions for the stuffing. I set aside the bread in an open bowl (it's not a problem if the bread is stale) and put the celery and onions together in a tupperware container.

I then chopped some of the fresh rosemary and thyme for the herb butter. Next, I mixed the herbs with approximately 40 grams or 3 tablespoons of softened butter, dried sage, and a little salt, and refrigerated it for turkey prep the next morning.

Lastly, I prepped the sweet potato casserole, following all directions but stopping short of making the topping (though I did chop the pecans) and baking it. Instead, I covered it and put it in the refrigerator for the next day.

Sweet Potato Casserole (prep-only portion of recipe)

1 kg or 4 cups sweet potato, cubed
100g or 1/2 cup white sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon (pinch) salt
60g or 4 tablespoons butter, softened
120ml or 1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Put sweet potatoes in a medium saucepan with water to cover. 
Cook over medium high heat until tender; drain and mash.
In a large bowl, mix together the sweet potatoes, white sugar, eggs, salt, butter, milk and vanilla extract. 
Mix until smooth. Transfer to a 9x13 inch baking dish. Cool, cover and refrigerate.

Day 3: Thanksgiving

Our Thanksgiving meal started at 6pm which is very late by some families' standards. That said, the times I include in this portion may have to be adjusted.

The husband and I started prepping the turkey at noon, following this plan outlined by my dear mother (thanks Mom!):

1.) Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C / 400 degrees F.
2.) Wash the turkey and remove the giblets from the cavity.
3.) Liberally season the cavity salt, pepper and poultry seasoning.
4.) Stuff the cavity with quartered onion, sliced carrot, sliced celery and fresh rosemary.
5.) Tie legs together with kitchen string and tuck wings under the bird.
6.) Loosen skin on top of turkey breast (I used my hand) and insert herb butter (prepared yesterday). Pat the top of the breast to distribute butter under the skin.
7.) Rub the entire exterior of the turkey with salt and pepper.
8.) Liberally rub the turkey breast with butter (about 80g or one stick minus what you used for the herb butter).
9.) Place turkey in roasting pan and add 220 ml or 1 cup of water to bottom of pan. Cover with foil.
10.) Put turkey in the oven and immediately turn down the oven temperature to 160 degrees C / 325 degrees F.
11.) Bake 15 minutes per pound, basting occasionally.
12.) Uncover turkey after the first two hours to let it brown.
13.) Let turkey rest at least 30 minutes, tented with foil.
14.) Carve and enjoy!

Once we had the turkey in the oven, we took the next few hours to play a game, clean the house and get it ready for our guests. At this point we also took the desserts our of the refrigerator to ensure that they were at room temperature by the time we served them. We cooked our turkey for 4 hours, but next time I wouldn't cook it as long as it seemed a little dry to me. Our turkey did not have that fancy little button that tells you when it's done, nor do we have a meat thermometer, but the latter will definitely be fixed before next Thanksgiving.

At 4:00pm, an hour before the turkey was finished and two hours before dinner was served, we started the rest of the cooking. Though, as I mentioned earlier, next year I will start this process a bit earlier. My plan was to prep the final dishes so that they were all ready by the time I took the turkey out of the oven at 5:00pm. At that point I would raise the oven temperature (all dishes required the same 175 degrees C / 350 degrees F oven temperature, thank goodness!) and start putting the rest of the dishes in the order they needed to go (first the stuffing, then the corn casserole, and finally the sweet potato casserole and the green bean casserole). While I took charge on these dishes, Philippe went to work on the mashed potatoes and hand-washing the dishes as I finished using them.   

I started with the corn casserole, completing all the preparation up until putting it in the oven. Then, I prepped the green bean casserole. Next, I made the topping for the sweet potato casserole and sprinkled it on top. I saved the stuffing preparation for last because I didn't want the bread to sit in the broth for too long. And after all that, it was oven time!

Side note: I am including all the recipes now even though I did not complete all steps of the recipes at this point in my execution of the meal.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes

3 medium baking potatoes peeled and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
120g or 8 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
60g or 1/4 cup sour cream, at room temperature
4 cloves finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon (or more) whole milk, at room temperature or warmed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium saucepan, cook the potatoes in salted water until tender, about 15 minutes. 
Drain the potatoes and return them to the saucepan.
Add the butter, sour cream and garlic. 
Mash the potatoes with a potato masher or the back of a fork until the ingredients are blended. 
Add the milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the potatoes are the desired consistency. 
Taste and add salt and pepper, if needed. 

Corn Pudding

INGREDIENTS:1 (15 1/4 oz. or about 425g) can whole kernel corn, drained
1 (14 3/4 oz. 
or about 425g) can cream-style corn
1 (8-ounce) package corn muffin mix (recommended: Jiffy)
230g (1 cup or 8 oz.) sour cream
60g (1/2 stick) butter, melted
1 to 1 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar

In a large bowl, stir together the 2 cans of corn, corn muffin mix, sour cream, and melted butter. 

Pour into a greased 9 by 13-inch casserole dish. 
Bake for 45 minutes at 175 degrees C / 350 degrees F, or until golden brown. 
Remove from oven and top with shredded cheddar. 
Return to oven for 5 to 10 minutes, or until cheese is melted. 
Let stand for at least 5 minutes and then serve warm.

Green Bean Hot Dish

1 (10 3/4 oz. or about 320g) can cream of mushroom soup
180 ml or 3/4 cup milk
1/8 tsp. black pepper
500g or 2 (9 oz. each) pkgs. frozen cut green beans, thawed
1- 6oz can or 2- 100g cans (1 1/3 cups) fried onions

Mix soup, milk and pepper in a baking dish.
Stir in beans and 2/3 cup fried onions.
Bake at 175 degrees C / 350 degrees F for 30 minutes or until hot. Stir.
Top with remaining 2/3 cup onions.
Bake 5 minutes until onions are golden.

Sweet Potato Casserole 

4 cups sweet potato, cubed
100g (1/2 cup) white sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
60g (4 tablespoons) butter, softened
120ml (1/2 cup) milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

110g (1/2 cup) packed brown sugar
43g (1/3 cup) all-purpose flour
40g (3 tablespoons) butter, softened
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). 
Put sweet potatoes in a medium saucepan with water to cover. 
Cook over medium high heat until tender; drain and mash.
In a large bowl, mix together the sweet potatoes, white sugar, eggs, salt, butter, milk and vanilla extract. 
Mix until smooth. Transfer to a 9x13 inch baking dish.
In medium bowl, mix the brown sugar and flour. 
Cut in the butter until the mixture is coarse. Stir in the pecans. 
Sprinkle the mixture over the sweet potato mixture.
Bake in the preheated oven 30 minutes, or until the topping is lightly brown.


4 cups cubed white bread
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
2 1/2 teaspoons dried sage
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 apple, cored and chopped
1/3 cup minced fresh parsley
400 ml chicken broth
60 g butter (1/2 stick)

Spread the cubes in a single layer on a large baking sheet. 
Bake for 5 to 7 minutes in the preheated oven, or until evenly toasted. 
Transfer toasted bread cubes to a large bowl.
In a large skillet, cook the butter, onions, celery and apple over medium heat. 
Add the sage, rosemary, and thyme; cook, stirring, to blend flavors. 
Add the chicken broth and simmer.
Pour skillet mixture over bread in bowl. Mix.
Cook covered for 30 minutes at 175 degrees C / 350 degrees F
Cook uncovered for 30 more minutes.

The four side dishes required an hour of oven time total. 
00:00 - Turkey comes out of the oven and stuffing goes in the oven (covered)
00:10 - Corn casserole goes in the oven
00:25 - Green bean casserole goes in
00:30 - Sweet potato casserole goes in the oven and the cover comes off the stuffing
00:50 - Add cheddar cheese to the top of the corn casserole
00:55 - Add the remaining friend onions to the top of the green bean casserole
1:00 - Take everything out of the oven

I was incredibly lucky to have the husband simultaneously helping me clean up as I went and making the mashed potatoes. Once my dishes were in the oven, I was then able to do some final clean up, set the table and attempt to make myself look presentable for guests. Without him, I probably would've made the mashed potatoes during this last hour of cooking and ultimately been much, much more stressed. I think it's doable, but I would highly recommend making Thanksgiving with a partner or asking a guest to come an hour early to help you with the final preparations.

Our guests started to arrive just as the food was ready.

Stuffing, Corn Casserole and Sweet Potato Casserole.
While the husband started carving the turkey, I made gravy by bringing the turkey juices to a boil and then thickening it with a bit of flour mixed in cold water. Neither of us had carved a turkey before, so we watched a video on YouTube and then tried to remember what we had seen. It went pretty well, and our friends were eager to help. Or maybe they were just ready to eat...

Carving the turkey...
It's a two person job. 
Ok, maybe a three person job.
Plates filled and ready to eat.
In honor of my aunt Marcy, I had everyone at the table share something they were thankful for before we began our meal. Marcy used to always tell us how thankful she was for us, and I wanted to be sure my guests knew how thankful I am that they have made me feel at home in this new city. It was a very meaningful day for me as Marcy was constantly in my thoughts as I made this meal. She was also in my thoughts after the meal as we washed all of the dishes by hand. You see, like her, we do not own a dishwasher.

After dinner we let our stomachs rest while we played a game and started a movie. Partway during the film I served both the pumpkin pie and rice pudding with a dollop of whipped cream, creating a sweet ending to this lovely, cozy holiday.

Photos by Tiago Rosado


Sinterklaas and his friend Zwarte Piet - the most beloved and contested man in the Netherlands

On Sunday, Sinterklaas arrived on his boat from Spain to kick off the holiday season in the Netherlands. While Sinterklaas is celebrated on December 6th, the name day of Saint Nicholas (patron saint of children), the man himself comes to Holland earlier for reasons I'm not so sure. What I do know is that there was a huge parade to celebrate his arrival, starting with the docking of his boat on the Amstel River and ending with a big party in Leidseplein where I happened to watch the festivities.

Who is Sinterklaas you may ask? Well, let's take a closer look.

My apologies for the blurry picture.
Like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas has a long white beard and dresses in red.

Unlike Santa Claus, Sinterklaas' hat looks more like the pope's, his stature is much slimmer, and he has a cape. He also rides a white horse instead of a sled pulled by reindeer.

Like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas rewards good children by bringing gifts.

Unlike Santa Claus, Sinterklaas visits children during the night of December 5th. On the morning of December 6th, children traditionally wake up to candy, and more specifically a chocolate letter of their first initial, in their shoes.

Also like the Christmas tradition, children will leave goodies for Sinterklaas before they go to bed: usually carrots and sugar cubes for his horse, a cup of coffee for the man himself and, according to Wikipedia, a beer for his helper Zwarte Piet.

Who is Zwarte Piet? Well, today Zwarte Piet is probably the most contested figure in the Netherlands.

Meet just a few of the parade's Zwarte Piets.

I was first introduced to Zwarte Piet when I read the chapter Six to Eight Black Men in David Sedaris' book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Regardless of whether you're a David Sedaris fan like myself, you should definitely check it out by either reading it or listening to it here.

What I learned from this essay is that, like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas has helpers. But unlike Santa Claus' magical elves who build toys in the North Pole, Sinterklaas' helpers are black men named Zwarte Piet. Yes, they all have the same name. And, in history, they each used to carry out only one task as they weren't known to be the smartest people.

While naughty children in the States get punished by receiving coal in their Christmas stockings, naughty children in the Netherlands may get spanked or, in earlier times, put into a bag and taken back to Spain by Zwarte Piet.

In the past, Zwarte Piet was known as a servant, saved from slavery by Sinterklaas and so happy for his freedom that he decided to stay and offer his services. Today, I'm pretty sure the word servant is no longer used, and instead Zwarte Piet is known as a helper or companion.

In yesterday's parade, there were more than 600 Zwarte Piets accompanying Sinterklaas. They walked, ran, pranced and skipped down the street while handing out candy and pepernoten (a gingerbread-like cookie) to the children. Here's a video:

I'm guessing it's easy to see why Zwarte Piet is so contested in the Netherlands. Prepared as I was for what was going to take place, seeing hundreds of people of all ages and genders dressed in blackface was still an absolute shock. As an outsider and someone completely removed from the tradition, it was very interesting to see that this racist practice is not only allowed but cherished in a culture. There were even some small children in blackface, dressed up as Zwarte Piet for the day's festivities.

A young Zwarte Piet.
Yesterday's parade came with many protesters trying to change the face of Zwarte Piet. And some changes have already been made. For example, Zwarte Piet usually wears big gold hoop earrings which were banned from this year's parade. It's a minuscule step for certain, and one that many feel is much too small, but I suppose any progress is a good thing.

What also surprised me was to see how loved Zwarte Piet is by children and adults alike. Apparently, the character speaks in poor Dutch and acts foolish, but I didn't see that. Granted I can't distinguish good Dutch from poor Dutch, but the Zwarte Piets that I saw weren't acting senseless. I mean, there were some Zwarte Piets doing acrobatics, but isn't it normal for people parading in costume to act a bit silly?

Zwarte Piet handing out pepernoten to some children.
What I did see were children dressed up like and eager to get their picture taken with one of their favorite holiday characters. I saw excitement and happiness on the faces of the observers, and in the Zwarte Piets I saw some of the most generous parade participants ever. I mean, everyone got lots of candy. Everyone.

I'm not defending the practice of dressing up as Zwarte Piet in the slightest, but I do personally know how important and magical holiday traditions can be. I mean, Santa Claus still comes to our house (I'm 29), and it's been a difficult past few years when the Easter Bunny has stopped hiding candy.

Many of the Dutch strongly defend their tradition and stand by their belief that Zwarte Piet is not perpetuating racism, but the opposition is growing stronger each year. As an article in The Economist so aptly put it, "even if a year ago [Zwarte Piet} was not a symbol of Dutch racism, he is now."

Here's hoping that the Dutch can find a way to maintain their holiday practices in a more respectful light, and soon.


Creating my place in Amsterdam - or at least trying

Moving to a new country is exciting and invigorating. As with any move, there are many things to do to get your life in order and to make yourself feel at home. There are countless places to explore and opportunities to find your new favorite restaurant, café, bookstore or park. That said, it's no wonder that my first few months in Amsterdam were very full.

First, we had a new apartment to turn into a home. 
Our apartment - nicely decorated for my welcoming, but not so much for a home.
Oh yea, and we named our apartment Walter.
I cleaned like I've never cleaned before, painted, bought new furniture, assembled furniture, rearranged furniture, and even made a cover for our couch. On top of that, we had a seemingly endless stream of appointments to arrange our first wedding and to get my residence permit. Then we went on a honeymoon to Malta, we visited the husband's family in France, and we got a kitten. 
Hi! I'm Lady.
Plus, we had the best summer weather Holland has probably ever seen, so there were the obligatory day trips, bike rides, walks, and picnics in the park to schedule. 
In Amsterdam, we know how to plan a proper picnic.
Oh yea, and we had our second wedding which was basically a two week affair. By the time my parents left on the Tuesday almost two weeks later, the adrenaline that had kept me going promptly crashed. I contracted a stomach bug mere hours after they left and stayed in bed until that Friday. 

And that brings us to the present. Now I'm feeling healthier, and I've gotten over those post-wedding blues which were surely intensified by having to say goodbye to and subsequently missing all the family and friends that visited. So what's next? The initial tasks on my list have been crossed off and the fun distractions have disappeared, but it appears that life is continuing to move forward. It is now time to create my own place in Amsterdam. But to be honest, I'm not exactly sure where to start.

In a way, I've been through this before. Throughout the past ten years I've lived in a handful of different cities and countries starting with my move from Minnesota to Chicago for college. My young, adventurous self was excited to go to a school as far away as her parents would allow (and still help contribute financially), where I knew no one and had to make all new friends. It wasn't easy though, and I vividly remember feeling lonely around the five month mark (which is exactly where I am now) and like I wasn't really close to anyone. I also, however, remember being comforted by the fact that it was quite easy to get home whenever I wanted (thank you for your dollar fares, Megabus). 

My next few moves all seemed to have expiration dates. During college I studied abroad in London, knowing that I had signed up for one semester and would be returning to the States in the summer. My next big move was to South Korea where I signed a one year contract to teach English. Next, I volunteered for a month in Thailand and set out for a few months of travel through Southeast Asia and Europe (during which time I met my man). I then moved back to Minnesota and attended graduate school, all the while knowing that I would move to Amsterdam after graduation. As you can see, besides that initial move to Chicago, much of my adult life has been spent hopping from one location to the next yet all the while knowing that my time in each place is somewhat limited.

Now I live here, and though we have an abstract plan to move back to the States at some point, it is unclear exactly when that will be. The initial period of getting settled is over and it is becoming increasingly important for me to find my place, to create and foster connections in this new city. 

So, this is how I'm beginning...

First, and very importantly, I'm looking for employment. 
Presently, I nanny two days a week and as much as I enjoy spending my days with those little kiddos, nannying doesn't really help to expand one's social circle. Finding employment hasn't been the easiest (a subject which will likely have an entire blog post devoted to it in the future), but I'm making headway. I'm in the process of obtaining a substitute teaching position and am looking forward to getting my foot in the door that way as well as meeting some others who share my passion for teaching.

I'm actively looking for ways to expand my social circle. 
Since my arrival, I've made two friends of my own. I know that may sound a bit pathetic, but the husband has a great social network that keeps us quite busy. Despite this, however, it is important to me that I make connections of my own. So, I've been doing my best to schedule coffee or lunch dates with those two friends as well as some of those I've met through the husband. 

I've also started a book club which is something that I've always wanted to do. I emailed every female that I know in Amsterdam to see if they were interested and told them to invite others as well. For our first meeting next month, I will host not only some ladies I already know but also ladies I've never met to discuss our book. It's all very exciting.

I'm continuing to be a tourist. 
Often times we neglect to be a tourist in our own city. To do so in Amsterdam would be quite a pity. With more than 50 museums and countless other places to visit, there is no shortage of ways to fill an afternoon. One thing I've done is to buy a museum card. The museum card allows you access to almost any museum in Amsterdam for a year after the activation date and pays for itself on your fourth museum visit. 
The Bibliotheek at the Rijksmuseum, one of my favorite places in Amsterdam.
The husband and I have always enjoyed going to museums, but now with this card we can go whenever we want and not have to worry about the cost (goodness gracious I sound like an advertisement). Plus, you can just pop into any old museum you happen to pass by if you have extra time. I've found that having this card not only gives me a productive way to spend extra time but also more insight to the Dutch culture.

I'm trying out new hobbies. 
Sewing - I'm attempting to improve my sewing skills. I already tackled one couch cover, and now I'm on to a more difficult one. But first, I have to find the perfect fabric. Cooking - the husband and I cook dinner just about every evening. It's been a fun challenge to try out new recipes and get creative in the kitchen. 
The couple that chops together stays together.
Language - I'm learning French. Writing - I started this blog and have (recently) been doing my best to post regularly. Writing has always been therapeutic for me, so this endeavor has been very worthwhile. Plus, it's a great way to update my friends and family back home. Yoga - I'm mustering up the courage to go to yoga more often. Yoga is something that I've always enjoyed and, with a studio a block away, something I should do more often. The reason I've been slacking is because when I attend a class, they often have to conduct it in English only for me which can be a bit uncomfortable. I think I just need to get over it though...

I know I have a long way to go before I feel that Amsterdam is really my home, but I believe that I'm making progress (and that's really what counts, right?). I'd also love advice! If you've ever struggled with finding your place and have some suggestions, please leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you.


I'm not in Minnesota anymore...

Yesterday, as the husband and I were heading into the supermarket to buy groceries, a parade of children streamed down the sidewalks holding lanterns and singing a song. Later in the evening, I could hear more voices singing songs outside, moving closer and closer to our apartment until they sounded like they were right outside. The next thing I knew, the doorbell rang ... and I froze.

"Lady, I have a feeling we're not in Minnesota anymore," I said to my cat (yes, I have been known to talk to my cat).

Apparently, November 11 is the Feast of Saint Martin, or Sint-Maarten as it is called in the Netherlands. When the night sky falls, children parade from door to door, singing songs and carrying their colorful lanterns and hoping neighbors will give them some candy or fruit. Their hopes must have been shattered when they reached our door. Because I was completely unaware of this tradition and equally as unprepared, I just hid inside my apartment.

It has now been almost five months since I moved to the Netherlands and this was the first time that I felt completely out of my element. For some reason it never occurred to me that I would find myself in the midst of a cultural tradition I knew nothing about. I had prepared myself for less enthusiasm about Halloween. I have decided to throw a Thanksgiving dinner for some friends as to not miss out on what is probably my favorite holiday of all time. But new holidays jumping out and surprising me? I just wasn't really expecting that.

As I huddled on my couch, wrapped in a blanket and accompanied by my sweet, purring kitten, I started to think of the other things that have caught me off guard or that I've starting getting used to since my arrival. The culture shock that I've experienced here was nothing like what I endured during my time teaching in South Korea -- like when people would stop in their tracks and stare at me as I walk down the street -- but there certainly are some differences.

The Dutch kiss hello.

To greet a friend in the Netherlands, you give three kisses on the cheek, alternating back and forth. Most of the time you just touch cheeks and pretend to kiss, but every so often you meet someone who really goes for it and gives you the real thing. Women will always kiss those they are meeting or greeting, but men will only give kisses to women. The humorous thing about kissing is that in Amsterdam, a city full of expatriates, there is a conglomeration of kissing customs. For example, many countries in Europe only give two kisses, so the going for that third one has the possibility of resulting in an awkward situation. Personally, and despite the occasional awkwardness, I enjoy this custom. The few times that I forget to kiss and put my hand out for a good old-fashioned shake, it ends up feeling very impersonal. It was also really great to receive all of our wedding guests by kissing as well, though after 200 or so kisses, my cheeks were pretty sore from all the puckering.

The Dutch rarely smile back.

I smile at strangers. I always have and I probably always will. In Minnesota, especially in the suburbs where I grew up, it was very common to smile at passersby when on a walk or bike ride. That said, it's only natural for me to do the same here when I make eye contact with someone on the street. But here, such smiles are not returned. It's quite the opposite actually. I've received scowls, frowns and looks of confusion in return. Even when I'm nannying and I notice someone smiling at the cute child I'm pushing in a stroller, they still won't extend the smile to me. I suppose it's possible that I'm just the oddball that will smile at anyone, but I'm going to stand strong by my belief that smiling back is relatively painless and just might make your day better.

Your spot in line is sacred.
Another reason I find the lack of smiling back so strange is due to the fact that other courtesies are offered freely. For example, the other day I was waiting in line at the supermarket when I realized I had forgotten something. It was the after-work rush and the lines were long, but I had no other choice than to step out of line, grab the item I needed, and find a new place in line. Much to my surprise, the woman who was originally behind me noticed me in the back and graciously invited me back to my place in line. I was absolutely baffled by this gesture and even more surprised that it came with a smile. Imagine my embarrassment then, when I realized that I had forgotten another item and once again had to step out of line (apparently I was a tad bit forgetful that day), and the following surprise when the man behind her (she was now checking out) invited me back in line upon my return. At first I thought it was just a fluke, but since that day I have noticed time and again that the rule of the line is strongly enforced.

Dutch parents are relaxed parents.

Ok, so I'm pretty sure that Dutch parents wouldn't pick up their child like in the graphic above, but I have to say that I've been quite surprised by how lax parents can be in the Netherlands. The first time I noticed this was this summer when I saw naked children playing in a fountain (for the record, there are lots and I mean lots of naked children here in the summer). I'd say that the children were between the ages of one and four years, and many of them were walking around as the parents engaged in conversations with others, seemingly oblivious to what their children were doing. I saw one child just take off and start playing behind a tree, naked as the day she was born, and no one seemed to notice. Now, I personally think the whole naked thing is something to be embraced. The kids all looked pretty darn happy to be playing in the water and the openness toward nudity in European cultures is something that helps foster a healthy body image. However, I think if I had a child -- especially one that was just barely walking -- I'd keep a closer eye on him/her as they frolicked in the water.

This more relaxed style of parenting came to my attention again when the husband and I ran into one of his coworkers and her family at the Amsterdam Roots Festival. They had just come from the kids' area, and their son was eager to show off his new creation: a person riding a bicycle made of wire. Apparently, the kids were given metal wire and tools to cut and bend the wire into the shape they desired. She laughed as she commented on how an activity like this probably wouldn't be accepted in the States (where her partner is from), and as she explained that the other activity included a wooden table of hammers and nails for children to pound away.

I admittedly didn't witness this activity myself, but I couldn't help but think back to the naked children running in the fountain and imagine a similar scene -- this time with hammers, nails and a wire cutter. It's all just so different than what is considered acceptable in the States where kids are constantly being watched and protected. It actually reminds me of the stories I heard from my mom's childhood, when she and her siblings would leave home in the morning and come back for dinner with minimal supervision in between. And I must say, my mom turned out great. Maybe more relaxed isn't so bad.

So, there you have some of my first impressions of the Dutch. I'm sure there will be more to come in the following months!


Photo credits:
Women standing in a picket line reading the newspaper PM by Kheel Center (CC-BY-2.0)


Marriage Musings: Always Kiss Me Goodnight

Welcome to the first installment of a series of posts I've decided to call marriage musings. This might be a little ambitious since, to date, I only have three ideas for what I'm going to include in the series, but I'm just going to push on anyways with the confidence that more will come with time.

For this first marriage musing, I'm going to have to come right out and say that our married life is going quite swimmingly. The other day, as we were watching our nightly episode of Six Feet Under, one of the characters made a comment about the first year of marriage being the toughest. We immediately exchanged a glance and noted that we have not yet felt that way. I attribute this to three things. First, we're undoubtedly still in that honeymoon phase you hear so much about. Secondly, I think we're still on cloud nine that we're actually together. In the same city. With no plane ticket ominously looming over our heads waiting to call one of us back home. No, now we're creating a home together, and that is a truly wonderful feeling. Lastly, I feel that we really work at our relationship, our connection and our communication.

I hesitate to use the word work, but because my thesaurus is failing me, I guess I have to. I hesitate because, though we do work at our marriage, it doesn't feel like work. I can honestly say that I enjoy the effort I put forth to make things run smoothly. When the husband is happy, I feed off his happiness. And when I know that I contributed to his good mood, that feels even better. The work is most definitely worth it.

Plus, a lot of our efforts are fun.

Over the summer, during one of my many trips to the Albert Cuyp Markt, I came across this piece of artwork slash photo display that, despite it's kind of ugly hodgepodge appearance, had a good message.

Always kiss me goodnight.

Of course! Began my inner monologue.

Of course I kiss my man goodnight every night. 
I totally do. Right? 
Yea, I do. I must. 
Why wouldn't I?

I decided that day to really pay attention to these goodnight kisses. It just made sense.

So now, each and every night, I make sure to set aside a special moment. I take the time to say goodnight, and give that handsome husband of mine a kiss. This tiny moment in time gives us one last chance to really connect before we fall asleep. And not only is it nice, it's almost therapeutic as it requires you to leave some of the stress of the day behind you. After all, to give a meaningful kiss, you can't be angry. To give a meaningful kiss, you have to be present. To give a meaningful kiss, you have to let yourself love and feel loved. That hardly seems like work.


Our Second Wedding: A Recap

It's been quite some time since I posted last, but I believe I have a good excuse for being a slacker in the blog department: our second wedding. On the 19th of October, the husband and I tied the knot again, this time in front of our family and friends. Though we had officially been married for a little more than three months, I admittedly didn't feel much of a change after our first wedding. We had made a nice day of the occasion, having lunch with our witnesses in the Vondelpark and drinks with more friends that evening, but afterwards things felt just as they had before. Maybe it's because the vows were in Dutch and I wasn't sure exactly what I was agreeing to? I'm not sure exactly, but what I do know is that this time it feels more official. It feels like something has changed.

Our wedding festivities began the Thursday before the wedding when our overseas guests started to arrive in Amsterdam. I was lucky enough to have fifteen guests travel from the United States, South Korea and China to witness our special day. The husband and I planned a handful of activities to give ourselves and our guests the chance to meet and visit throughout the weekend. We had drinks at a café on Thursday, a breakfast open house at our apartment on Friday morning, and a canal dinner cruise on Friday evening. Planning some of these events was a bit of an afterthought since most of the time leading up to the wedding my mind was focused on all the details of the actual ceremony and reception, but I am so thankful that we arranged it the way we did. It was during these times that I felt like I could breathe, relax and enjoy the company of my guests without letting my mind run a mile a minute. It was also during these times, however, that I felt stretched a bit thin. At any one time, I had my family, my friends from home, and my friends from my time teaching in Korea all together in the same room. Most of me felt blessed that they all chose to push aside their busy schedules, hop on a plane and fly thousands of miles away to support my man and I, but there was also a part of me that felt unable to connect with anyone as intimately as I wanted to. I was always aware of those I was not talking to and felt that the conversations I did have were short and a bit superficial. I wanted to stop time and take each person out to coffee and personally catch up on the four months, year, or three since I had seen them last. Unfortunately my ability to manipulate time is not as powerful as I may wish, so the time I was able to spend with these special people is time that I cherish.

The wedding itself was everything I had hoped for. I had suffered from some major anxiety and lack of sleep leading up to the wedding (I'm sure I'm not alone in this), but of course it was all for nothing. The three nights leading up to the wedding were restless. No matter how exhausted my body was, my mind was wide awake creating to-do lists, categorizing said to-do lists, and fretting over whether there would be daisies in the table bouquets because I really didn't want any daisies and even though I expressed this to the florist maybe she misunderstood my English and thought I told her to use nothing but daisies. But, when it came down to it, I was able to check everything off the to-do lists, the table bouquets were perfect, and everything went off without a hitch.

Well, almost everything. I mean, there has to be at least a small glitch on the big day, right? For us, it was a shoe mishap. On Friday, I was in charge of bringing the wedding clothes for my sister and her husband from my apartment to the hotel (on top of everything else for the wedding, may I add). So, I did. I brought all the clothes. All the clothes and none of the shoes. It wasn't a big deal that night as the canal dinner cruise wasn't a formal affair, but it was important that my man - the man who is known to leave his own belongings behind on a pretty regular basis - remember  to bring them tomorrow.

"What do you need to bring tomorrow?" I asked about a million times that night.
"Rob and Chelsea's shoes," he'd answer.
"Where are Rob and Chelsea's shoes?" I'd chirp back.
"On the shelf in the spare room." Ok. Got it. Good.

The next day, as the husband and I were walking back to the hotel after getting our pictures taken not only by our photographers but also by many passing tourists, I called my sister to make sure everyone was ready for the family photos. She reported that everyone was there and accounted for, but that Rob's shoes were missing. I looked to my man who, innocently, said he had brought them. He brought the ladies' shoes that were on the shelf and the men's shoes that were in the bag next to the shelf. Next to the shelf, not on the shelf like we had gone over a bajillion times. But hey, it was his wedding day, gotta cut the guy a little slack right? I mean, I know my nerves were out of whack and my mind was in a million places. So, with some deep breaths and phone calls we quickly realized that the shoes he brought belonged to Guillaume, his childhood friend who was staying at our apartment. Another phone call later and it was decided that, because thankfully the guys wore the same size, Rob would wear Guillaume's shoes for the pictures and that they would do a shoe swap once Guillaume arrived at the hotel. As I said before, every wedding needs a mix-up. And our photographers caught ours on film:

"Ok babe, tell me exactly, where did you find the shoes that you brought?"
Planning shoe-swaps, averting crises.
After that, it was smooth sailing. Some highlights include, but of course are not limited to, the following:

The ceremony. Our dear friend officiated the ceremony and did an incredible job. It was just the right amount of funny, touching and personal, and she even graced us with her vocal talents by singing a love song. It was very important to us that Dutch, French and English all be incorporated into our ceremony, and I'm happy to say that we succeeded. My childhood friend read a blessing in English, my man's sister read a poem in French, and our officiant's song was in Dutch. We also presented each other with our rings in French and, in the spirit of marriage and support, made sure to help each other through the parts we had trouble remembering.

The love song. My mother-in-law wrote us a song to the tune of Yellow Submarine which all of the wedding guests surprised us by singing after our champagne toast (unfortunately I don't have any photos of this yet). This might have been my favorite moment of the whole evening; the husband and I standing up on a staircase, looking down over all of our dearest friends and family as they sang up to us. It was the perfect way to see all of their smiling faces while taking a moment to exhale after the ceremony ... not to mention a perfect start to the celebration as well!

The speeches. Talk about feeling loved! Our fathers, my sister and my man's brother gave heartfelt, make you laugh and then make you cry speeches. My dad translated the last part of his speech into both French and Dutch (I commend your effort, Daboon!), my sister worked in a plot synopsis of our favorite childhood movie Sillyville, and my man's brother surprised us with a picture slideshow (which hilariously featured my chubby baby pictures as The Guess Who's American Woman was playing). 

The dance. The evening ended with a serious dance party. The dance floor was packed the whole time and the DJ did a great job of playing all the classics that I had requested. He didn't, however, do a great job of transitioning from song to song or following my request not to come out from behind the DJ booth to sing along. But hey, it's these unplanned moments that you laugh about later ... and we have.

So there it is: our second wedding. And now that I'm wrapping up this post, I think I've figured out what it is that made things feel different after this wedding. I have always been, at my very core, an extroverted person who places much value on family and friendship. Well, with this wedding I had the opportunity to feed off of the love, happiness and support of those that mean the most to me. I got to have moments like these:

Sillywhim sisters sharing a giggle.

Seeing my dad for the first time.

Wrapping my bouquet with lace from my mom's wedding dress, with my mom's help.

I once overheard my sister's friend saying that her own wedding was by far the best wedding she had ever been too. I remember thinking that that was such a great thing to be able to say, and I hoped that one day I would feel the same way.

I do.

All photos by Luis Monteiro