Chronicles of a writer abroad


Amicable Amsterdam

Hi! We returned yesterday from our second long-weekend trip, this time to Paris and Euro Disney. I’ll give a report on that soon, but first I wanted to write my promised second post on Amsterdam.

Here’s a fun fact that you might not have known: Amsterdam’s city code is XXX. As a result, you can see these three letters stamped on the city’s garbage cans, lamp posts, sewer grates and so on. Thinking that you might not believe me on this, I snapped the following picture of one of the city’s maintenance trucks:

I wonder if his uniform also says XXX somewhere on it. 'Cause that would be kinda funny.

Okay, so why? It is because the city is so enamoured with all things pornographic, or so proud of its reputation for sexual permissiveness?

No — in fact it’s the opposite. The three Xs are derived from the three St. Andrew’s crosses on the city’s coat of arms, which dates back to the 15th century. And according to the guide of a walking tour that we took the last time we were in the city, because some early pornography was manufactured in Amsterdam, when it was shipped to other locales it bore the city’s code – XXX – and quickly these three letters became associated with that type of entertainment. Interesting, no?

However, I do also think that the city somewhat enjoys its reputation for raunchiness. Why else would they install little red lights at an entrance to the Vondelpark, which is situated across the city from the world-famous red-light district?

Just a reminder: we have red lights here.

Of all the European cities I’ve visited over the years, Amsterdam is my favourite. Some reasons why: it’s a manageable size, it’s immensely walkable, and it doesn’t feel at all chaotic or crowded. It is full of trees and parks and bridges and water, so that a scene begs to be photographed every few paces. Its food is excellent but not at all pretentious — nothing about Amsterdam is pretentious. The dress code is casual and the locals are friendly. And everywhere you go, people of all ages are zipping past you on their rusty old bicycles, unaware of the whimsical beauty they’re creating. Finally, wherever your opinion of the red light district and the coffee shop falls, these things are really not in your face when you’re out and about in the city — they are pretty much segregated, so that you have to go looking for them if you want to find them.

After our race was over on the Sunday, Stelian and I headed for the Vondelpark — the city’s largest and probably loveliest park — it is how I imagine Central Park in New York to look (but obviously smaller-scale). The odd trampled sponge or expended gel packet reminded us that this had been part of the half-marathon and marathon route, but most of the detritus had been swept away by that time, and the park had been reclaimed by ordinary weekend joggers and people walking their dogs. As we made our way through the park, we passed an accordion player who lent a bit of a Parisian feel to the scene. Then we  exited the park and entered the Leidseplein district, where we went on a mission to find a restaurant that we’d dined at during our first visit to the city, in 2008. We were delighted to find that it was just where we left it, and that the hotchpotch was as good as ever. This dish is a sort of deconstructed shepherd’s pie, with potatoes, onions and carrots all mixed together. Stelian’s was topped with beef, while I ordered the vegetarian version, which came with cheese croquettes, or fried cubes of the best cheese I have ever tasted in my life. Sorry, Switzerland, but that’s the truth. I love Dutch cheese. If anyone is making plans to go to Amsterdam anytime (and as a reminder to my future self), this is the restaurant. Like Amsterdam itself, it is unassuming but wholly enjoyable. I wish there was something in Zurich that I liked this much. On second thought…that might not be a good thing.

We ate so much, in fact, that there was no room for dessert (sadly, because I was wanting to try the traditional poffertjes). But we walked around later that night and encountered a Hallowe’en fun fair, where many types of fried goodness were on offer, and where a very delicious cherry pannekoek was consumed. Stelian also shot a bow and arrow for the first time at this fair, and has not stopped talking about his love of archery ever since.

Enough words…here are some more pictures from our time in the city. And, in case I haven’t managed to communicate this in the 800 words above: you should go!

An interesting "kinetic statue" near our hotel that made infernal screeching noises during its five-minute period of activity each hour.

Lovely houses. The blue one bears a hook of the type used to get furniture in through windows.

Stelian and somebody's dog in the Vondelpark


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Turtling towards utopia

Yes, I do mean turtling.

My new totem animal is the turtle (and not just the super-giant, golden tortoise variety pictured here).

This great sculpture was located near our hotel in Amsterdam. After I ran a particularly slow race on Sunday, I felt a kinship with it, and read its accompanying plaque. In this way, I learned that the artist, Jan Fabre, was inspired by a 16th century text by humanist Thomas More which described a political utopia, and he sculpted this piece to show himself on a quest to reach said destination. The plaque explained that “by choosing a tortoise as his steed, [Fabre] is saying that the desired destination should be reached at a leisurely pace rather than in a rush.”

Hmm, I thought. Utopia. Leisurely pace. Maybe I wasn’t racing after all…maybe I, too, had been searching for utopia during those few hours of running?

In all seriousness, though, I feel that there is something powerful in this metaphor that I have only scraped the surface of. I love running — even when I’m slow, even when it really hurts, even when afterwards I have to confront this graphical representation of my poor performance:

Even despite this, there is a feeling that when I’m running, I’m moving towards utopia — however slowly. I’m moving towards not only cardiovascular fitness and peace of mind but a feeling of connectedness to the world I live in and a different relationship with the people, animals and things in it. It’s a feeling that I can’t quite describe, and I also can’t get enough of, so even though I’m still a bit stiff and sore, I’m impatiently waiting to lace up my shoes again.

Okay, I’m going to stop talking about running and the race now. But just before I do, can we please take a moment to laugh at this picture of me and two other runners looking absolutely wretched as we finish the final few hundred meters of the race inside of the Olympic Stadium?

Hilarious and priceless. At least I know that if none of my other plans work out, I can probably get a job playing Zombie #3 in any number of movies. I’ll admit that the other two are upstaging me, though. I’ll work on it.

Oh, and kudos to Stelian, who ran a great 8km race on Sunday! Here he is waiting for his race to begin:

It was pretty cold that morning, but not for them once they started going. And the fun part for me, since my race was not until the afternoon, was watching the winner of the 8km come into the stadium, followed a minute or two later by a couple more runners, and a couple of minutes after that, hundreds were streaming in, excited and celebrating as they crossed the finish line. It’s hard not to get caught up in that kind of energy.

Stay tuned for pictures of Amsterdam and a recap of our non-racing time there in my next entry!


Heading to Amsterdam

The time has come! We fly to Amsterdam tomorrow afternoon. We’ll be running our respective races on Sunday morning/afternoon (Stelian’s 8k has the very civilized starting time of 10am, while I have to wait for 1:30 to begin the half marathon).

I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit of dread when I think of the distance I’m going to cover, and the time that I hope to do it in. Somehow, despite the hundreds of kilometers that have gone into my training this season, my legs never got to a point where they were feeling strong and dependable. But a lot can happen with good weather, which is forecasted, as well as a good course and the excitement of a race. Runners finish both the 8km and the half marathon by entering the Olympic Stadium, so I know that whatever happens, it’s going to be fun to finish in front of a cheering stadium crowd and pretend that I’m some kind of real athlete. 🙂

Another thing I can be sure of is that there’ll be good music playing in my ears as I move towards the finish line. Here’s a peek at my race playlist:

It’s got a little bit of everything…some of these songs I genuinely, really like (the last one, 40 Day Dream, is one of my favourites) and others I find are good to run to, even if I can’t stand them at other times.

I’ll be back with an update sometime after our return from the city of canals, tall skinny houses, bikes, and uh…other stuff, on Monday.

Happy weekend, everyone!


Worms & thanks

Happy Thanksgiving, my dear Canucks!

Now, I’d like to ask you something, and I’d like you to please answer honestly. Aren’t you a little tired of eating pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dinner dessert year after year? I mean, sure, it’s delicious, but how about trying something different for a change? How about finishing your Thanksgiving meal with one of these:

What’s that you say? You’d rather not, because it looks weird and scary?

Well, I decided, in the name of intrepid blog-reporting, to go for it. Okay, it was mostly because I wanted to join in on Thanksgiving, and because there are no pumpkin pies or cans of pumpkin puree in Switzerland, so if I wanted a pie I’d have to hack up my own gourd. And that…just seemed like too much work. Especially when Stelian is not a big fan of the orange stuff.

So instead, I decided to indulge in what the Swiss eat at this time of year (meaning fall, because today is not a holiday for them). What you see in the picture above are vermicelles – worm shaped strands made from a paste whose main ingredient is chestnut. Here you see them in a tart, but they also appear atop cakes. The tart form seemed more pure to me, so I opted for it.

I imagine that this dessert is really fun for kids to eat, for a few reasons. First of all, these strands are named after worms, they look kinda like a pile of worms, and you can pick them apart with your fingers and do all kinds of weird things with them. Secondly, because they’re very sweet. When eating them, I detected a slight chestnut flavour, but also the presence of butter, flour, and a looootta sugar. (N.B.: that is not a complaint, unless you are my dentist, in which case, I did not approve of the sugar content, and brushed my teeth immediately afterwards).

So, they were good — not knock-your-socks-off great, but solidly good, and I’m very happy to have had an excuse to try them, because it was a lingering item on my “to-do while in Switzerland” list. Now, I’m off to try to walk off some of the sugar and capture some fall colours on my camera.

Before I go, though, let me say that although we are not doing much to celebrate this holiday (apart from eating tarts with lower-than-usual guilt levels), we are feeling thankful. Thankful to still be on this amazing expat adventure, and thankful for our amazing families, far away though you may be.

Enjoy the holiday, everyone!


Exclusive (and first ever) interview

Hi all! I know I’ve been MIA for a while now…I just finished a weekend writing workshop (our fiction tutor was the lovely author of this lovely book), we’ve been training hard for our races, and the fact that this blogging platform and my Mac haven’t wanted to play nice has caused me to attempt to post, only to turn away in frustration, several times (happily, I’ve just discovered that the solution is simply to use a non-Safari browser on my Mac).

But you’ll be happy to know that I have lined something exciting up for you…this is an exclusive interview with a very important person!

People always ask me what Stelian does, and I’m never really able to explain (sadly, this is because I do not really know). I decided it was time to rectify this situation, so I arranged to ask the man himself a few clarifying (as well as totally serious and unbiased) questions. By the way, if you’re reading this and you don’t know where Stelian works, refer to this set of photos for a clue. I don’t want to associate his name and workplace in this post, because I don’t want Google to offer this up as a serious interview with an employee of this company.

Without further ado:

Q1: So…what would you say you do here? By “here,” I mean at that place where you work.

I computerize intricate algorithms aimed at controlling ambulation on
appendages for characters in virtual worlds whose dynamics are governed by Newton’s three laws of motion. (Thanks Word Synonyms for making my work seem fancy!!)

O.K.: now put that in terms a person’s grandmother can understand, please.

Generally speaking, I help inch the research frontier ever so slightly forward, seeking to get (scientifically) where no one’s ever been before. While I am doing this, I keep an eye out for applications that could potentially be useful to the [name of company] Empire. And [said company] is certainly an empire, employing more than 140,000 people, and owning movie-making and animation studios, TV channels, several video game studios, cruise lines, and, of course, the theme parks. Check the wiki if you don’t believe me – that’s where I got all this info from.

People in my lab (and the company’s other labs, in other locations) work on
all sorts of exciting projects, in many different areas – computer graphics and animation (developing technologies for 3d movies and video games studios), robotics (for the theme parks) and video processing (stereo – think 3D glasses – is a big area of research) are just a few examples.

I am currently working on a few (top secret) projects. Some of them are geared
towards making the job of computer animators easier. Others will
hopefully help make the theme parks seem a little more magical. Unfortunately I don’t have any cool things to show yet – maybe in a year or so.

Tell us something interesting about your office/work.

We’ve got cool company art-work all over the walls, free coffee and drinks, great coworkers, a seemingly endless stream of ideas to work and collaborate on.

Last question. A little birdie told me that you showed a video of a dog humping your co-author to an audience of tens of thousands at SIGGRAPH, your field’s largest and most important conference. Is this true?

No, false. There were only about 5000 people in attendance. And the humpee
was just a lonely graduate student in our lab, not even a co-author. This was meant as a cautionary tale and a warning on the hazards of working with live animals. The mildly comedic reaction that this scene caused was merely a side-effect.

Okay, one more. Is your wife really a key behind-the-scenes player in your career success, as is frequently rumoured?
Behind every strong man (which I certainly am), there is always a woman, they say. I don’t know how they knew it, but THEY were right.

Feel free to ask our honourable interviewee your own questions in the comments!