We decided on Greece for our first excursion from Amsterdam. It was early April, so we wanted to head south. It was Easter weekend, so we wanted to stay away from Rome. In Greece it wasn't Easter, so we wouldn't have to contend with the local holiday coinciding with our holiday. So we went.

We connected in Athens and flew into Santorini for a three-night stay. Santorini is a beautiful island formed from a volcano. The always-freshly-painted-white buildings built into the side of the dark cliffs of the caldera are a beautiful sight, as our one-thousand or so pictures can show. We stayed in a town called Firostefani, at a place called Dana Villas. We can highly recommend both.

We may not have realized this going in, but Santorini was our perfect vacation spot. There are great activities like swimming in hot springs, sailing, or hiking along the cliff. There is incredible natural beauty: very interesting geological features (the reddest rock faces I've ever seen), and amazing sunsets. And it is surprisingly not over-commercialized or over-priced.

And then there's the food. I was not prepared for the food. Since moving to New York ten years ago and discovering great food, I have considered Greek food to be in my top two favorite foods. An evening at Symposium with warm pita, tzatziki, stuffed grape leaves, olives, and feta could not be beaten. But for some reason it never occurred to me in all of the lead up to our trip to Greece that *there would be Greek food there*. I embarrassed myself at every meal acting like every bite of food was the most delicious I had ever tasted in my life. Because it was!

Athens was amazing for completely different reasons. It is touristy, but not in the good way where you have a nice clean accommodations. It is touristy in the crowded, cheap souvenir way. The problem we had in Athens is getting our minds around time. The oldest buildings in New York, I'm going to guess, are from the mid-to-late 18th century. Our canalhouse in Amsterdam was built in the mid-17th century. Amsterdam itself was established in the 13th century, but I'm not aware of anything that old that's still standing.

Athens has structures ("ruins" I guess, but that doesn't do them justice) that were constructed in the 5th century BC. It's too big a leap. I can't get my mind around it. There is a complete reconstruction in the agora that was created with the same specifications and materials as the original. It's impressive by today's standards -- 2500 years later, whatever that means.

We also embraced the early Christianity "Paul was here" aspect of Athens. We climbed atop the Areopagus on Easter Sunday and read the passage from Acts where Paul enlightens the Athenians about the unknown god they "have worshipped in ignorance." And the next day we took a tour out to Corinth and saw where Paul spoke in the Agora there. Again, we tried and failed to really grasp the power, wealth, and influence that this city had over two thousand years ago.

Next stop: Keukenhof


The Honorable Dutch

Since we've been here, we've spent a fair amount of time on trains, subways, and trams. We were surprised to find that things work more or less on the honor system.

You can walk into the subway, go down the stairs, and hop on the train. No turnstile. No ticket taker. The trams have a driver and occasionally someone in the back who will sell you a ticket, but I've never seen them call anyone out. And on the commuter trains, I've only had a ticket taken on a longer trip. I've never seen a ticket collected between the airport and central station. The idea is that they take tickets only occasionally, and they enforce compliance by charging fines if they find you without a ticket.

There are other types of tickets, but for the most part we use something called a stripkaart. You buy your card at a newsstand. They come in various sizes, but typically have about 15 lines on them. When you get on a subway or tram, you're supposed to use a machine to stamp the date and time on one of the lines on your stripkaart. If someone comes around to make sure you paid, they'll look at your card to see that you stamped it. Once you run out of lines on the card, you need to get a new one. (it's actually a little more complicated than that, because depending on how far you're going, you may be required to stamp two to four lines just for one trip).

So we were on our way back from running errands and we went to take the subway. Our stripkaart only had one line left on it and we needed four. We couldn't find anywhere to buy a new one, so we just stamped the last line and got on the train. This was the first time in all of our riding that we had "jumped the turnstile". And wouldn't you know that about five minutes into our ride two policemen entered the front of our car and started checking tickets! I seriously almost told Beth to get off the train as quick as we could...if we hadn't been in seats, we might have. When they got to us, I showed him the stripkaart and was about to start making our excuses ("but we're Americans - we didn't know!") but he just said thanks and moved on.

The next day we bought the jumbo stripkaart -- we're set for a while.


Our Bikes

Bikes are everywhere in Amsterdam. For most, it is their primary means of transportation, even for those who commute from out of town. We started looking for bikes within the first week we were here. Considering how ubiquitous and important bikes are in Amsterdam, it was surprisingly difficult to find our bikes. We visited many secondhand bike shops to find a very small selection. It was also surprising how expensive a secondhand bike is. We knew that Dutch bikes were very basic -- you don't want a bike that stands out in a crowd, because they get stolen all of the time. Considering their no-frills nature, we were surprised to find that secondhand bikes are typically between 125 and 175 Euros.

We found ours at a store called Fietspiraat (Bike Pirate). I would tell you what brand they are, but I honestly don't know. Needless to say, they're not Trek or Giant! My bike says "The Ranger" on it -- yeah, it's pretty awesome.

Once we got our bikes, the city shrank. It took us about 30 minutes of tram-riding and walking to get to Fietspiraat; it took us about 6 minutes to ride home. With the exception of our grocery store and our gym, which are within walking distance, we ride everywhere now.

It is amazing how much area we can cover now. We can be out of the city within about five minutes. If we ride to the south, we can see the tulip fields. If we ride to the north, we can see windmills. If we go to the east, we can ride along one of the dikes that keeps the country from being flooded. And if we ride to the west, we can reach the beach. The Netherlands is ideal for touring by bike. The whole country is less than twice the size of New Jersey, and flat as a pancake. Which reminds me, they have great pancakes. More on that later.


Living in Amsterdam

We moved to Amsterdam on the 24th of March and plan to live here until the end of September. This is the first time for either Beth or I to live outside the U.S. Just within these first few weeks, we've had numerous experiences that we want to be sure not to forget, and many that we want badly to share with our friends and family. So we will resurrect the blog for the purpose of sharing some stories and photos from our adventure.

We had a lot of people supporting us in our move. My company relocated us, and made available professionals to take care of everything from visas to packing, from apartment-hunting to cultural training. We made an "orientation" visit to check out neighborhoods about a month before our move, and we purchased and read many books on Amsterdam and The Netherlands.

So it was surprising how difficult it was to do the simplest things when we got here in late March. We arrived with four suitcases (well, we didn't exactly arrive with them, but they made it eventually), and that was all we had for the first two weeks we were here. The apartment came with furniture, but when it came to "stuff" for the kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, etc. we had to start from scratch.

Beth and I soon agreed that rather than filling us in on all of the cultural differences between the Dutch and Americans, it would have been a much better use of our "support team" for someone to just take us on a shopping trip! Just show us where to go to get a hair dryer, help us recognize the difference between laundry detergent and fabric softener, point us to a reasonably-priced secondhand bike shop, ... everywhere we turned there was some small need that we found ourselves unable to address.

There are still a few of these things left (we still need to get a dutch mobile phone), but over the past few weeks we've been able to solve most of these "problems" and form a routine. Our life here is night-and-day different than New York -- in some ways better and in some ways not. We are doing our best to live as locals, not tourists. We want to experience as much as we possibly can during this window of opportunity.

I already have subjects for the next 11 posts. I'll try to get around to writing as often as I can. It's nice to think that we can, in a limited way, share our life here with our friends. Until next time...


Mark to Market

I'm a huge fan of Dave Ramsey, but as I've been busy keeping up with things at work lately, I haven't spent a lot of time listening to his show. So today as I was walking the dog I listened to a couple shows from last week.

As you would imagine, the main topic of discussion was the financial crisis and the pending bailout. Dave spent considerable time in a "teaching" section of the show saying that one of the primary causes of this financial crisis was the "mark-to-market" rule in Sarbanes Oxley. Dave urged his thousands of listeners to call their congressmen and congresswomen and demand that they change the mark-to-market rule.

So what is mark-to-market? It's an accounting rule that says that when a company is valuing the assets on their books, they should use the market value (rather than the price that they paid, for example). Sounds reasonable, right? It's a market-based approach to determining the value of assets.

So how was mark-to-market involved in this crisis? It turns out that the investment banks were not only selling a lot of these CDOs (the mortgages bundled into bonds) to investors, but they were keeping a lot for themselves (not sure if it's because they really wanted them or if they just couldn't move them fast enough). As these CDOs plummeted in value on the market, these banks had to update their books to reflect that the value of their assets had decreased.

So what would eliminating the mark-to-market rule do? Without mark-to-market, the banks could claim that the CDOs were still worth what they paid for them. It would allow any public company inflate their balance sheets by hiding the true value of their assets.

Don't we want (shouldn't we demand) transparency from our public companies? Of course. So which is the correct valuation of assets? The market value of course! That's what the market does! I'm sorry to say, Dave, but removing the transparancy and hiding the problems under a rock is NOT a solution. Most every economist is saying so; it's only in the political arena that this is being discussed ... so why is that?

Much like the "blame the poor for it" approach, the "blame regulation for it" approach is the next best thing for Republicans who thought that free markets would solve any problem. So Dave urged his thousands of listeners to call their congressmen and congresswomen and demand that they change the mark-to-market rule. As I mentioned, these shows were from a week ago, so I can only assume that Dave and others like him were part of what caused House Republicans to have their "the Democrats will have to pass the bailout" moment last week.

I predict that in four years, as Republicans are preparing to run against an incumbent President Obama, that they will resurrect this theory of over-regulation as both the cause and the neglected solution for the financial crisis of 2008. Don't buy it!


We sponsored the Olympics!?

Shamelessly copied from this Slate article by Bruce Reed:

Perhaps most urgently, the next president will have to admit what George W. Bush would not—that if we don't put our fiscal house in order, China will foreclose on it.

Think about that for a minute

As Obama has pointed out, "It's very hard to tell your banker that he's wrong."

Preach it, Obama

This year's federal budget deficit will be a record $500 billion, not counting wars and economic bailouts. One of history's headlines on this administration will be, "Bush Owes to China."

The rise of China is the story of this Olympics and threatens to be the story of the next presidency. So it's only fitting to give viewers a sense of what's at stake.

My dream ad would show the robot Wall-E methodically stacking pressed blocks of discarded dollar bills to form giant structures, which turn out to be the Bird's Nest stadium, the Water Cube aquatic center, and the CCTV tower. The script would go something like this:

"Sponsor" (60 seconds)

Voiceover: "Ever wonder what Washington has done with your tax dollars? This Olympics is your chance to find out. For the last 8 years, the Bush administration has been paying China billions of dollars in interest on the trillions it borrowed for tax breaks, pork, and special privileges you never got. That money helped create thousands of businesses and millions of jobs—in China. So as you enjoy the games, keep an eye on your tax dollars at work. The way our economy's going, it's tough to pay your bills. But take heart: You already paid China's."

Tagline: "America's Taxpayers. Proud Sponsors of the Beijing Olympics."

I hate alarmist, the-dollar-is-dead, the-sky-is-falling, the-end-is-near economic writing, but this piece paints an interesting picture to think about as we watch these Games and this growing superpower. It's also a good example of a justified reason to be upset about your taxes! How many email forwards have you received bitching about how much we spend on social services, environmental protection, and (I kid you not, I received this one) grants to organizations such as the Special Olympics? How many forwards have you received that make the connection between our taxes and the interest that we pay to China to cover our irresponsible spending for the last eight years?



Beth and I have managed to see five Broadway shows so far this year. Happily I can recommend all of them:
- Curtains
- Gypsy
- The Seafarer
- Sunday in the Park with George
- November

If you know Patti LuPone at all, go see Gypsy. I know her mostly from a few movies and the cast recording of Evita from the 70s. I can't believe she can still sing as amazingly as she does. She received a five-minute standing ovation after one of the songs in the show. Just blew us all away.

If you know David Mamet at all, go see November. It's a great play and classic Mamet dialogue. I love Nathan Lane in it and even four months later I am still amazed by all of the layers of plot Mamet is able to pile on top of one another. I love everything Mamet writes and I'm going to see [the movie] Redbelt as soon as possible.

If you think all musicals are the same, go see Sunday in the Park with George. Most musicals have an amazing musical experience -- and this Sondheim play certainly delivers in that regard -- but this show is an amazing visual experience as well. I came into this show knowing nothing about it, and came away just amazed by the experience. I guess it shouldn't be surprising that a play about the composition of a painting would be visual in nature!

Curtains is hilarious and will be loved by anyone who likes David Hyde Pierce as much as we do. The Seafarer is an Irish play that had an amazing collection of actors, demonstrating an impressive range of drunken acting and uses for the f-word (including my new favorite use). Unfortunately, the show is closed now.

I think this may be a good post to plug my friend Jonathan who is currently in the Broadway production of Avenue Q. We went to see Jonathan play the lead roles of Princeton/Rod last year... we loved the show, but mostly I just came away thinking "my friend is a freakin' rock star". There was a point in the musical where Jonathan came down the aisle close to the audience and these teenage girls surrounding us went nuts over him... really? Jonathan? If you have a chance to see Ave Q, go see it. And if you have a chance to see Jonathan in the lead roles, you're in for a treat!

One of our favorite musicals is Rent, which we saw at least 10 times from the $20 seats while we were Columbia students. Rent is closing this year, so we're planning to go see it one last time. If anyone else is planning a farewell visit to Rent, let us know and we'll join you.


Transparency ... Accountability

As almost everyone who knows us already knows, Beth and I have been living on "the envelope system" for almost one year. We have cut up our credit cards, "given every dollar a name" at the end of each month, and have tried to work quickly to reduce our debt. As anyone who reads this blog knows, we have not completely deprived ourselves of travel and entertainment, but I assure you that our primary focus for the past five-plus years has been on eliminating our debt.

We use Google Documents to create and manage our budgets. It's a fantastic program and its web-based nature allows us to do our budgeting from anywhere we can find an internet connection (we did our March budget from Barcelona).

This pie chart is tied directly to the numbers in our Google Spreadsheet budget. They reflect actual dollars allocated toward various categories (some of the money is not yet spent, but it's all been "given a name" as Dave Ramsey says) (btw, we have a few more budget categories than this...some have been consolidated for the chart). As our budgets change over the next few months/years, this pie chart will automatically reflect the changes.

Beth and I will finally have our last student loan paid off by this time next year. You may notice that "Loans" is a big part of our budget. One of the challenges that we will face after paying that last loan is how we will use the excess money. We could put it into Housing...perhaps get a bigger place, or move to a better neighborhood. We could put it into Fun/Big Buys...get new furniture and electronics, take expensive vacations. We could create a new pie category called Savings...we still need to build up our emergency fund and eventually save some more money for retirement (full disclosure: we have a 401k that is not part of the budget). We could shrink the size of the pie...if my work becomes unhealthy for some reason, I could take a different job or work fewer hours, even if it meant a pay cut.

Some of those are good options, and we might choose to do all of those things to some degree. But our hope -- and the reason to create this blog post and provide some transparency into our financial life -- is that we will be able to greatly increase that Giving wedge. Please keep an eye on it -- we're counting on you.


Zuper Respect!

On our last day in Barcelona, we drove to Parc Guell. The parking is very limited in this area, so unless you want to walk several kilometers you must be a fearless parker. Observe my masterful parking job in the attached photo! Manual transmission on a hill! A German tourist walking by as I was finishing parking exclaimed, "Zuper!"

Stop #8

Saint Pierre des Champs / Carcassonne. We rented a car and pressed ahead to the beautiful Le Roc Sur L'orbieu guesthouse located in Saint Pierre des Champs. This guesthouse is a 1100 year-old castle in the French countryside, surrounded by acres of vineyards. We plan to come back here as often as possible over the remainder of our lives! It was a beautiful old building with surprisingly comfortable accommodations and a charming hostess named Helen. Helen cooked dinner for us and the two French men who were also staying at the guest house (on a fishing holiday) named Serge and Patrice. The six of us had a wonderful evening as we shared about four hours of discussion over many delicious courses. Serge and Patrice were two extremes – Patrice was quiet and Serge was a character. When we sat down at the beautifully-prepared table, he remarked, “oooh... french table... very competiteev!”