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...