Friday, December 18, 2015

One Last Typical Dutch Day

“Typical Dutch weather” was how the girl in the seat next to me described the overcast, grey Amsterdam morning that was waiting when we landed at Schiphol four months ago. A lot has changed since that day in August, but at least my last day in the Netherlands is typical, given the cloudy ceiling hanging over the city.

In spite of all the things that have happened in the autumn of 2015—the visits to major historical sites like the Acropolis and the Colosseum, the start of a PhD program, the face-to-face encounters with Sinterklaas, the oh-so-cheap wine—this feels eerily like that first day. I was the only one in the apartment. There were no posters or decorations, not even any wifi. And outside there was typical Dutch weather.

Kayla left on an early flight on Wednesday morning, before the sun had a chance to come out. I proceeded to take down our wall of maps and pack away most of the remaining things, so that by the time I got word she was safely in St. John’s, I was about ready to go out the door for my own trip back to Canada.

After a very busy semester, an exchange semester that I realized time and time again I was so fortunate to be on, I’m ready to go home. At the end of the last two “big” trips I was a part of—an exchange semester in the UK in 2011, and a backpacking trip across New Zealand in 2013—I was really returning into something unknown. Not this time. I know exactly what I’m doing, when I get back to North America, and how in as much time as I just spent in Amsterdam, I’m going to have a law degree.

I’m not sure if that means it’s almost time to enter the “real” world. I’m not even sure what the “real” world is supposed to be. Hopefully whatever you decide to make it.

First though, it’s Christmas. The suitcases are packed to their utmost capacity (maybe even a bit past that point, if that’s physically possible), ready to go to London, St. John’s, and then to Deer Lake. Assuming everything makes it back in one piece tomorrow, it will really be time for a rest.

Or finding a second wind, job to say. See you there.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

We Have Learned . . .

Between the two of us, we could rattle off a thing or two about kitsch Christian material culture and competing theories of Internet regulation, and maybe even make it half interesting. But the final papers have been submitted, and we’re not opening a textbook until 2016. This retrospective look at the things we’ve learned, the tips we’ve picked up from Amsterdam to Croatia and beyond, are the ones that are free of academic jargon and footnotes—and, maybe most importantly, they’re the ones that we’re most likely to remember.

So, here we go. We have learned:

Sometimes, no matter how you hard you try to avoid it, you’re going to flood the bathroom.

• Always watch for bicycles! 

• If you’re going out for the afternoon in the Netherlands, bring an umbrella. Pay no heed to the forecast or the clear blue sky—bring that umbrella.

• Bring cash with you to Greece. And Croatia. The rest of the time, be prepared to be told that your Canadian bank cards will not work when, in fact, they do. 

• Send postcards to everyone you know, but be aware that half of your travels will involve searching for stamps in foreign cities. 

• There’s nothing wrong with having to take the stairs—but try to avoid having to take 500 of them at one time if you can!

• James Corden could (and should) carpool with every musician with a sense of humour. Incidentally, his earlier sitcom, Gavin & Stacey, is something you’re not likely to stumble upon, but totally worth looking for.

•  Privilege is an incredibly dangerous thing, once you get it in your head that you’re somehow entitled to a certain standard of living at the expense of other people. It’s Syrian refugees today, it will be another group tomorrow—has an “us and them” mentality literally ever worked, in all of history?

Always have coins for the inevitable bathroom fee, lest you'll have more Euro-pee-ing adventures than you want. 

• Sneak a kiss whenever possible.

• And a nap.

• Ideally though (and this is important), not on the concrete floor of Fiumicino Airport in Rome, with dirty underwear as a pillow.

• Faith is a very complex, personal issue, and it’s something that we’ve thought about, discussed, and debated in the past four months. Neither of us are necessarily any closer to a satisfactory answer, but then again, neither of us are complacent either—as soon as you’ve locked yourself in any one box, you’ve done yourself a great disservice.

• A suitcase is never really full—there’s just different degrees of creativity and resourcefulness.

• There’s really only so much you can expect when you ask a complete stranger to take your picture. And by “so much,” we mean “nothing.”

Canal shots are overrated if a third of the picture isn’t a lifesaving device

Ryan, Kayla, and this guy

I can either cut out half of your bodies or half the
building—nope, wait a minute, I can manage both!

Alright, this one might have been partially our fault

Wasn’t there some sort of gigantic monument behind us? 
As in the entire point of us getting this picture?

You want all of Santorini in this one shot, right?

• Apparently there’s such a thing as sweet popcorn (as opposed to salty). On a related note, there should not be such a thing as sweet popcorn.

• Celebrate National Snack Day. Often.

• Drink all the cappuccinos!

• When generic cornflakes taste as good as they do in Amsterdam, it’s probably got something to do 
with the milk. Or everything. Either way, it’s a good thing we can’t read the nutritional information 
on that carton.

• Start planning souvenirs early and methodically.

• There’s nothing like European graffiti for finding your Spirit Animal.

• Cheap wine and Netflix, propped up on a green plastic chair, makes for a deadly night.

• In a small two-room apartment in a strange city where you don’t know anyone else, four months is a  very long time to spend with another person. You want to be as sure as you can be that you’re capable of shopping together, cleaning the bathroom together, shutting the door when you need a break (without getting sulky), and still laugh and dream together. You need to be able to see someone at their worst and still think that you’re a pretty lucky person to be right here, right now.

That about does it for us this fall. We leave on different flights this week, but should both be back in our respective homes by early next week, just in time for turkey and to wear out Kenny and Dolly’s Christmas album.

Tot ziens,

ryan + kayla

Monday, December 14, 2015

Nuts About the Ballet

We had a chance, in our encounter with Sinterklaas, to experience a Dutch Christmas tradition. How about a more familiar Christmas tradition, but with a Dutch twist?

It was a couple of months ago that Kayla, innocuously enough, suggested that we go to the ballet while we’re in Europe. The Dutch National Ballet has been performing for over 50 years in Amsterdam, and has been known to produce some of the most notable ballets. We’ve both been to plenty of theatre performances, but this was definitely a first for us—and so, we booked two tickets for “The Nutcracker” as a seasonal treat to end our trip.

“The Nutcracker” occupies a strange place in our cultural understanding, I think. Most people know something about it, but it’s a much smaller group who can actually tell you very much about it. There’s a Nutcracker, a Mouse King, something about a Sugar Plum Fairy, and snippets of songs that you recognize as much from shopping mall soundtracks as from an orchestra pit. Still, “The Nutcracker” premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892, and since that time has grown to become a Christmas tradition, especially in North America—so much so that contemporary ballets earn some 40% of their annual revenue on this one performance.

Tchaikovsky composed the iconic score to “The Nutcracker,” with the story (the libretto, if we’re using the correct lingo) adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” On a rainy Saturday night, we found ourselves at the sold-out Dutch National Opera & Ballet building, sipping a glass of wine before the bell signaled it was time to get seated.

When we entered the wide-open theatre, we found our plush seats on the first balcony, just to the side of the stage and looking down into the orchestra, already assembled before the curtains went up.

Naturally, once the lights went down, any recording was off-limits. Let me lead you through the ballet though—and don’t worry, there were plenty of young families present, so this isn’t some pretentious, high-culture assemblage. Truth be told, for our first ballet, it was very accessible and enjoyable.

The scene opens on an Amsterdam canal at night—for the first act especially, the sets were incredible, with one wall devoted to a canal house (the door constantly opening to let visitors in, just in time for a Christmas party) and the mid-section of the stage looking like a frozen canal, full of skaters. Productions of the ballet around the world vary on a lot of the details (like the setting), but the Dutch touch was nice.

The only thing wrong about it was how gracefully the characters shook the light snow off their umbrellas upon entering the house. When I left Uilenstede with an umbrella that night, the wind whipped it beyond recognition as soon as we got out of the building, and it ended up as a crumpled mass in the garbage dumpster—ah, the magic of theatre!

Characters’ names vary as well—not that it really matters, given that there’s no dialogue in the entire piece, just the music. Generally though, the main children are named Clara and Fritz, and their godfather is Drosselmeyer, a toy-maker and magician (when he entered the party, he causes his umbrella to levitate). The entire party dances, and then Sinterklaas enters, giving gifts to the children.

After he leaves, one child was forgotten—Drosselmeyer sets up a projector and plays a love story of a young soldier and his princess, and when it ends there’s a nutcracker on the stage. Clara has a perfect gift, until Fritz decides he wants to play with it too, and suddenly the nutcracker has no head.

For large chunks of the show, there were a lot of people on the stage, and each person had a very specific role in the ballet. That meant that there was a lot to pay attention to at any given point, and it’s especially difficult when there’s no dialogue to give you clues about what ought to be the focus—the stage directors compensated for this by using spotlights to subtly direct your attention to the right places. Everything was very symmetrical too, in terms of the men and women dancers and how the pairings were ordered on the stage, often interweaving in perfect order. Meanwhile, the conductor was positioned with a view of both the pit and the stage, so that the music meshed perfectly with what was happening on stage.

During the party scene, which ended when the clock struck midnight and Clara got out of bed, there was a see-through veil covering the front of the stage—this was suddenly lifted, perhaps signaling the shift into the dream world, populated by the creepy minions of the Mouse King (himself wearing a very creepy fuzzy white mask with beady red eyes), and real-life toy soldiers led by the Nutcracker. Clara and Fritz were replaced here by older performers, capable of some of the more difficult routines—that said, the ballet made definite use of very young performers, and these got a special applause at the end of the production.

The first act ended with a decisive swordfight between the Mouse King and the Nutrcracker, with the second act playing out on a considerably sparser stage. It felt like the narrative wasn’t there as much, but the dancing was just as impressive, and what the stage lacked it made up for in its costumes—we were now in the Land of Sweets, en route to the Sugar Plum Fairy, and different regions of the world (oriental performers in beautiful silk, heavily costumed Russians) represented different sweets (tea and candy canes, in those two examples).

We figured espressos and wine over the intermission must have motivated the audience—whereas we sat in attentive silence in the first act, there was applause after every musical number in this act. Especially once the Sugar Plum Fairy made her arrival, dancing to the most iconic number of the entire ballet (and probably the most iconic use of the celesta in the entire vast world of music composition).

The dream world of the Nutcracker and the Sugar Plum Fairy eventually subsided, bringing us back into Clara’s bedroom, where she and Fritz rush to the door to bid Drosselmeyer good night as he heads out into the Amsterdam night along the snowy canal.   

All in all, a pretty decent introduction to ballet—throughout the performance, we recognized more than a few of the pieces, and even if the story deviated a bit from the typical source material (no gingerbread characters to be seen), it still felt familiar. It still felt like a magically warm Christmasy embrace.

Against the backdrop of a December night in Amsterdam, we caught the train back to Uilenstede, literally with visions of Sugar Plums dancing in our heads.