On Amsterdam at Christmas and the smuggling of cheese.

When I took my new job at Nike, it was mentioned in passing that there might be some travel.  This is not a bad thing.  So while the last few months have mostly been a cycle of running from one meeting to another, putting out fires and trying to wrap my head around sixty different projects all in flight at the same time, the moment finally came: I was to fly out to Amsterdam, London and New York.

Say one thing for Nike: they do business in good towns.

I have already been in Amsterdam and London this year.  However, this trip would have quite a few differences:

  1. Traveling for work means business class flights and comfy hotels.  No shared bunks and heavy backpacks for me this time.
  2. This also means I would have traveling companions.  Hmm, do I play well with others?
  3. On my previous visit, warmth and summer were the order of the day.  This is December. I expected things would play out a slightly different.

My traveling companions were two guys from my team at Nike: SpoonMan and TheCalm.  Do they sound like a super hero team with rather unthreatening abilities?  This is not far from the truth.  We met up at Portland International to hop a quick flight up to Seattle where we would embark directly to Amsterdam.  Having never traveled with these guys I regaled them with tales of my recent adventures.  This means I found myself mostly relating the accidents and things that went wrong, since they are the most entertaining parts (tragedy + time = humor).

In Seattle we enjoyed the spoils of business travel.  Specifically this translates as the Executive Lounge.  Having bypassed breakfast in favor of getting to the airport on time, we found ourselves indulging in the offerings at the lounge: olives, small ginger crisps, two varieties of cheese (pepper jack slices and some packages in spreadable form), and last but certainly not least: Nutella.  However it was over cheese that SpoonMan and I connected.  We discussed a shared love of cultured dairy products while TheCalm bounced off and on various conference calls.  This was a pattern that would assert itself over the course of our trip.

Soon it was time to board, and we hauled our various and sundry luggage items to the gate.  I have become an efficient and minimalist traveler, so even though I carried a work laptop, kindle, clothes, down jacket, toiletries, a book, some paperwork, and various electronics chargers, my ten day luggage resulted in a single backpack of carry-on size.  My traveling companions were a little less conservative, so the hauling was mostly on their end.  But here is the first of things to go wrong on the trip: the flight to Amsterdam was delayed, with a projected departure time an hour hence.

Back upstairs we jubilantly went.  More cheese.  Some drinks.  More discussion about cheese over said drinks.  Time spent in the Executive Lounge is far nicer than time spent grumbling on hard airport seats with “commoners”.  Our departure time came ’round again, and we again shouldered our bags, only to hear that the flight was delayed further.

And an hour later, it would be again delayed.  It was at this point that my traveling companions began to suspect that I, perhaps, was Bad Travel Karma.  They had traveled together previously this year, to more foreign places like Japan and China, all without incident.  Our expedition had barely begun and already we were beset by issues.  We were supposed to land in Amsterdam and go directly to the office to have a full day of meetings.  This was now reduced to a strained afternoon of meetings, and threatened to be worse.  My companions began to eye me warily.

Inevitably the airline was forced to produce an airplane on which the grumbling masses could board.  I won’t regale you too much with the niceties of business class service, other than to mention a few things that just kind of set the tone:

  1. lay-flat seating
  2. complimentary travel case with tooth care, lotions, and an extra pair of socks
  3. the sundae cart.  thirds, please.

We arrived in Amsterdam after 946 hours of flight during a storm which some were saying was “the worst in 60 years”.  We were told the last thirty minutes flying in would be a little rough.  Honestly it seemed on par with any other landing.  However, once we deplaned and attempted to catch a train into town our troubles resumed.

Our first attempt at trainage was met with high hopes only to be dashed as an announcement came on and explained in thirty-six languages how absolutely cancelled that train was, and advised us to wait for the next one, some forty minutes on.  We wandered the massive mall that is the Schipol train area to pass the time.

Now, I will assert that when one wanders a mall, looking for potentially some trinket to purchase and return home with, perhaps as a Christmas present, one does not expect to see too many sights that will cause you to do an abrupt double-take.  Malls are pretty tame and unoffensive (unless you are protesting rampant consumerism, in which case: have at it, you have found your perfect venue).

In the Netherlands at Christmas time, however, it turns out you should brace yourself.  While wandering around we encountered a few chaps dressed in what could be charitably referred to as “medieval jester” type attire playing music and singing.  This was not the shocking part.  No, the shocking part was that they were both in full blackface.

Black pete 1
Not a picture of those chaps. Stolen from the Internet. I couldn’t even look straight at them in person.

Yep.  Right there.  Blackface painted on, right out in the open, carrying on like this is just a thing you do. After we put our eyes back in our sockets, and verified with each other that we had actually just seen this (also verifying that the year was not, indeed, early 1900’s), we chalked it up to something horrific happening at the train station.

But no, we would eventually see these folks everywhere.

Truly a community bonding moment.

Why, they even go so far as to make baked goods in this manner.

I’d like my cake with extra racism, please.

So a little bit of asking around reveals this is not intended as racism. This is part of their christmas tradition. You see, in the Netherlands, father Christmas (Sinterklass) comes to town, and along with him he has his helper: Black Pete (Zwarte Piet).  So Zwarte here assists ol’ Sinterklass with his duties, and has even been known to steal a naughty child or two and ship them back to Spain (guess North Pole is a Western thing?).

Further discussion with our business partners revealed that this is becoming a cultural hot button, complete with rabid screaming from both sides of the issue.  As one can expect.  I wish the Netherlands good luck in dealing with the joys of Political Correctness while trying to preserve their own culture and history.  It’s a fun path to walk.

So we tried to shake it off and just appreciate Amsterdam, shaking our collective heads at the Zwarte’s we saw from time to time.  Now, one might think that Amsterdam in summer (when it is relatively warm) has an abundance of bicyclists, yet Amsterdam in December (cold, rainy, snowy) would see all these bicyclists taking a reasonable tack and hopping in enclosed vehicles for the inclement weather.

One would be wrong.

We took a taxi from the Nike headquarters in Hilversum to our hotel in Amsterdam because we were advised that the storm would deposit rain, hail and potentially locusts and the End Of Times on the train tracks and thus leave us stranded (I guess trains are cancelled often during weather events).  From our cab we saw people biking along in the driving sleet and hail.  And just as during summer: no helmets.  Just trundling along with a nice winter coat, drenched and miserable, still biking.

In the West Coast, if you see someone on a bike in December, they will be outfitted in the latest technical attire, moisture wicking and water proof gear, fully protected by the best science can offer.  Amsterdam: a bit of a jacket, perhaps.  Maybe some gloves.

In addition to bikers made of sterner stuff than any American biker, you’ll find a fully Christmas’d town.  Lights everywhere.  Outdoor stands selling roasted meats, fresh street donuts, waffles, cotton candy, candied nuts, and ohmygodohmygod: Stroopwaffels.

If you have not had these and you value your health and ability to appreciate other deserts, just forget I said anything.  If you have had these, you know what I mean.  20100609GoodBatchOriginal

So, we indulged and sampled and gorged.  In addition to all this, Amsterdam still offers a great selection of cheeses, and since it wasn’t summer heat, this sounded like the absolute perfect comfort food to bring home.  Thus SpoonMan and I found ourselves crawling through a well-stocked cheese shop off of some canal somewhere, loading ourselves down with many pounds of fermented dairy product.

Only after our binge spending did we stop to consider: what if they don’t allow this through customs?

To be fair, the folks at the cheese shop had cunningly detected that we “weren’t from ’round here”, and offered to shrink-wrap our many selections to allow for easier importing.  However, knowing how restrictive and alarmist US security and customs is, we began to sweat.  After all, I couldn’t bring toothpaste through if it’s more than 2 ounces.  What’s the chance of waltzing through with seven pounds of cheese?

So we lined up our options:

1.) starve ourselves prior to boarding.  If they demand to take our cheese, we’ll damn well just ingest it all there.  You can have my cheese when you pry it from my cold, dead, gullet.

2.) Combine our cheese hoards into a bag and pay to have it as checked baggage.  Neither of us really wanted to be parted from our cheese though.  What if they lost it?  More to the point: what if they “lost” it, and we never recovered it?  The image of a throng of TSA agents having a little cheese party on our dime was not acceptable.

3.) Blithely walk through and hope for the best.

Admittedly, option 1 and 3 were pretty similar, in that the later could potentially lead to the former.  However, we didn’t give that much thought.  We had other concerns to deal with: namely many business meetings, travel, time zone adjustments, etc.

So we took the train to London to continue our business.  Trains aren’t nearly so scary with customs, so that’s fine.  I had relegated this entire concern to a part of my brain that deals with problems by ignoring them.  SpoonMan, being an engineer, has no such part of the brain.  So it was that during one planning meeting with our business partners, while they gave some presentation on something, an email popped up on my laptop:

“I think we’re gonna be okay”

in this, SpoonMan showed how he had found the relevant section of the US customs rules for “travelers bringing food for personal use”, which had a paragraph that seemed favorable towards our cheese selection.  SpoonMan declared that he would cite chapter and verse were he asked to surrender his delectable cheeses.  I imagined the scene at customs and wasn’t sure if I hoped for this to occur or for it to not be necessary.

The page also ominously stated: “You must declare all food products.  Failure to declare food products can result in up to $10,000 in fines and penalties”

We departed London with a plan, but not without trepidation.  Surely the loose rules outlined would see us through?  Also, SpoonMan seemed to have memorized the chapter on importing cheese, so he could recite this if needed.

Our next (and final) stop would be New York, and walking out JFK customs had me wondering if the famous brusqueness of the standard New Yorker would play into whatever argument or altercation we would inevitably have.  As fate would have it, I was first up, and a large, bored looking guard took my form.

“Sez here you got agriculture.”

“yeah, um.  Cheese.  From Amsterdam.”

“Got any gouda?”

“Uh, no?”

“that’s my favorite.  Gouda.”

“No, I’ve got-”

“See ya later.  Next.”

I walked through, a little perplexed and looking for the “real” customs crossing.  Behind me I heard the guard continue on with SpoonMan.

“You got cheese to?”

“Yeah.  Same”

“No gouda?”

“Uh, no, sorry”

“Have a good day”.

And that was the entry.  So now we know: toothpaste or face cream: dangerous.  Cheese: no worries.

To complete the story, the cheese made it all the way up to my sister’s house for Solstice where my entire extended family made short work of it.  We all seem to enjoy a slice or eight, along with some wine and crackers.  And pie.  And cake.  And…

Quality time in my new place

When I was living out of a backpack for months on end, I often pondered how strange it would be to eventually return to a “normal” life.  Go to work in the morning.  Sleep in the same bed every night.  Wash my clothes whenever I want (oh the luxury!).

Turns out it is frighteningly easy to slip on the glove of normalcy.  If fits comfortably and snugly, causing me to wonder now if that whole backpack / Mexico / broken foot / arctic / Europe thing was some long and particularly detailed dream.

So I became gainfully employed again, and no sooner had I done that than I re-acquired all the trappings of normalcy like a good little consumer.  A car.  An apartment.  I just bought a broom today for cryin’ out loud.

However, while it is all quite comfortable and familiar, there are hazards to a new place.  Take, for example, my deck.


It’s a large deck. It was really the selling point for me as I imagined warm, sunny spring days on it, a grill, some friends, a few beers, some music in the background; sounds about right.

Sadly, this is November in Portland. One would required heat lamps, parkas, and perhaps a bonfire built in the center of the deck to enjoy it properly. Also, the new job keeps me frantically busy, and with the shorter days, my opportunity to spend any quality time out on the deck has been limited. So I was hoping for a chance soon to spend some time relaxing out there, even if it’s a slight bit chilly.

Now, Wednesday mornings there is an exercise class at Nike that I’ve been eager to try out. So on Wednesday morning I rouse myself from my warm bed at 6:30, put on my running shorts and a tank top, figuring I’ll just throw a coat on as I leave, thus not have to change before the class. I pack my backpack with clothes for the day, ensuring all the stuff I need is in there (wallet, keys, phone, money, etc). Before running out the door I remember that I have to do one of those other mundane aspects of life: trim my toenails. Well, might as well do it out on the deck as I won’t have to worry about nail clippings.

It’s dark still, but I have small lights on the deck. It’s chilly, but refreshing actually, and the city is quiet and still. very peaceful. I remind myself that I must spend some time on the deck this weekend. Taking in one last breath and enjoying the view of my new home, I check my watch to see that I’m probably about five minutes late if I want to get to the class on time. Right: time to swing into action.

Now, when one’s mind is set on a course of action for the day and has a long list of things that will happen (workout, early phone conference, meetings, lunch, more meetings, and by the way: gotta find a new renter for the house back in Seattle), and suddenly you meet an unexpected roadblock, the mental traffic pileup isn’t sudden, but more like a slow-motion careening pile up of out-of-control vehicles, much like Portland drivers in snow.

So it was when I exited the deck, I found that the sliding door somehow locked itself behind me. My plans slowly ran into each other as I tugged and pulled in disbelief, eventually piling up in a messy heap as I looked around, unsure that this was actually happening.

My thinking went something like this:

“Really? I mean: REALLY??

“It must just be stuck, it can’t have actually locked on me

“Welp, gonna be late for that class for sure now”

“wow.  It’s kinda cold”

“Hmm, I have no way to call anyone.”

“I must look pretty stupid out here alone on my bare deck in my shorts and socks”

“Okay, so let’s assess: There’s no way off of my deck, nobody knows me here, and nobody in Portland is going to come visit me… I’m pretty much hosed.”

It’s at this point, about 5 minutes in, that it fully sinks in that I’m on my deck, it’s not quite 7am, and all I’ve got going for me is running shorts, a lightweight tank top, socks, and toenail clippers.  This is not an ideal set of tools for basic survival.

So: options:

  1. Wake up a neighbor, have them come let me in.  This would involve hopping the barrier between decks, banging on windows, and looking like some very misguided burglar in the early morning.
  2. Climb down.  I’m on the 2nd floor, it’s not impossible.
  3. Yell at someone passing by, get them to come in the building and let me into my own apartment.

Several problems with each of these scenarios: first off, I’m painfully, horribly, almost neurotically against inconveniencing others.  I won’t go talk to strangers because I fear that I might bother them in some way.  I arrange myself in groups to minimize the chance of me giving offense in some unknown or unexpected way.  It’s pretty much always on my mind how I can NOT bother other people best.  In this way I feel a great kinship with what I understand of British sensibilities.  So waking up the neighbors is an option to be considered some point after I’ve developed hypothermia, but slightly before I use the toenail clippers to remove my leg and prep it for a meal to sustain me for the long haul.

So: option 2: the drop to the ground is a fair ways.  I see a pole sticking out about six feet below the ledge of my deck, and I imagine that if I was able to get to that pole and hang from it, I would still fall around five feet.  While that is entirely doable, I don’t know if the pole would support me (it’s currently supporting a fabric banner), and I’ve already broken my foot once this year, and am not eager to repeat that experience.

Okay then; option 3: However, the entire city is still asleep.  There are no people walking by.  There are no lights on in my building, or the building across the street, or anywhere that I can see.  Even if I could find someone, it’s a security building so they wouldn’t be able to get in.  Even if they DID get in, they couldn’t take the elevator to my apartment to let me in because it is key fob access only until 10am.

This realization sinks in: I could be here a long time.  So I resume pulling and tugging at the door to see if I can jar it off it’s lock.  No dice.  However, I remember that I have one weapon with me:

The toe nail clippers.

Straightening the lever part I am able to insert it into the keyhole and begin to twist and jiggle, imagining I will be able to pick the lock like a ninja cat burglar.  After all, I’ve read about “bump keys” to defeat standard lock tumbler mechanisms.  Surely I can attain something like that here if I am diligent and determined enough?

By seven I have surrendered those fantasies.  The rising sun has lit the city up, and I realize that I’m not just kinda chilly, but actually trending towards “rather cold, indeed”.

And now I begin pacing.  None of the three options seem to be particularly palatable.  To explain how adverse I am to bothering other people, I continue to evaluate the “hang from the ledge, drop to the ground, break my foot” option as my most likely course of action.

However, after ten minutes or so of pacing, I finally use logic and self-preservation to squash those thoughts, cross the barrier to my neighbor’s deck (simmering in guilt, knowing that someone is watching and thinking “what is that fool doing?”), and go to knock on their glass door.

And I stand there, hand raised to knock, frozen like I’m on a pedestal in the Louvre.

I just can’t bring myself to do it.  Logically I realize that were situations reversed, I would initially be alarmed at someone on my deck, but quickly get over it and we would have a good laugh at the situation.  However, my inner Brit is having none of this tomfoolery: it’s embarrassing, inelegant, and just downright improper. After trying a couple of times, I give up, cross the barrier again back to my own deck, and resume pacing.   I look over the ledge, and every now and then I see a person pass by, usually with headphones on, oblivious to the world.  Once I wave feebly, uttering a meek “er… excuse me…”, but the man passes by without noticing.

It comes to be about 7:30.  I’ve been out here for about 45 minutes by now, and now I’m certainly cold, and increasingly desperate.  My pacing has proven to be a completely unhelpful fourth option.  I have no recourse, I MUST wake the neighbor.  Why aren’t they up already?  Don’t they have jobs or lives or something?

On pondering this, the light turns on in a third floor apartment, and through a narrow slit in the blinds of the bedroom, I can see someone moving around.  I attempt to make eye contact, but then realize that it’s a woman moving around in there.  In her bedroom.  And here I am, staring up and in.  Of course she will think I’m a pervert.  Worse, she’ll recognize me in the halls for the rest of our lives, point me out to fellow residents.  I’ll be forever branded the peeper in 203.

While pondering this, her light goes out.  So I am once again alone on the deck.  Now the worse thought strikes me: what if I wait so long that everyone leaves for work?  Then I may be stuck on this deck indefinitely.

This finally pushes me to action.  Resolutely I climb the barrier again.  I approach the glass door, and, leaving no room for thoughts or second guessing, I pound loudly on the glass, then I stand back and stew in embarrassment.  While waiting, I rehearse what I will say, how I will smile apologetically, hands up to show I mean no harm.  I imagine we’ll all have a good laugh over this, and when I see my neighbor in the hall in the coming months, we’ll now have a little special bond over this singularly stupid occasion.

The lights don’t come on.

I bang on the door again, this time more forcefully.

Nothing.  Bang! Bang! Bang!  Now I’m imagining my neighbor is a complete deadbeat, do-nothing, lackadaisical lay-about.  I’m getting angry and him or her; why kind of reject is not in their apartment at almost eight in the morning?  Or so deep in sleep that even an accidental frozen burglar can’t rouse them?

Eventually I give up.  Stepping into the sunlight I can at least get a little bit of warmth where it hits my skin directly.  It is now after eight, meaning I’ve been stuck on my deck for nearly an hour and a half.  I wonder if I will be here for another hour.  Or two.  Or more.


This is shouted at me from a fair distance.  I look across the street, to the building opposite mine, and far up to the top floor.  Three people are on a balcony, coffee cups in hand.  They are staring at me.  One waves:


My heart leaps.  At last!  Fellow humans I can communicate with!  So what is the first thing out of my mouth?  A call for help?  A plea to rescue me from my predicament?

No, I feebly explain that it’s not my deck, that I’m trespassing, and I guess that they can see my embarrassment even from their distance.  What is wrong with me?

Regardless, eventually I explain why I’m on the wrong deck, that my actual deck is the empty one over there, that I have somehow locked myself out, and would they please come down from their lofty height and lend a brother a hand.

I’m not sure all this translates well over the distance as I see them hoisting their coffee cups at me cheerfully, then they are pointing out over the bridge, probably commenting amiably to each other about the color of the sunrise, the reflections on the water, the painted clouds, etcetera.

I begin to despise them.

I hurdle back over to my deck and feebly tug at the door some more, hoping the visual display of my helplessness will drive the point home for them: I’m stuck, in shorts and socks, and may become an icicle in front of their very eyes.  However, they continue to chat amongst themselves.

I give up and look out on the street.  People at work will be wondering if I’m not in by nine.  But what can they do?  They could send email, or call me, but both of those devices are behind that damnable glass door.

“So, you are stuck, huh?” The girl from the other building yells up at me from the road.  She has come down from her building, and now looks up at me, coffee cup in hand. “I was just finishing my cigarette up there.”

On the one hand: really?  A cigarette while a fellow human freezes across from you?

On the other hand: thank god.

She disappears around the front of my building for a few minutes, then reappears, saying “okay, help is on the way” before strolling back across to her building.  Minutes later a custodian appears at my door and I am back in my apartment, happily, gratefully, warmly.

So, a few observations:

  • I will never, EVER, close that door behind me again.  Ever.
  • I will never be without my cell phone again.  If I could implant it in my arm, I would.
  • I must be careful what I wish for, as a desire to spend some time on my deck does not specify the manner in which said time will be spent.  Lesson learned.

Not the most ideal way to start a Wednesday morning.  However, all told I was very appreciative of every moment that day when I could move around as I wished, fully clothed, with easy access to heat, water and food.