Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Scents, Sensibility and Holiday Magic

Scents and Sensibility

"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware."
Martin Buber

Jane Austen might raise an eyebrow. Unlike her Victorian fables, mine is set in Amsterdam 2010. And it's not a fabricated yarn, but rather a true tale of friendship, betrayal and ultimate justice. I aim to write and publish it as My 'Dam Betrayal, An Expat's Tale of Scents and Sensibility.

But let me set the stage for you now as I recall, for the record, its drama, violence, outrage, cat and mouse hijinks, Facebook war and even a chase up Leidsestraat in which I pursued Professor Stinky, a friend-turned-criminal, to Dam Square, where the search continued via videotape in parked Dutch Politie mobiles. Names have been changed to protect the guilty, but you know who you are.

It all began when my doorbell rang three days after I moved into my apartment in the Jordaan, once Amsterdam's district for the desperate, now the haunt of artists, intellectuals and fashionistas. It was the shoarma guy; he was unexpected. 
Mixing visuals @ Supperclub
"You did not order shoarma for 12?" the strange voice demanded. "Met garlic sauce?

"No! Nay!" I banged down the intercom.

The bell rang again, more insistently. "Hahaha," the familiar voice chirped in a Dutch accent. It was Jan, a 40-something aroma jockey I'd met through a mutual friend in 2008. An olfactory artist who mixes aromas in nightclubs, restaurants, museums and other special event venuesjust as DJs combine tunes and VJs mix visuals—Jan (aka Professor Stinky) and his Ministry of Nonsense aim to make scents at dance, food, art and fashion-related parties.
"My pole," Jan moaned, caressing it.
I buzzed my friend in, chuckling at his ruse—pure Jan

When the elevator opened to reveal his shaggy countenance, I breathed in his earthy scent, turning my face for the traditional Dutch greeting: three kisses, alternating cheeks. He introduced me to Bill, an American expat who'd come along for the visit.

The two padded into a pool of fall sunlight. Like an alcoholic needing a drink, Jan headed straight for the pole in my living area. He wrapped his arms around it. He wrapped his legs around it. He caressed it like an object of desire. And it was! "My pole," he moaned, "my pole."

"OK, we'll negotiate," I laughed, wondering about Jan's vision. The evening ended with me handing him keys to my apartment. The deal: free room, board and PR services in exchange for decorating talent and assistance with schlepping around furniture, light fixtures and all the other things it takes to set up house and assimilate into Dutch culture.

I Smell a Rat

Howie and me at Supperclub
We embarked on a whirlwind of shopping, decorating and partying. Jan took me to A'dam's best clubs, introducing me to VJs, DJs and the world of techno-music—one that fascinated me so much, I was prepared to devote considerable energy promoting his Ministry of Nonsense worldwide. Sick with bronchitis and pneumonia, we partied on.

Alas, the signs of psychosis started early, but I could not see the red flags until it was too late. I'll save them for the memoir...along with the rest of the story about having Jan arrested at Supperclub for his stab at home terrorism, grand theft and destruction of property.

Travel Blogging in Copenhagen 
Kings Gardens, Copenhagen
Lola and Urban
In November, I traveled via train to Copenhagen for Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX), where I joined over 200 fellow travel writers. They included Lola Akinmade, a talented Nigerian photojournalist I met on a cycling tour in Egypt, and her Swedish husband, Urban. What a treat! The Danes regaled us with local lore, Nordic cuisine and tours of canals, breweries, bakeries, trendy neighborhoods and Christiana (Copenhagen's hippie enclave). 

Turkeys and Menorahs

When I returned, I tracked down a turkeyno easy feat in Hollandfor Thanksgiving. Longtime friends Rod, Miriam and Zara Heydon; Nica (American expat/chef/sailor/luxury tour director) and her partner Christine; Bill (Hunter's Coffeeshop dealer/local bad boy) and Burt, my Surinamese friend, came by tram, foot and bike for the feast. A week later, we celebrated Hanukah with potato latkes and a menorah fashioned from votive candles. Zara's friend, Rachel, said the blessing. 

Holiday Magic
By Sinterklaas' (the Dutch Santa Claus) arrival via steamboat from Spain in late November, several inches of snow lay on the ground. Unlike America's Santa, Sinterklaas is quite dashing with his white mane, crimson regalia, gold crown and hunky build. But he is not so politically correct; indeed, his alliance with Zwarte Piet, the young black helper who accompanies him down chimneys of well-behaved Dutchies, has caused considerable uproar. Innocent little ones may tell you his face gets blackened with soot, but contemporary folklore maintains Piet was freed from slavery by St. Nick and willingly chose to follow him.

Amsterdam is now magnificent with holiday lights, ice skating rinks, frozen canals, snow-filled boats, oliebol (Dutch donuts) and mulled wine. But the icy stuff is deadly. So I light a fire and watch the cyclists peddle by, making me dream of California where my friends are riding in shorts and t-shirts. Rod broke his arm, slipping on the ice and numerous friends have fallen from their fiets (bikes), riding on the slick cobblestones.

So I'm escaping to Thailand for a writers retreat on New Year's Day. After the five-day conference in Chiang Mai, I'll spend two weeks checking out temples, hill tribes and handicrafts in northern Thailand, then explore Bangkok and southern islands. I welcome suggestions for this upcoming trip.

I look forward to seeing many California friends at the BCI banquet on January 29 and at my "Over the Hump: Egypt by Bike" presentation at the February 24 BCI General Meeting in beautiful Irvine, California. Mark your calendars!
If you're traveling in 2011, I hope you'll visit me in Amsterdam, where I'd be happy to share my passion for what is still, for me, the most magical city on Earth. All the best for the New Year; may you follow your own dreams, finding peace and happiness wherever they may lead you.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Serendipity Rules

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” —Lao Tzu

Living Area @ 4 Groenmarktkade
According to Wikipedia, serendipity is “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something unrelated.”

Hans (L) and Patrick
Voted one of the 10 hardest-to-translate English words by a British translation company, the word was allegedly coined in the mid-18th century by Horace Walpole, who was inspired by a Persian fairytale, "The Three Princes of Serendip." In the tale, the heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of."

And so it was with my Amsterdam apartment. After my agent, Hans, showed me a ho-hum place in the same building, we bumped into Patrick, a KLM pilot and climbing buddy of Hans, outside the elevator. Patrick tells us he’s selling his place soon—he’s moving to France to climb the Pyrenees—but waiting until after tourist season to put it on the market. Would we like to see it? Of course we’d like to see it.

Clubbing, sultan-style
Fast forward a month and the deed’s been signed. Move-in is September 8. South of the Border Birthday Bash with Mexican beach-themed aromavisuals by my friend Andy Versteeg, aka Dr. Perfume, the aroma jockey behind Circle of Senses—is September 15.

Andy has titillated audiences around the world with his sensual artform, collaborating with some of the planet’s best video jockeys. If you can afford a trip to Amsterdam, you get free lodging, VIP party treatment and all the city tours and kvelling about the Netherland's capital you can handle. Or not. Find party details on the invite.

Supperclub Burlesque
I was Andy’s guest at Amsterdam’s swanky Supperclub last Saturday. Lounging on sultans’ cushions, we savored an evening of gastronomy, music and art in a sultry nightclub where the bathroom doubles as the smoking room.

There are seductive Toilettes Noires for gays and a heterosexual one where pissers mingle with potheads. Between five courses, we chatted with fellow guests in the marijuana clouds, all gushing about the wonder of it all. Check out photos in this album.

Floating down
The Gay Jewish Contingent
The week before, A’dam celebrated personal freedom with the Gay Pride Fest, a long weekend of parades, parties and dancing in the streets. Gays from around the world pranced about in outrageous costumes, reveling in their right to be and love whomever they wish. Hallelujah! Check out more pics in this album.

Today, SAIL 2010 begins, launching 5 days of nautical festivities with the arrival of some 500 tall ships and heritage vessels from around the world. I'm sure I'll hear many languages when I join crowds lining the harborfront near Central Station, where the sail-in parade on the Ij River happens this afternoon.

Amsterdam’s wealth and glory
stems from the Golden Age of sail.
In addition to influencing real estate exchanges, serendipity can introduce whimsy into travel plans. Operating on what my daughter Brooke calls “Melissa Time,” I’ve postponed my return to SoCal until early January. After hearing from friends how special the holiday season is here, I want to brave my first real winter—a rite of passage if you're going to live in Holland amongst true Dutchies.

So…I’ll be decorating my apartment, transforming it into a Bed and Breakfast, staying put in the Netherlands until early 2011 and welcoming guests to Amsterdam soon. The home page of the Bij Melissa website is up. Special friends get a special rate. Will that include you?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Crime? What Crime?

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." 
                                                                                              —Fitzhugh Mullan
I’ve done the deed. It’s over, fini! There was no violence this time, no visible bloodshed. That came in earlier chapters of My ’Dam Affair, Confessions of a Second Childhood, played out in that insane summer of 2008 when I romped around Europe with a charismatic con man, chasing fantasies of apartments, French villas and rich uncles. That manuscript is resting comfortably on my hard drive (and various other drives) but needs a rewrite with a new point of view.

Great Room
Unlike Raskolnikov, I have no mental angst about this deed. It’s the deed for a 2-bedroom apartment on Groenmarktkade, a street in Amsterdam overlooking Nassaukade Canal in the historic Jordaan, where Rozengracht and Marnixstraat intersect.

Roof Terrace
The Anne Frank House, A’dam’s most popular tourist attraction, is 4 blocks away on Prinsengracht canal. It’s 1K (about half a mile) to both Dam Square & Leidseplein, A’dam’s entertainment hubs. De Wallen, the city’s infamous Red Light District is across from the Dam.

View of Nassaukade Canal
and Rozengracht
The apartment is in a complex built in 1994. It has an elevator and a bike shed. It’s on the 5th and top floor, overlooking the canal and city below. I take ownership on Sept. 1 and will rent it out for the winter until I return next spring.

Entry Hall
Of course, this is a dream come true for me—one that began in 2007 when a visit to Amsterdam sparked my desire to move here. Certainly, there have been hurdles along the way. After all, emptying a 3-bedroom home crammed with belongings is no cakewalk. And “melba toasting” faux-painted, stenciled walls for renters is not fun. Thankfully, my tenants from NY have been there since 2008 and are happy, far as I know, to have escaped East Coast winters. Best clue: I see their Audi convertible parked in the Clay St. driveway whenever I ride by.

Dining Area
Other hitches included a medical catastrophe (now resolved) and (unrelated) social media/cultural differences-related A’dam drama that got me banned from my favorite bar. Returning earlier than planned from that 2008 misadventure, I broke my arm tripping over a suitcase, then got my heart broken.

The day after returning from Europe last spring, I totaled my RAV4, made the GR8 COPY license plate a wall decoration and vowed to move to A’dam for good. Again, romance got in the way. All these hurdles have taught me an important lesson: S*#% happens. Deal with it.

I return to SoCal Sept. 6. I’ll use the next 6 months to wrap things up in Sunset Beach before returning to Amsterdam in spring 2011.

Master Bedroom
Master Bath
This is good news for you. My new apartment has a guest bedroom and I love hosting guests. Nice combination if you’re a good friend who likes to travel and wants to visit a world-class European destination.

If you’re still wondering why I fell in love with Amsterdam, I hope you’ll tune in to my new channel on YouTube. Another video is too long to post on that site, but can be viewed from THIS site. If you like Alice in Wonderland, this one’s for you. It’s about 14 min. long, so settle in with a koffie before scrolling down and make sure your speakers are turned on before clicking play. View full screen for the best experience—nicer than a tiny moving box.

Me and Marlene, 2008
I hope all of you will have the courage to follow your own dreams wherever they might lead, even if they feel impossible, uncomfortable and obstacles get in the way. Don’t let fear of the unknown stop you from exploring paths leading to new experiences. It’s all worth it in the end. Trust me.

If you don't trust me, trust Frank Herbert, author of sci-fi favorite DUNE:
"Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Melissa's Adventures in Wonderland

“Without travel I would have wound up a little ignorant white Southern female, which was not my idea of a good life."     —Lauren Hutton

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What Do Live Sex Shows and European Futbol Have in Common?

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it."  —John Steinbeck
OK, let’s not keep you guessing. I’m only crazy about one.

Me & Erin in my apartment
After nearly 2 months of writing and decompressing in Amsterdam, I’ve concluded I want to make the city my home. Since 2007, I’ve been spending extended periods  in the world’s capital of tolerance and still wake up feeling like the universe is giving me a gift every day I open my eyes here.

Adventurewoman Agustina
Londoner Kathleen
Since the end of May, I’ve welcomed 3 visitors who’ve flown to Holland to experience the culture and ambiance of one of Europe's most international cities: Erin, my Sunset Beach, CA neighbor; Kathleen, a teacher from London I met at VaughanTown in Spain's remote mountains and Agustina, my host in the Italian Alps, who came with her fiancé, Nick. Charlie, a Dutchie from Rotterdam I met at Momo Hostel in Tel Aviv, will visit soon.

Highlights from these stopovers included a stroll through Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District on which Erin and I peered at scantily clad ladies in windows, passing peep shows, brothels, adult toy shops, the Erotic Museum and the Hash, Marijuana Museum on Oudezijds Achterburgwal.

Casa Rossais the facade with the pink elephant.
On this lively street, sailors sought female companionship as far back as the 14th century. They’ve been replaced by curious tourists, lovers hooked arm-in-arm and roving bands of tipsy bachelors and bachelorettes including one about to lose his or her freedom. While all are enticed by the historic area’s carnal pleasures, no one can help but notice it's one of A’dam’s prettiest, with 300-year-old gabled buildings (if only they could talk!) hovering over silvery, tree-lined canals.

We couldn’t pass up a visit to Casa Rossa, one of 3 infamous live sex show parlors in de Wallen. Yes folks, only in A’dam can you see live couples having sexual intercourse on stage (some more artistically than others), as well as dancers performing parlor tricks with bananas, ribbons, dildos, vibrators and other paraphernalia. It’s more funny than erotic, especially with a little drunken audience participation.

Being a nice girl from Pennsylvania, Erin wasn’t up for the notorious Bananenbar, home of girls in barely there lingerie, who show off their penmanship and other skills, writing postcards without using their hands! Walking home in the moonlit night (we’d missed the last tram), Erin gave me her lollipop souvenir from Casa Rossa. If you can’t visualize what it looks like, you don’t have much imagination!

The ultimate drink 'n' drive machine
So what if we lost?
When Kathleen came to town, Holland was in the World Cup FIFA finals. The town was awash in Oranje fever, everyone running around in insane costumes, blowing on vuvuzelas, roaring with anticipation. Having spent significant time in Spain, my guest was rooting for España while I was clearly hoping for an historic Netherlands victory.

Some of those Spaniards were cute!

Spanish fans in Vondelpark
With their gold & red t-shirts, it was easy to spot Spanish fans. Kathleen embraced them all! Although Holland lost the 2010 World Cup, the town went wild when Team Oranje returned from Jo’burg for a festive parade down Herengracht canal and a celebration at Museumplein. Now passionate about European futbol, I look forward to Euro Cup 2012 and World Cup 2014. Anyone want to join me in Brazil? You’ve got 4 years to save!

Victory parade down Herengracht canal
As I’ve been penning and pitching stories about my travels, I’ve discovered Trazzler, a great site for sharing experiences. No matter what your life is like, you’ve surely had some peak ones—devouring that delectable pastrami-on-rye at Factor’s, snuggling with a sweetie in a romantic B&B, going on safari in Africa (or San Diego Wild Animal Park), discovering a scenic bike route, swimming with sharks in Hawaii, rafting a river (any river!) or just hanging out at your favorite hometown diner.

Snap a photo, write less than 160 words about your fav weekend getaway, boutique hotel, adrenaline rush, music venue, food market, museum, urban oddity…ok, you get the idea. There are more than 3 dozen categories for posts and it’s fun to share pics and stories.

Crazy Dutchies
I’ve posted 4 Trazzler trips to date, focusing on recent experiences on Eagle Island, Egypt, the Dolomites and window shopping Amsterdam-style.

And what about that nasty ref?
If you like my stories, I hope you’ll “save” them and vote for those entered in Trazzler contests. I encourage you to become a friend on the site and to submit your own stories about cool places you’ve visited and experiences you’ve had.

My doors on Da Costakade canal are still open to anyone who may want to visit Amsterdam this summer. I’ll be back in California in early September and hope to return to A’dam in spring 2011.

Love & peace to all!