Viewing: Amsterdam

Date night: House of Bols cocktail workshop

Paris was our Valentine weekend treat, but on Valentine’s Day, Marlon and I changed it up a bit. After years of staying in and ignoring this most commercial of holidays, we actually went out for a Valentine-themed date night.

Oh, stop cringing, themed dates don’t have to be cheesy. In fact, they can be fun—as we discovered when we did a Valentine cocktail workshop at The House of Bols: Cocktail and Genever Experience.

Amsterdam House of Bols Genever

Home to the world’s oldest distilled spirit brand, The House of Bols has been distilling liqueurs in Amsterdam since 1575. Its signature product is jenever,  a blend of distilled malt wine and juniper berries that is Holland’s national liquor and the predecessor of modern-day gin. The house brand Bols Genever (hello, gorgeous bottle!) is one of the first-ever cocktail liqueurs and dates all the way back to 1820.

Our evening started with a tour of the House of Bols Museum, which has won the Dutch Design Award for Best Exhibition and Experience. From elegantly calligraphed labels to its gleaming copper distillery, this smallish, cozy museum offers a sensory experience of Bols’ history and heritage.

Amsterdam House of Bols Museum

My favorite part of the museum was the room where we got to “taste” each of Bols’ 38 flavored liqueurs… with our noses. *sniff sniff* Such an unusual and fun experience!

Amsterdam House of Bols cocktail bar

The “museum” part of the visit ends when the “cocktail” part of it begins: with a cocktail at the Mirror Bar, which is included in the price of admission. I wish Bols had a standalone cocktail bar outside the museum—their menu features some truly fabulous cocktails!

Amsterdam House of Bols typical Dutch height

I just had to snap this picture because it is the perfect example of what I have to deal with as a 5’1″/152cm Filipina living among the tallest people on the planet.

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Babyconcertjes: Live classical music for babies

Do you remember the first time you heard music? I can’t identify a particular song or artist as being the first, but I remember gradually becoming aware of music at about three or four.

My earliest musical memories include being upset at not being allowed to go to a Menudo concert with my mom and sister (I was appeased by a Menudo poster, so my reasons might not have all been musical). Mom’s folksy-hippie favorites John Denver and Peter, Paul and Mary sang of magic dragons and mountains in springtime on long weekend drives to Laguna. I learned to sing nine year-old Lea Salonga’s I Am But a Small Voice in kindergarten, and burst into tears whenever she sang about missing her Mama.

Like most Filipino kids, classical music was never part of my formative experiences with music. I heard classical music for the first time when I joined the Glee Club in college. While rehearsing for competitions in Europe, we were half-envious, half-terrified by stories about how our European competitors grew up with the Kodaly method or knew how to read notes from childhood. And though my friends—many of whom are now professional soloists, conductors and choristers—infected me with their passion for classical music, I still don’t know a whole lot about that world.

That’s why I love the idea of Babyconcertjes: live classical music performances for babies 0-2 years old. I love the idea of giving Tala something I never had: exposure to classical music at an early age. How could I not seize such an opportunity?

Babyconcertjes Amsterdam baroque violin and cello

Founder Anna Smith created Babyconcertjes to give parents and babies an opportunity to enjoy beautiful, thoughtfully chosen pieces of chamber music in a relaxed environment. Each 45-minute concert is different, featuring local musicians who play solos, duets and small ensembles. Babyconcertjes are held in Utrecht, Den Haag, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Gouda and Haarlem.

Babyconcertjes Annabelle Ferdinand baroque violin

Last weekend, Marlon and I took Tala to her first Babyconcertje, featuring Annabelle Ferdinand on the baroque violin and Marike Tuin on the baroque cello.

Babyconcertjes Marike Tuin baroque cello

They played a small selection of pieces by Handel, Corelli and a few others, and presided over a mini sing-a-long for the little ones. We participated mostly via “smile and nod”, as all the Dutch parents knew the songs, but we didn’t!

Tala at Babyconcertjes Amsterdam

At first, Tala seemed more interested in the other babies than in the music. Sitting right up front was a good move—then she listened to the musicians for a surprisingly long time.

Tala listening to live baroque music

Movement was part of it too. Daddy swayed her around in time with the music, and held her when she got really excited and started bouncing up and down.

Tala and Daddy at Babyconcertjes Amsterdam

Did Tala like it? Seems she did. Will she remember it? At this stage, no. Is it good for her? Science says yes, with numerous studies documenting the benefits of music to developmental aspects such as spatial reasoninglanguage learning and more. Did we enjoy our first Babyconcertje, and would we take her to one again? Most definitely!

Find more information about Babyconcertjes on their blog and Facebook page.

Meanwhile, back in Amsterdam…

As you can probably tell from the last few blog posts, being home in Philippines stuck with me for a while. Blogging about Manila, El Nido and my family helped me extend the experience just a little bit longer.

I might’ve been somewhere else mentally and emotionally, but in reality, life goes on here in Amsterdam. And it hasn’t been so bad. The Dutch have been complaining about this “non-winter” (hardly any days dipping below 0ºC, and no snow) but I like it—it’s made the transition back from the tropics easier.

Here’s what we’ve been up to at home over the last few weeks.

Dam Square Amsterdam National Tulip Day

To celebrate the start of the tulip season, Dam Square became a pick-your-own tulip garden for a day—specifically, on National Tulip Day. It was a bit touristy for my taste and we came too late, but it was fun seeing something a bit fresher and greener than the usual living statues and street performers on Dam Square.

Cafe Tabac Amsterdam coffee and tulips

Tulips are indeed starting to pop up all around the city. It will take another month or two until they grow big, bold and bright, but right now they are a welcome pop of color in this dreary winter.

Taschen winter sale

Another mid-winter perk-me-up: sales! Many stores go on sale to start creating space for new spring inventory. After Manila, I declared a shopping moratorium on clothes for Mommy and baby… but not on books!

Taschen books winter sale

Cologne-based publishing house Taschen is one of my favorite publishers. I can’t get enough of their beautiful and affordable books on design, architecture, film, art, culture and fashion. So I couldn’t resist hitting up their mid-winter sale for some seriously discounted books! I’ll share my loot in another post.

Bloody Mary Bennys and Marys pop-up brunch Amsterdam

Getting back to our regular routines has made life easier and more comfortable. But on weekends, I love to find a little something out of the ordinary, like a new pop-up brunch… and a wickedly good Bloody Mary.

Speaking of pop-ups, a city icon popped up right in our backyard!

iAmsterdam Westergasfabriek

There’s a permanent Iamsterdam sign at Museumplein, but there also seems to be a traveling one. This one came to our neighborhood park together with Amsterdam Fashion Week.


iAmsterdam sign D

Guess who tried to climb it, but realized he isn’t 12 years old anymore? iAmsterdam sign Westerpark

It wouldn’t be an Amsterdam winter without lots of gloom and rain. We’ve spent many a day indoors, nursing a cough or cold, watching the world from the warm confines of the living room. Thank goodness for giant windows, and a baby who likes to watch the rain.

Inside on a rainy day
But whenever I can, I try to override this mid-winter slump with a walk around the neighborhood. Even running errands in a city like this is enough to perk me up.

Brouwersgracht houseboats Amsterdam
What’s been perking you up lately?

What I learned about flying long haul with a baby

It’s no secret that I was dreading our first long-haul flight with Tala. Flying 13 hours from Amsterdam to Taipei, a two-hour layover, then another hour and 45 minutes to Manila with a 9 month-old baby, was a scary prospect.

I spent more time than I should have Googling tips for flying long-haul with a baby, packing and repacking our handcarry, and worrying myself into a state of suppressed anxiety.

But, like the first poopy diaper and the first vaccination, the first long-haul flight was way worse in my mind than in reality. Tala did great. We survived. I even managed to get six hours of sleep—that’s a full night in my book! And we felt like pros on the flight back home to Amsterdam.

Here are a few things I learned from the experience.

Long-haul flight on KLM with 9 month old baby

Fly direct and book bulkhead seats. Whenever possible, book a direct flight. Unfortunately, that’s not an option for us as KLM ceased direct flights between Manila and Amsterdam in early 2013. The next best thing: choose a flight with the shortest stopover.

Bulkhead (a.k.a. Economy Comfort) seats are highly sought-after by parents with babies and small kids, so book them way in advance. Even if baby no longer fits into the bassinet, you can use the extra legroom as a play/crawl space. Trust me, shelling out extra for those seats is worth it.

When possible, aim for takeoff 1-2 hours before bedtime. ”Oh, your flight takes off at 8pm? You’ll be fine!” I heard that a lot. In reality, it’s a little more complicated than that.

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Christmas in Amsterdam: Winter scenes

It’s almost time to fly to the Philippines for Christmas! This first half of winter has gone quickly for me. I’ve noticed a big difference from previous winters, when I would get to a point when I was practically crawling to the plane and towards the sunshine.

Maybe it’s because of Tala, who constantly pulls me into action, leaving me zero time to mope on the couch. Or maybe it’s because I finally started taking vitamin D supplements (read this great post on the importance of vitamin D in the winter darkness by Traveling Mama).

Whatever the reason, I’ve enjoyed roaming the city this winter, absorbing the subdued way that the Dutch celebrate Christmas. I’m savoring the quiet restraint here, knowing I’m about to be assaulted by Christmas cheer in Manila (where everything is always an assault). With my camera in my coat pocket (yes, it fits!), I’ve captured a few winter scenes around Amsterdam to share with you.

Amsterdam ice skating on Museumplein

Surrounded by three of the city’s most important museums—the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museum—under a glowing winter sunset, the ice skating rink at Museumplein is one of the most picturesque places to enjoy an afternoon in the city. There’s also a skating rink at Leidseplein, but this one is bigger and more photo-op worthy.

Amsterdam winter canal Prinsengracht

The elms have shed all their leaves now, leaving them floating on the canals like shining gold coins in the water…

Winter pigeon bare branches

and leaving stark, bare branches that only the hardiest of Amsterdammers could stand to nest in.

Amsterdam oliebollen stand

Brightly lit gebakkramen, or pastry stands, popped up all over the city in the late fall. Their main offering are oliebollen— big, deep-fried balls of dough that are a popular cold-weather treat, and one of the few seasonal street foods you’ll find in the Netherlands (raw herring is another).

The fact that oliebol literally translates to “oil ball” should tell you why I’ve avoided them so far. It’s also quite telling that the Dutch word for “baked” (gebakken) also means “fried.” There’s almost no separating the two here, just as there’s no separating the Dutch from their deep fryers.

Amsterdam Christmas lights Utrechtsestraat

Every neighborhood has its own signature Christmas lights—nee, sorry, winter lights—that they put up every year. These are on the Utrechtsestraat, a nice but rather high-end shopping street just outside the center…

Amsterdam Christmas lights Nieuwendijk

in the old city center, on Nieuwendijk (which I think is one of the seediest streets in Amsterdam, but looks pretty anyway)…

Amsterdam Christmas lights Haarlemmerstraat

and on the Haarlemmerdijk, my favorite shopping street in the Jordaan.

Amsterdam Prinsengracht by night

The winter nights may be long and dark, but Amsterdam’s canals reflect light and make the nights brighter. On evenings like this one, when the water is mirror-still, it’s just beautiful.

Now I’m getting sentimental. Sssh, don’t tell… but I might actually miss Amsterdam while I’m gone!

Christmas in Amsterdam: Vintage tram ride with Santa

As a young family, we’re constantly discovering and creating our own family traditions. Marlon and I are both the youngest children, so we love finally being able to make the rules now that we’re parents—especially where Christmas is involved!

Not only do we get to draw on our own growing-up experiences of Christmas, but also on the traditions of the country and community we’ve chosen to live in. Because we live in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas becomes woven into our holiday fabric; because we live in cosmopolitan Amsterdam, friends from all over the world show us many new and different ways to celebrate Christmas.

Over the weekend, we found a new family tradition right here in Amsterdam: Santa’s Vintage Tram Ride.

Amsterdam vintage tram ride with Santa

Organized by the Amsterdam Mamas, a network for English-speaking parents in Amsterdam, Santa’s Vintage Tram Ride sets off every December from the Electrische Museumtramlijn Amsterdam.

This little museum dedicated to vintage electric trams is housed in the former Haarlemmermeerstation, a lovely old brick building in the Old South of Amsterdam.

Amsterdam vintage tram museum

The museum’s collection of old trams come from all over Europe and are in perfect working order. They ride every Sunday from Easter to the end of October, and can be hired for special events—which is exactly what the Amsterdam Mamas did for Christmas-loving young families like us.

Amsterdam vintage tram conductor

Christmas with children is truly something special. It was a joy to see all the excited little ones climbing aboard this stately old tram from Vienna…

Amsterdam vintage tram ride with Santa Claus

and sent off by the man of the hour, ringing a big gold bell… Santa Claus himself!

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Sinterklaas!

Today’s a big day for the children of the Netherlands: it’s the feast day of Sint Nicolaas, or Sinterklaas.

The festivities have been going on since Sinterklaas officially arrived in the Netherlands via steamship from Spain on the 16th November. Kids have been setting out their shoes every night, eager to receive kruidnoten (spiced cookies) and little gifts in the morning. Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas’ helper, has definitely been busy!

Zwarte Piet cookies

We don’t celebrate Sinterklaas at home, but I’ve become more aware of the Dutch tradition now that I have Tala. She’s too young to celebrate it now, but I know that as she goes to Dutch playschool and preschool, Sinterklaas will become part of her life—which means it will become part of ours, too.

This year I found out even more about the whole Sinterklaas tradition. For example, there’s the Sinterklaasjournal, a nationwide-airing news show dedicated to the activities of Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten, which kids watch in school. From misplaced presents to Piet’s special wrapping paper, the narrative constantly evolves… and gets pretty elaborate. Parents have to keep up with the “news” or the jig is up!

I’m pretty confident we can find some way for Sinterklaas and Santa Claus to coexist peacably. I’m just glad I have another year to figure out how to do it! Do you celebrate multicultural holiday traditions at home? How do you make them work? I’d love to hear some advice.

Prettige Sinterklaasfeest to you, if you’re welcoming Sint in your home tonight. If not, let’s turn up the volume on those Christmas carols, shall we?

Short days, early sunsets

I’m not terribly excited about winter. When we first moved here, I often wished we could just stay here the whole winter and travel around Europe instead of flying home to Manila. Two winters later, I know I need those three weeks in the sun just to cut winter in half and make it more bearable.

But making things just bearable isn’t enough. So I’m challenging myself to find things to embrace, even enjoy, about winter. One of them comes on the flip side of winter’s long, dark nights. And that is an early sunset. This time of year, sunset comes at the time of day when I’m usually out and about: taking Tala out for a walk, commuting home from Dutch class, or running errands.

Amsterdam’s short days may be depressing, but this time of year, its sunsets are almost always beautiful. These pictures were taken during the golden hour, between 3:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon.

Amsterdam black bike

North of the equator, the golden hour is a full hour, not the few fleeting minutes it is back home. Here, there’s no mad rush to take beautiful photos. Nobody rushes in this city anyway—people in shops and cafes always tell me “rustig, rustig,” or ” slow down, slow down.” That’s this laid-back city for you.

So I take a few minutes to enjoy this soft golden light as I walk through Amsterdam’s streets…

Amsterdam sunset bridge detail

crossing some of its 1,200 bridges…

Amsterdam winter sunset Westerkerk Singel

before finally making my way home for another long winter night.

By the way, on the left side of this photo you can see the hooks on top of each apartment building. That’s how people move furniture into their houses here, by hoisting them up with ropes and through the window. Another Amsterdam quirk.

Amsterdam winter sunset street lamp

This last photo was at 4:30 p.m., too early for the street lights to come on. One of my neighbors greeted me “Good afternoon!” at this time and I felt so disoriented, I answered “Good evening!”

I know the days are only going to get shorter, so I’ll just enjoy these lovely early sunsets as they come. In the meantime, I hope you find something beautiful to embrace too, whatever you’re facing this weekend. Have a good one and see you next week!

Autumn in Westerpark

Temperatures in the low single digits, days that aren’t just gray but also dark and gloomy, and sunsets that come all too soon at 4:30 in the afternoon. Winter is coming? Nope, it looks like winter is here.

And just when I started running, too. I started a couch to 10k running program with the hope that it would be kinder to my body than the HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts I loved before I got pregnant. I only managed it twice a week, and my current level of fitness requires a lot more walking and jogging than actual running, but I was really starting to get into it.

I found pushing my body into motion in the crisp autumn air to be calming and therapeutic. Clearing my mind with exercise became even more important last week, to break the cycle of frustration, outrage, helplessness and sorrow that arose from being glued to the news of Typhoon Yolanda’s aftermath.

Whenever I would reach a saturation point, I would unplug, get moving, recharge. And one unusually sunny morning, I took the camera with me to document the last of these fleeting autumn colors.

Amsterdam Westerpark autumn sunshine

Amsterdam Westerpark autumn leaves turning

These gorgeous yellows won’t last for long, and I want to hug them to myself for just a little while longer. The elm tree outside our window is already bare.

Amsterdam Westerpark autumn red and yellow leaves

Amsterdam Westerpark autumn yellow leaves

I just need to hang on for a few more weeks until we go home for our annual dose of sunshine.

Amsterdam Westerpark autumn trees

Till then, I need to find things to embrace about winter, and say my farewells to fall. Goodbye, autumn! You were short, but you tried your best to blaze bright and beautiful when you could. See you next year.

Super Typhoon Haiyan: Help from Holland

Over the weekend, a number of Filipino organizations came together to organize Bangon Pinoy!, a prayer service and fundraising event for the survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda.

It reminded me of all the Pinoy gatherings from my Glee Club tours, when we were hosted by Filipino communities in Europe. It wouldn’t be a Pinoy event without lots of food (the arroz caldo and Spanish bread alone were worth coming for!)…

Amsterdam fundraiser for Yolanda Philippines

… lots of singing, and lots of people. Celeste Legaspi’s Isang Mundo, Isang Awit (sing it with me: “Je t’aime, te amo, I love you!”) also inevitably becomes part of the default soundtrack for these things.

Bangon Pinoy fundraiser for Typhoon Yolanda

It was Marlon’s and my first time to go to a Filipino community gathering since we moved to Amsterdam. There are over 17,000 Filipinos in the Netherlands, but majority of them don’t live in Amsterdam. The Filipino population in the Netherlands is dispersed pretty widely, with the larger communities being situated in the nearby cities of Amstelveen, Hoofddorp, and Den Haag, where the embassy is.

Tala and Marlon at Yolanda PH fundraiser

As you can see from her somewhat bewildered expression, it was also Tala’s first time to experience Filipino levels of noise! I think I need to let my inner fag hag out more often at home to prepare her for our trip to Manila this Christmas.

Tala meets Tara

And it was Tala’s first time to meet a little Pinay just like her. They even look alike! Her new friend’s name is… wait for it… Tara.

Here in Holland, Filipinos aren’t the only ones working to bring aid to the survivors of Haiyan. The Netherlands’ response to the Philippines’ cry for help has been swift and decisive. Here are some of the things our Dutch friends have done to bring relief to those most in need.

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