Viewing: winter

Winter uniform: Isabel Marant for H&M

As a Catholic school girl, the word “uniform” always brings me back to years of white starched blouses and strictly monitored hemlines. I couldn’t wait to break free of my school uniform and was happy to leave that word behind. Well, here I am using “uniform” to refer to my personal style for the first time in years.

Confession time: I’ve fallen into the habit of wearing tight bottoms with oversized tops. Honestly, it took me a few months to realize I was dressing as if I was still pregnant! Once I discovered I didn’t need to be in an Outfit to drop off Tala at the gastouder or to swing by the Kruidvat for a pack of diapers, it was easy to succumb to the warm, forgiving embrace of sweatshirts and leggings. Winter, when it seems pointless to dress up because it all gets covered up by a coat anyway, has simply reinforced that attitude.

But wait! I haven’t given up just yet. Comfort and style don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I figure if I’m going to stick to the basics, those basics ought to look good. If I’m going to just throw on a sweatshirt to pick Tala up from daycare, it might as well be a cool one, right?

This was how I justified the madness of queuing up for the Isabel Marant for H&M collection last November. It turned out to be a logical decision, because I’ve been living in my Isabel Marant loot all season long.

Mom style Isabel Marant for H&M Balenciaga

In the earlier half of winter, I could get away with just a warm angora cardigan over this black-and-white linen t-shirt—which is, by the way, from the men’s collection. Seeing the clothes-crazed violence in the women’s department forced me to sneak up to the men’s floor as both a shopping and survival strategy. I barely escaped with my life, plus a few good buys!

Mom style Isabel Marant for H&M duffle coat

This is the coat I throw over everything: my navy wool blend duffel coat from Uniqlo. I love how roomy it is, although I wish it was more resistant to pilling.

Mom style Isabel Marant for H&M

I thought I would swear off roundneck t-shirts after turning 30, but I couldn’t resist this cute feather-printed linen tee. With a pop of fuschia stretch velvet and SuperCosy fleece tights from Primark, it’s one of my more dressy errand outfits that’s surprisingly comfy.

Mom style Isabel Marant for H&M red sweatshirt

Another menswear score: my favorite sweatshirt of the season! This sold out almost instantly, and I wasn’t prepared to inflict bodily harm on anyone to grab the last piece in the women’s department. I just love the combination of color and comfort, print and practicality.

Mom style Indian silver and lapis lazuli necklace

Isabel Marant’s modern spin on bohemian chic inspired me to dig out some of my favorite pieces of ethnic jewelry, like this silver and lapis lazuli necklace I bought while on honeymoon in Jodhpur. I thought it was a bit much for laid-back Amsterdam, but somehow it works with the casual ease of a sweatshirt and boots. I’m glad to get a little more use out of it!

Do you have a “uniform” too? What are your go-to outfits, and how do you keep them fun and fresh?

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!

Gaga over glühwein

One of the things I love most about Christmas markets in Germany is drinking glühwein, or hot spiced wine. Marlon and I once received a bottle of glühwein as a gift when we were still living in Singapore, and it stayed untouched in our refrigerator for over a year simply because we couldn’t bear the thought of drinking hot wine in a hot, humid climate.

The whole atmosphere is part of the enjoyment of glühwein: being all bundled up, feeling the cold winter air on your face, warming your hands with the cup, standing under the twinkling lights that brighten up a prematurely dark afternoon or evening.

I think we must have hit every single glühwein stall in Dusseldorf. To attract attention in a thick crowd, every stall has its own little gimmick, and that’s part of the fun too.

Dusseldorf Christmas market gluhwein carousel

I’m pretty sure this glühwein carousel on Flinger Strasse features celebrities, whom you will probably only recognize if you’re German. I’m willing to guess that the portly lady on the left is Angela Merkel.

Dusseldorf Christmas market gluhwein stall chandelier

There’s kitschy… and then there’s classy. These beautiful chandeliers lit up the stall at the Sternchenmarkt, or Little Star Market, on the Stadtbrückchen square.

Dusseldorf Christmas market gluhwein copper pot

Traditional or trendy? These huge copper pots at the Marktplatz market are both, and they’re attention-grabbing, too. I loved the simple, clean lines of the terracotta mugs at this stall, but I sat out this round so I didn’t get my hands on them.

Dusseldorf Christmas market gluhwein

Every glühwein stall has its own mug with the year and the name of the market. A small deposit is built into the price of the drink, which you can forfeit if you want to take the mug home.

After three winters of Christmas market trips, Marlon and I have found ourselves with a small collection of these glühwein mugs. Still, we never seem to have enough mugs at home at this time of year, when we’re constantly making coffee and tea at home.

Dusseldorf Christmas market Schneehuttendorf gluhwein

This year we added another one to the collection, mostly because it’s the coolest one we’ve seen so far: a tall, skinny frosted glass mug from the market on Schadowplatz.

I can just imagine Tala in her teenage years rolling her eyes at our mugs. “Can you please get rid of this tacky glühwein mug collection? Please?!”

Dusseldorf Christmas market Sternchenmarkt gluhwein mug

Sorry, anak. I got you one of your own: a little star mug from your first Christmas market. Mommy can’t throw that away, now can she?

Christmas markets in Dusseldorf

Just two hours from Amsterdam by train, Dusseldorf was an easy and convenient choice for this year’s annual Christmas market trip. This is the third winter we’ve traveled to Germany to visit Christmas markets with friends, and I love how it’s become a real holiday tradition.

Dusseldorf has five Christmas markets spread out over its main city center. Rather than congregating in one central marktplatz or square, the city’s markets are best experienced by taking a long, leisurely stroll from the Alter Stadt (Old Town) to the promenade on the bank of the Rhine river.

Dusseldorf Christmas market Heinrich-Heine-Platz

Everyone is on foot here, so the flow of human traffic is constant and busy. It was easy to tuck our maps away and simply follow the crowd as it swirled and moved: from the Engelchenmarkt (Little Angel Market) on the sprawling Heinrich-Heine-Platz…

Dusseldorf Christmas market

among the stately buildings that make up the commercial heart of the city…

Dusseldorf Konigsallee winter

across the stone bridges spanning the Konigsallee, Dusseldorf’s main upscale shopping street…

Dusseldorf Christmas market snow village

to the schneehuttendorf, or Scandinavian-inspired “snow hut village” on the Schadowplatz, a modern spin on the traditional Christmas market.

Along the way, there were scents to entice, trinkets to tinker with, flavors to enjoy, and copious quantities of gluhwein (warm spiced wine) to drink.

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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!

Quiet Amsterdam

Amsterdam has just emerged from a two-week deep freeze. While I’m glad the worst of the winter seems to be over, I can’t help but feel a bit sad about losing a quiet, peaceful, deserted Amsterdam. I guess you could say I’m feeling a bit possessive; getting to experience Amsterdam the way not a lot of visitors do makes it feel a little more like “my” city.

Amsterdam canal in winter

Leidseplein and Leidsestraat are almost always choked with tourists. Even the trams sound stressed when they’re trying to squeeze through this narrow pass. But the January cold kept the hordes away, and for once walking here was actually kind of nice. Especially with music from the Once soundtrack played by one determined, cold-resistant busker.

Leidseplein deserted

This is a bit like the calm before the storm, because Amsterdam is gearing up for a big year. For starters, 2013 marks the 400th anniversary of the Canal Belt, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a year-long calendar of events. Plus, the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands’ national museum with over 8,000 pieces of art, is finally set to reopen in April after 10 years (!) of renovation.

Amsterdam canal in winter2

Finally, it will be the last time Queen’s Day—also known as the biggest party in the country—will take place on these canals. That’s because on April 30, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands will officially step down from her throne and hand over the crown to her son, Prince Willem-Alexander, who will become the Netherlands’ first king in 123 years.

Amsterdam canal houses

Queen Beatrix’s abdication means the end of Queen’s Day; from next year onwards, it becomes King’s Day on April 27. So I’m sure this Queen’s Day—the same day as the inauguration of the new King—will be one to remember. I wouldn’t want to miss it… even if I’ll be sleep-deprived and nursing a newborn by then.

So wait, why was I so morose? It’s actually a great year to visit Amsterdam! My advice is, book early, especially if you’re planning to come for Queen’s Day. If you’re looking for hotels, try here. And if you ever need any local tips (like where to find the yummiest apple pie in Amsterdam, or the best place to eat in the culinary void that is Leidseplein), I’m just an email away!

For more information about Amsterdam in 2013, check out this link.

First snow of the year!

I didn’t expect to welcome December with snow. But that’s exactly what happened this weekend, when Marlon and I drove over the border with friends to Germany.

Can you say winter wonderland?

Apologies for the awkward telephone lines. I shot this from a moving car and I’m not a Photoshop ninja yet. But I just love the different shades of gray and white in this hilly landscape.

Not quite as spectacular, but exciting nonetheless, was waking up this morning to a light snowfall in Amsterdam. Here’s the view of my street from my living room window.

Out back, these plump pigeons were stranded in trees as a light dusting of flakes fell. The pigeons are flying around now, since everything has already melted—not even two hours after it stopped snowing.

It’s my second year here, and my second snowfall, but seeing snow still gives me this calm, happy feeling inside. I’m starting to believe this will never get old; I hope it never does.

While Holland is all about Sinterklaas this week, this blog will be all about Christmas. After all, I’ve just been to two Christmas markets in Germany… and I’m so excited to share them with you.

Hope these images start your week on a bright (white) note! Are you feeling the Christmas spirit yet?

Living room reshuffle

Beset by the winter blues and a strange restlessness during the last few weeks of January, I felt a change was in order. While leafing through Decorate by Holly Becker for inspiration, I came across a great tip for organizing spaces: check how a room “flows” by having people over and observing how they use the space during a party.

Thinking back to a a December potluck lunch I hosted at home, I realized that even with a packed dining room, people didn’t naturally “spill over” into our living room. Our old layout below was great for holing up in front of the TV (which is how we survived many a long winter night), but because the back of the daybed effectively closed off the room, it didn’t feel open and inviting to other people.

So, with my dictatorial brain and my husband’s considerable brawn, we spent one January evening moving furniture around late into the night. The goal was to open up the room without moving any of the paintings or the mirror. As renters, we can’t drill without the landlord’s consent, and taking things off the painting rails is really, really difficult!

We tried a lot of configurations that felt cramped and weird, until we realized there was just one thing that we had to do…

… and that was to rearrange our wine crates!

By reconfiguring them into a kind of wide U/V shape, we were able to put the TV in a position that everyone in the room could see, without making it the focal point of the room. This also filled up a dead corner, hid unsightly wires, and opened up the room. We ended up with this new layout.

I’m really happy with it! It seems like we have much more space now. And we’ve begun to actually use the armchair as a reading chair.

I also took my restlessness out on a tall stack of magazines that I’d been holding on to since 2005. I tore out pages with striking images and filed them into categories such as female faces, female figures, textures, travel, interiors, recipes and so on. This was all that was left after the cull: a stack of magazines less than a foot high. #winner

The finishing touch: lighting.

Dark winter nights are when I really feel how lighting can lift one’s mood. To help our linen-shaded lamps battle the dark, I repurposed old glass jars that I’d been saving into tea light holders. My lola, compulsive hoarder of Ludy’s Peanut Butter glasses, would be proud of me!

Skating in De Rijp

After two days of skating on the Amsterdam canals, it was time for a change of scene. Thanks to a friend’s Dutch partner and his family, Marlon and I found ourselves heading north of Amsterdam on Friday afternoon for a last-minute, out-of-town skating trip.  
We caught the 301 bus behind Central Station bound for the medieval village of De Rijp. Everyone on the bus was carrying a pair of ice skates and sandwiches, making it feel like a school trip with total strangers. On the road, we passed people skating on the frozen waterways between towns, and farmlands covered in snow. 
My friend’s Dutch boyfriend Tob described De Rijp as an “adorable little town in the North”… which it is! I’d probably go bonkers living there, but it sure is cute. Still, I’m glad I had the chance to visit—it was so pretty, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have found out about it on my own.

We were the last to arrive after getting lost and feeling like our faces were going to fall off before we found our way. When we got there, our friends were already out on a pond (or small-ish lake) that had been completely frozen over.

It was Marlon’s first time out on the ice this winter. His skates are actually ice hockey skates; they were one of the last few pairs left at the sports store. He’s skated before (in Canada, not just in Megamall!) so he took to it so much faster than I did. Naturally.

Heading out into the frozen North, I began to comprehend the full extent of the Dutch love for skating.

Aside from towering over short people at standing-room concerts, it appears that these infuriatingly long Dutch legs are made for one other thing: speed skating. When the web of waterways that crisscrosses the entire nation freezes over, the Dutch put on their skates and do what they call a “tour.” That means hurtling through double-digit kilometers of frozen countryside…

… in goggles and Mandex.

Yup, they take it seriously here. It’s pretty amazing.

If I had stronger legs, I would have loved to attempt a tour. The countryside is beautiful.

But, helaas, my tropical limbs couldn’t even clock in one kilometer before they started aching in places that I had never thought existed. “That’s right, you don’t use those muscles when you’re lying on the beach,” teased my friend Leslie.

I could have used one of these sleds. They looked more my speed.

So we just kept to our little pond with the babies. Speaking of babies… cuteness break! Aren’t they just adorable? *melt*

Even these little tots were faster on the ice then we were.

And those who weren’t, got pulled along on sleds or wagons. I love how handmade and brand-less their toys look.

Aside from babies, there were quite a few dogs out on the ice too, adding to the cuteness factor.

I think they can sense that Marlon is a dog person; they immediately go for him.

Hot drinks are essential to stay warm, and for that overall cozy-happy-fun atmosphere.

And of course, everything’s better with friends. Especially friends with matching skates (cheapskates, literally)…

friends who know how to have fun…

… and friends who can take our picture as a couple!

Thank you, Holland. This is another awesome memory for the books. Till next winter!

Schaatsen op de grachten

… or in English, skating on the canals. Yay!
Just as winter doesn’t automatically translate to snow, it also doesn’t necessarily mean ice. In Amsterdam, where winters are relatively milder, ice is a rare thing. There’s too much moisture in the air here (I know, humid pa pala sa lagay na ‘to) and the city is warmer than the countryside. Smaller canals and ponds outside the city freeze faster, but the canals in Amsterdam are a different animal altogether. 
So when the mercury (and the snow) began to fall, you could feel excitement rising in the air, prickling and spiking with every degree that dropped below zero. The city was literally abuzz with one question: “Are the canals going to freeze?” 
Freeze they did. This has led to my discovery of the one other thing, apart from summer, that creates happiness for the Dutch on a national level. And that is… the ice.  
Heading out to the canals was like seeing a Dutch painting come to life. I was particularly reminded of the Hendrick Avercamp winterscape displayed in the Rijksmuseum. 
Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, image via Wikipedia
I’ve also discovered why ice drives the Dutch bonkers. Simply put, ice = skating. In Amsterdam, it means skating with a UNESCO World Heritage Site as your backdrop. The last time the canals were any good for ice skating was 15 years ago; some parts haven’t been skated on since the 1970s. This winter, the city closed some of the locks, or gates, to help the canals freeze over faster. 
When Megamall opened its ice skating rink in the 90s, I was there on the very first day. So how could I possibly miss out on this?
Photo courtesy of Michelle

Join me on the ice, after the cut!

I wasn’t the only first-timer on the ice that day. It was also a first for Michelle’s baby girl Maddy, who slept through it all.

Natural ice means having to buy your own skates; nobody rents them out here. Most people own their own skates, and many Dutchies prefer the ones with the extra long blades that are made for speed skating. Mine are the most inexpensive kind I could find—just regular figure skates for girls.

Another difference between real vs. rink ice: big ripples and bumps that throw you way off balance. Also, I learned that ice is thinner (or doesn’t form at all) under the bridges, where it’s warmer. 
I was wobbly and tentative, unable to go far without holding on to a friend. But I loved every minute of it.

All I had to do to clear myself of panic was take a deep breath, look up, and see Amsterdam’s historic canal houses and soft glowing sky.

I enjoyed it so much, I had to come back the next day. With a real, palpable fiesta atmosphere pervading the city (especially around the canal belt), a return was simply impossible to resist.

The Dutch bring their culture of gezelligheid (coziness) to the ice, creating an atmosphere of fun, community and warmth (yes, even in the freezing cold!). Everyone was so friendly and happy. You could leave your shoes on the sides and nobody would take them. A guy skated right up to me and my friend and offered to take our photo. People were setting up picnics and parties on the ice…

… and serving hot snacks and drinks from canalside cafes and terraces. Some of the houseboat owners got in on the action and began selling coffee out their windows. And I had a few adorable kids skate up to me and ask if I wanted a cup of tea.

My girlfriends and I skated from one terrace to another, stopping for gossip and gluhwein (hot spiced wine) along the way. My newbie skating legs welcomed the break, and my frozen limbs welcomed the warm wine.

Ironically enough, the only other non-skater in our group was also the only Dutch girl in the group! Sophia (on the left) and I clung to each other for dear life, shrieking and giggling our way down the Prinsengracht. “Of course we can’t skate,” she cried, “we’re intellectuals!” 

In contrast, our friend Karyn was a pro on the ice. She took lessons when she was younger and even once shared the ice with the infamous Tonya Harding.

How I would have loved to get an early start, like so many kids I saw on the canals. Pushing a chair around is how you start learning and developing your balance. And I guess bundling up for the ice is how you start developing a sense of winter style.
I never thought I’d hear myself saying it, but I’m almost sad to see an end to the below-zero temperatures. The days were sunny, crisp and bright, and the ice was just… magical. We won’t get that with temperatures above zero; instead it’s a return to Amsterdam’s prevalent gray and gloom. 

I’ll miss this sight for sure. So many people—especially friends who have lived in Amsterdam for over a decade—told us how extremely lucky we were to experience during on our first winter here. I don’t know if it will happen again while we’re here, but I will harbor the hope that the ice returns to the Amsterdam canals next winter.