Category Archives: Amsterdam

The New Ascetic

Wine glass and laptop on floor of empty apartment

In April of last year, we—that is, my wife and I, our three children, and (at that time) two cats—relocated to Amsterdam. And, in April of this year, we decided to move back to the UK.

One would think that an undertaking of this scale would take some time to plan; but, due to a cock-up on the part of the removal company and my wife’s mad packing skills, we managed to get it all done in less than a week. So now my wife, three children, and cat are back in the UK, together with all of our furniture and possessions. And I am still here.

For the last six weeks I have been living an altogether spartan lifestyle in an almost completely empty three-bedroomed apartment in Amsterdam. Life is pretty basic when all you have is a chair and a laptop. Wake up. Watch TV on laptop. Go to work. Come home. Make dinner. Sit in chair. Watch web series on laptop. Go to bed. Watch film on laptop. Repeat. As an experience though, it’s not been as bad as I thought it might turn out; I miss my wife and kids, of course, but the opportunity to watch or listen to whatever I want without interruption has not been unenjoyable. I’ve found myself watching a lot of short-form video, just long enough to eat a meal; the TED talks are a good length for this, although there are so many now that the gems can only be found through the “you should watch this” filter of friends’ recommendations. I’ve also enjoyed the various weekly Geek & Sundry podcasts that Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton and others produce on a regular basis. In particular I can recommend Susan Cain on The Power of Introverts, and Felicia Day playing Sega Bass Tournament is hilarious.

I’ve also taken the opportunity to fill in some of the blank spots in my film ‘to watch’ list that didn’t interest my wife: in the last few weeks I’ve watched Eyes Wide Shut, Tree of Life, Serenity and Showgirls, to name but a few. I also finally got around to watching Firefly and some of Dollhouse in one Whedon-powered week—sadly I ran out of free time before watching the entire Buffy series.

And now, I’m leaving too. Just a few last tasks to take care of. Apparently UPC—the Dutch cable TV and internet company—want their equipment back when you cancel a contract, so that’s one unexpected trip for tomorrow evening; and I’m still not completely sure I’ve cancelled everything I need to cancel, post-wise. One last chance when I come back next week for the final inspection with the landlord, then our ties are forever cut. Back to the Fens we go.

New Year Revolutions

2011 was an odd year. I’ve been bouncing back and forth to my hometown for fifteen years, moving away then moving back in ever-decreasing circles, but until last year I’d always stayed in the UK. And yet, to claim that our move to Amsterdam in April was something of a big deal is put to shame by the similar stories told by so many other people in the city. Flying across the North Sea, even when accompanied by three small children and two cats, still seems small-scale when compared to relocating from India, New Zealand or Brazil.

Some things have been unexpectedly easy. Finding a school and getting the kids settled was probably our biggest worry, but they’re now virtually fluent (although curiously have not yet taken to conversing in their new ‘secret language’ at home). Signing on with a doctor was also a simple process, and – like the school – is just a few minutes away from our apartment.

Other things have not gone so smoothly. While we still have three children, we are down to just a single cat now; Tigger died in late summer, providing me with the first opportunity to try out my ‘telling the kids their beloved pet has died’ routine. They took it fairly well – it was at least thirty minutes before I heard: “Can we get a puppy?”

Living so close to the centre of a vibrant city is a balancing act at times. Both work and the city itself offer so many diversions and entertainments that it might be easy to feel one is missing out by staying home and early nights, but it’s also true that the best aspect of our move has been the greatly increased time I now have to spend with my wife and children. No more two-hour-a-day commutes and no more freelancing has translated into long walks in the nearby parks, trips into town and many more family moments; I think not having a car also contributes too, as the children have enjoyed both family cycle outings and solo trips on the tram.

The year ended with the most deranged New Year’s Eve we’ve ever experienced. The Dutch apparently have no words for such concepts as “health and safety” or “a safe distance,” and from our third-floor balcony we were treated to a deafening display as the neighbourhood set off as many explosives as they could find, mostly right outside our front door:

With Christmas and New Year falling on a weekend, I’ve only had a paltry nine days of unfocused, alcohol- and food-fuelled laziness; back to work tomorrow and time to think about some goals for the coming twelve months.

Further refining GTD

Over the last year I’ve tested many different GTD solutions or combinations of services, but the final result I’ve been living with for a few months, Wunderlist, still feels like settling for adequate when perfect is out there. A combination of occasional minor bugs (mostly sync-related), poor UI choices (task notes not easily accessible, no sub-lists), and just generally not using it at times when in theory it should be front-and-centre in my process leads me inexorably to the conclusion that my setup just isn’t working properly for me.

So, NYR #1, then:

Embark once more into the murky waters of GTD tools and techniques to find the perfect solution.

I should probably get around to finishing the damn book, too…

Be more creative, make more stuff

I have accumulated many gadgets and bits of software with which to be creative. Nothing which I’d be so arrogant as to call ‘semi-pro,’ but there are an embarrassing number of expensive toys gathering dust about the place. Like (it seems) virtually anyone daring to call themselves a web designer these days, I fancy myself a not entirely incompetent photographer, filmmaker or musician – and, possessing the tools to realise these pursuits, it seems wasteful to while away (all of) my free time bouncing between a handful of the same websites or killing dragons.

Of course, there are also plenty of opportunities to be more creative in my chosen field. I made a couple of abortive attempts to build semi-useful web apps last year; I’d like to either pick those up again, or perhaps some other new idea. The 12412 project is tempting, but personally I’d rather get good (or better) in one particular area than learn a little about a lot.

NYR #2:

Use the tools and skills I have to create something (or several things) new.

One project in particular that I hope to launch in January should stretch my writing muscle on a fairly regular basis, and of course I intend to keep posting here when the urge strikes. Who knows, I might even write something about the web one of these days.

Get fit Stay fit

I’m ending the year fitter than I’ve ever been (at least in adult life). I completed the marathon in October, and since then have explored new areas of the city each week while building up to a respectable distance once more.

So, while the rest of the world is setting goals to get themselves fit, my aim is simply to maintain my current and very enjoyable level of fitness. NYR #3:

Stay fit and keep running.


So, no work-related resolutions, because who knows what this year will bring. I have the same problem filling in those “where do you see yourself in five years” questions on self-appraisal forms. At the moment, I’m happy, productive and relaxed – and I hope to be able to sustain this feeling well into 2012.

The wrapping finally comes off the new Stedelijk Museum


Finally the scaffolding and coverings have been (mostly) removed from the new Stedelijk Museum at the south-west end of Museumplein, and the new building is looking pretty impressive.

Stadelijk Museum in Museumplein

Like so much modern Dutch architecture it is big on counterweighted overhanging parts (see for example the various hotels and things up near the central library), and the material it is coated in has a strange, almost ceramic look to it. The doors have all been covered now so you can’t see the state of the inside, so hopefully it will all be completed in time for the planned 2012 re-opening.

The official website is a bit strange as well – the enormous fixed-position ‘T’ initially looks like part of the layout, until you start scrolling…



Santa’s Slave Parade

Last Sunday it was Amsterdam’s annual Sinterklaas parade, when the Saint and his ‘helpers’ arrive on the boat from Spain and parade through the streets of Amsterdam distributing sweets and biscuits to the children lining the route.

As Nicholas is the patron saint of the city (as well as children and sailors) there is an amazing turn-out along the roads leading from the harbour through to Leidseplein, where he delivers a benediction from the balcony. Hundreds of blacked-up men, women and children also march along the route, representing Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) – variously described as a defeated devil, Ethiopian slave-boy, or a chimney-sweeping servant. Whatever the genesis of the Sint’s companion, it’s definitely one of the oddest things an ex-pat in Amsterdam is likely to see…