I have to admit that when I first saw Bilder & De Clercq opening their original store (on the corner of Bilderdijkstraat and 
 DeClercqstraat) I groaned a bit. I wasn't sure that Amsterdam needed another cafe/food store featuring reclaimed wood, tiled walls and industrial styling - don't get me wrong, I LOVE this style, I guess I've just been hankering after something new. 

However, I must take it all back. I have just had my first Bilder & De Clerq experience and I am completely nuts about it. First the styling. Yes, as I said, lots of places seem to have sprung up which have a similar stripped back feel but on closer inspection B&DC (sorry, I got lazy) has a cleaner and more classic feel than some of the other places I had been comparing it to. Well lit and with the kind of talented merchandising that makes you want to buy EVERYTHING. But, by their own design you are more likely to end up buying only specific items. The store has a number of tables, each laid out with all the ingredients for a particular meal, along with a simple (even for someone with terrible Dutch) recipe card so you can be sure you put it all together correctly. There's a great mix of meat and veggie choices, and also at least one dessert (I saw croissant bread 'n' butter pudding, mercy). Handily they also give you a wine suggestion to go with each of the meals.  Their staff are also lovely, very helpful and obviously very proud of where they work - understandably! 

After a long and mouth watering deliberation, I went for a salmon ravioli served with an asian influenced dressing, and also grabbed the recommended bottle of chardonnay.  I had to improvise a little bit - replacing sesame oil with roasted sesame oil, and soy sauce with tamari but it seems to work just fine. Cooking was super easy - the pasta was already made (and apparently handmade, coming wrapped in a beautiful box - mmm gift wrapped carbs) and the rest of the instructions were simple to follow. I think I chose the easiest of the recipes on offer this week, so I will need to test myself with something more complex I think. End result was delicious and just the right amount, and the wine was also extremely drinkable. You can see below the recipe card picture, and my attempt...

It's not so cheap that you would do it every evening, dinner for two and a bottle of wine is EUR22, but I think I have just found my new way to cheer up an otherwise grey and distinctly 'meh' Tuesday evening. 

How it should look ....and what I produced
This week I have been enjoying some time out of the office. I always said that if I won the lottery I would have to continue working, that I would have to have some way to structure my day and fill my time. I've changed my mind. I have been unbelievably happy doing absolutely nothing - sleeping in, wandering around the house in my pyjamas munching porridge at 1pm, getting dressed long enough to meet a friend for a coffee before rambling home to sit in a hot bath for an obscene amount of time. I have to admit, I am more of a loafer than I ever thought. 

So what does this have to do with Amsterdam? I could have been equally lazy in London, New York or Tokyo of course. Apart from having some excellent cafes in which to waste your free time, Amsterdam also presents  a number of ways to relax, unwind and get your sanity back. This week I've been struggling with a sore back, the result of too many long days sitting badly in my office chair over the past few weeks. What better time to try out one of Amsterdam's many saunas?

As I'm quite a fan of Art Deco styling, I thought I would go for Sauna Deco, located very centrally, on the Herengracht. As soon as I stepped trough the door I was hit by steam and the smell of eucalyptus oil, I felt healthier already. Upon arrival at the front desk I was given a key and directed to the mixed changing rooms. Mixed. Small alarm bells jingled in my very British ears. However, I kept my cool and strolled nonchalantly in, before scuttling straight into the toilets to change into my bikini. 

Dutch people and others with experience of northern european sauna etiquette will already be shaking their heads now, but I was still blissfully unaware. I went back to the reception to give in my key, itching to throw my aching back onto a hot bench. The lady at the desk peered at me over her glasses, "no bikini please", her colleague behind laughed out loud. 

"not even bottoms?" I beseeched. 
"nothing, you must be naked" (I think she was enjoying this exchange and my reddening face)

So, it was comply and get naked, or be thrown out. I decided to brave it out and was very happy that I did. I spent the next hour or so lounging around in Art Deco splendour, getting thoroughly warmed and unknotted in finnish and infrared saunas, the latter being a revelation! I have to say I did chicken out from using the small plunge pool as it is entirely visible from the cafe/reading room and I didn't think my fellow bathers deserved to get such a fright. I definitely managed to relax into being bikini-less although found myself silently repeating "don'tlookdon'tlookdon'tlook" every time I found myself in close quarters with any gentlemen - not that I wanted to look, but it's sort of that car crash thing…. just me? 

Overall this was a really enjoyable experience which I'm looking forward to repeating - next time going armed with a robe and  a stack of magazines in order to take full advantage of the excellent lounging facilities. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to fully adopt the cool northern european attitude to communal nakedness, but I think I can learn to live with it.
PictureArt Deco-tastic at Sauna Deco Photo: Sauna Deco
Sauna Deco
Herengracht 115
1015 BE Amsterdam
T: 020 623 8215

A good painting to me has always been like a friend. It keeps me company, comforts and inspires - Hedy Lamarr 

Recently, during a particularly boring meeting at work, I allowed my eyes to wander around the room and they settled on  what was, I assumed, a pencil drawing. I hadn't noticed it before, usually I am in a  state of total panic when holding meetings, convinced that I haven't prepared properly, or even prepared for the wrong meeting, but now I couldn't take my eyes off it. After the suits had left the room I stayed behind to have a closer look. The picture showed a small group of people, looking up in wonder at an enormous whale who appeared to be leaping into the air. I was completely captivated and found the image so alive that felt I could almost hear the roar of the ocean, the cries of the seagulls flapping around the whale - it was completely exhilarating. The picture was called 'Avontuurlijke Dagen' (Adventurous days) and I was able to make out the artists name and that it had been printed in 1992. I also noticed that the picture was one of a print of 20. Encouraged by a friend I set about trying to find the artist, thinking that maybe I could locate one of the other 19 copies. It took a  while given that I had misread the name but eventually I worked out that it was Ronald Tolman and was able to find his website. Straight away I sent off an email, telling him how much I loved the picture and asking if he knew the whereabouts of one of the prints. Happily he responded with the exciting news that he had found the last one, number 20 of 20. Some triumphant fist pumps, a happy dance (obviously on my part) and a few emails later we had an appointment for me to go and have  a look.

So yesterday I set off early from Amsterdam to Nijmegen and after a short bus ride found myself strolling down a gorgeous country road lined with pear trees and fields with grazing ponies. Just as I was beginning to think that google maps had got something very wrong I spotted in the distance a large sculpture outside a beautiful farmhouse building, Ronald Tolman's house and studio. Once inside and having met a very nice Mrs Tolman and a friendly retriever, I was shown into the studio to meet the artist himself. Over the next hour or so I had the pleasure of being shown Ronald's (I will call him Ronald rather than Mr Tolman and just have to hope he doesn't mind) beautiful garden, dotted around with his stunning sculptures and was also able to wander around his studio pointing at things and being told what they were, how they were made etc. Ronald  told me that he is best known for his sculpture and etchings but is about to release  a book and have an exhibition of his painting work, the opening party of which he very kindly invited me to. He also created a children's book with his daughter, Marije Tolman called 'De Boomhut' (The treehouse) which was a worldwide hit, and has been translated into many languages, including Japanese. In fact he even has a whole fan club in Japan - and now of course the one in Amsterdam (me). Ronald was even kind enough to give me a set of pictures from the book.  Looking around the studio I was really taken with the many small sculpted figures that lined every window sill. Many of them with large hands, quite comical looking and in some cases even a bit sinister but every one I found appealing.

When I felt I'd talked and asked more than my fair share  I left the artist and the studio in peace and walked back down the lane and my picture tucked under my arm and a grin a mile wide. 'What a lucky person I am', I thought to myself as I walked quickly past a slightly psychotic looking sheep, taking care not to make eye contact. Not only have I now got a beautiful picture to hang on my wall, but I've actually met the person who created it and he even let me ask stupid questions, like "er, what is an etching actually?". A truly splendid day.

My only useful piece of advice is to make sure that you go to Nijmegen, only to see the toilets on the station. They must be seen to be believed. Just trust me.

Avontuurlijke Dagen
As I type this I am recovering from running the Dam tot Dam Loop yesterday. This is a very well established (29 years, I believe) 16.4km run which starts in Amsterdam and ends in Zaandam, see, 'dam to 'dam? I'm currently making ooft noises each time my fingers strike the keys, such is the extent of my muscle fatigue. I would struggle to point out one part of my body that hasn't been affected by this attempted show of athleticism, and yet my overwhelming feeling is one of satisfaction.

The plan to do this came, a it usually does, as a part of an elaborate weightloss plan. I feel I have to issue a warning at this point to anyone who is already a bread, cheese or apple pie fan - don't move here, or do but make sure you get your jaw wired before you arrive. I'm having a struggle to shift a couple of excess kilos that have crept on over the last two years. Well, I say I'm struggling to lose the weight, what I'm actually struggling with is learning to say 'no, thank you, I won't have a cheese toastie/extra slice of apple pie/handful of pepernoten (sinterklaas food, danger danger, deserves a whole post on it's own)'.  So, once again I thought, yes, training for a 16.4km run will surely score me a few points in the battle of the bulge. Note, I have also attempted this in the past by taking part in 10km runs, 10 mile runs and even a  triathlon, none of which really helped a great deal. This time I entered the run in January while still on the endorphin high from another sporting event. Then I just kind of forgot about it...

So race day arrived and I had only one vaguely painful 11km run under my belt, nervous? Pfft! Yes, very. I was running with some colleagues, all of whom seem to be discussing 'personal bests' and 'race strategy'. I was just excited about the running playlist I had put together for the event. In the end it was okay, at points even fun. I've never taken part in a run where the spectators got so into the spirit of the thing. All along the route people had set up sound systems blasting dance music, were handing out water, spraying those who needed it with a hose pipe (yours truly took full advantage) and generally just having a great laugh. Probably enjoying the fact that it wasn't them doing the running.

I could give you a blow by blow account, giving eye-watering detail about the moment I realised that my trainers were definitely a bit too small, but I'll  let you off. Suffice to say that I ran all the way, no walking and no serious injuries. Already looking forward to next year!

Below I've listed some details of my favourite, or favourite-sounding events, some I've done, some I'd like to do. The Dutch take part whole-heartedly in these kind of group events and so all  are bound to be good fun and of course, very well organised. 

Dam tot Dam Loop: As above, this 10 English mile (16.4km) race is extremely well established and amazingly well organised. Taking place in September each year and attracting around 60,000 runners, I think it's a must in any Amsterdam runner's calendar. My one piece of advice is to ensure you take a good 'sitting down' break after running as the queues for the shuttle buses back to Amsterdam can mean a long standing wait. At least two people (one of them being me) had to deal with legs buckling under them, not the best ending to an otherwise brilliant day.

Egmond Halve Marathon:  I love this run which takes place partially across the beach - not as brutal as it sounds as you're mainly running on wet, and therefore compacted, sand. It also tracks across the sand dunes, which allows you to enjoy some beautiful scenery, if not the hills. I have to admit I have done the quarter, rather than half marathon, and that's quite enough - I know and respect my limits (except when it comes to apple pie).  It takes place in January so be prepared for some cold (-2C) weather running - I love it but many don't.

Color Run: Billed as 'The Happiest Race on Earth', the Color Run hit the Netherlands for the first time this year, in Amsterdam, Utrecht and Zwolle. I took part in the Utrecht run and was indeed an extremely happy, and messy, occasion (photo below).

Mud Masters: I have yet to try this obstacle run but from the photos is looks absolutely hilarious, if not completely exhausting. And any event where a 'finishing beer' is  a part of your entry fee has got to be good. Registration has closed for this year, maybe next year I'll give it a go!

Amsterdam Marathon: The clue is in the title I guess, but there are a couple of other events for those, like me, who find a marathon just a bit too heavy going. There's a half marathon, an 8km and also a kids run, something for everyone. The run takes place through the city so you'll have plenty of beautiful sights to distract you from cramp/chest pains/your shoes being too small.

Zevenheuvelenloop (Seven Hills Run): For me one of the best things about running in the Netherlands is the lack of hills, but if you don't agree then maybe this is the run for you. This 15 kilometres road running race is held in Nijmegen, and reports from a brave friend is that the scenery alone is worth entering for. There are seven hills though. Seven.

Nike 'We own the night' 10km: This year was the first time this run has been held. It took place (as the name suggests) in the evening, starting from Amsterdam's Westerpark. Another really well organised event that I loved taking part in - I especially loved spotting the handsome Dutchie in the crowd cheering me on. Without being too cheesy, or attempting not to be, running with all women was actually weirdly empowering - you go girfriends! (oh yes I did). There was also a big old after party, which I didn't stay for this time. Maybe next year (girlfriend).
One of the greatest things about houses and apartments in Amsterdam is they usually have balconies and roof gardens. City living here does not preclude people from having enough outside space to grow things, get a tan or enjoy an alfresco supper. In fact, one of the things that made me fall in love with my first amsterdam flat was the balcony. Actually it was more the old fashioned sliding doors but, nevertheless I was delighted to have quite a sizeable outside area which would catch the evening sun. 

Oh I had such plans for that balcony! But then stuff just seemed to get in the way. I did attempt to green it up a bit. Window boxes were bought and two months later filled with soil. And, well, that was it. The most depressing window boxes in the northern hemisphere. Bare save for a plucky self -seeder and pile of old fag butts (cigarette ends for my American friends, who could have an entirely different mental image right now..).
But NOW, now I have balconies (yes, plural, smug) of which I am proud. We have incredible pink geraniums, bright orange African marigolds, a climbing rose (not yet climbing), a passionflower bush, tomatoes and a herb garden which supplies our kitchen. I would love to say that it was all my doing, but no, I have to give most of the credit to my handsome other half. He has lovingly tended to all of them, especially the rose who has been the recipient of many strokes and words of encouragement. I have to admit, ashamedly, that sometimes I can get quite jealous of it ( HD: what happened to the rose my love? A couple of leaves seem like they've been torn off. Me: dunno, caterpillar?).

I've done some pretty expansive trailing about town in search of things to plant and equipment to enable one to plant them and have outlined a few of my favourites below. Now, I'm off to enjoy a cold drink on my balcony and watch the hot gardener at work.

The flower market: This is not usually the place I'd recommend but actually there are some surprisingly some good bargains to be had, more on the window box/bracket side. I have heard mixed reports about the tulip bulbs you can buy, probably better off getting them elsewhere if you want to be sure of what's going to come out of the soil.

Plantenkoning: This fantastic plant shop on the Albert Cuypstraat has something for everyone, small bedding plants, huge palms and some beautiful stone pots. Additional bonus is that it is located close to the excellent Bobs Vlaamse Frites stand. 

Intratuin: Really the best in my opinion. A huge place with a great selection of everything, plus an amazing homewre section -  Le Crueset, Joseph & Joseph, candles, table linens,  oh I just love it. Make sure you take a dutchie so you can utilise their amazing bike skills to carry the spoils home!

And if it's winter so you see no point in trying to grow anything, or you just can't be naffed, then I suggest you treat yourself to a beautiful bunch of flowers from Pompon, the best florist in town (denk ik).
How you keep cool in a city with no air-con
We are in the middle of a heatwave, it's terrible. I thought it would be wonderful, but it isn't.

The first few days were okay, waking up to blue skies and sunshine certainly makes it easier to get started in morning, and I was definitely a little bit more cheerful upon arrival at work. Also the joy of an ice cold beer on the balcony when the working day is over is hard to beat. But the excitement of all that does wear off, for several reasons.

1.  Clothing - if you're used to living in a country that spends large amounts of time being pelted with water, and where even in the height of summer you always have to count on things turning 'a bit nippy' at any moment, suddenly having to deal with the temperature never dipping below 25 means you fairly soon run out of sensible outfits. This is especially a problem if you also have to look 'office appropriate' as well. I do see some girls who have obviously just given up and start coming to work looking dressed for the beach. Which leads me neatly on to...

2. Tanning - At the first glimpse of sunshine, Amsterdam seemed to be filled with beautiful, long limbed Dutch girls with the most unbelievably lovely golden tans. HOW DO THEY DO IT? I can't believe that so many are having spray tans or sun beds, so I have come to the only logical conclusion that they have been grown inside giant cocoa pods that crack open as soon as the temperature rise above 20 degrees. Yes, the sun falls on these pods and out come these brown amazonian meisjes, probably already attached to bikes, to taunt me and my pale, normally sized limbs. I've just depressed myself thinking about it. Time for an ice cold beer on the balcony. But better cover up because...

3. Mosquitos  - Ah, Amsterdam, with it's beautiful network of canals and waterways, and lush parks with picturesque lakes and ponds. A haven for hatching evil, biting, winged pets of satan. HD likes nothing more than to sleep with the windows open (all year actually, even when it's cold enough to make the canals freeze over) so as you might imagine, our bedroom has become some kind of Studio54 for the local mosquito population. Somewhere they can hang out, hook up and generally get off their faces on the red stuff.  Or, to be exact, MY red stuff. HD has hardly been touched.I don't know why, but he's smug and I'm itchy (pleased to meet you). I look forward to being able to go to bed without drenching myself in DEET. 

4. People with boats - they're smug, it's annoying, that's all. I basically need to meet more people with boats so I can also spend summer evenings getting irresponsibly drunk far too close to water.

I could go on, miserable so and so that I am, but instead I will pass on some handy Amsterdam in hot weather tips!

Ice-cream: there are two places which everyone knows are THE places to go for the best Italian ice-cream - Pisa or Venezia. Well worth making the visit to either, or both so you can decide who takes the (probably quite drippy) ice-cream crown.
Pisa, Scheldeplein 10
Venezia, Scheldestraat 68

Swimming:  In addition to the city's many indoor pools (some with beautiful 1930's design still intact), Amsterdam also boasts an array of outdoor pools, should the weather be warm enough for long enough. More details can be found on this page of the IAmsterdam site. Of course when it heats up most people flock to the beach at Bloemendaal or Zandvoort. There is another option though, lakes. Amsterdam is surrounded by lots of beautiful lakes, many of which you can swim in. I don't know about you but I'd take a wild swim over an overcrowded city pool or beach resort any day. Check out Wild Swim for a map of what's around.

Hortus Botanicus: My number one, all time favourite place to hang out on sunny days. Amsterdam's botanical gardens are small but beautiful with lots of shady benches and peaceful glasshouses to explore. The Orangery restaurant serves some excellent food, and a glass of prosecco to go with your lunch gives you a bit of luxury without breaking the bank. One word of warning: the giant butterfly house. My friend and I couldn't wait to go in, imagining as we were a Walt Disney style scene where beautiful butterflies landed gently on our hands in the manner of Cinderella or one of her kind. What actually happened was more like a horror film. People passing by would have heard bellows of "get it off me, GET. IT. OFF. ME" shortly followed by two women virtually commando rolling through the doors. For giant butterfly wings are beautiful, but big black bristly giant butterfly bodies are not. And they have legs, six of them.

I know that sounds like an odd suggestion for a warm day, but they're the only buildings in the city with air-conditioning. Choose one, go there, luxuriate in the cold, cold air. But whatever you do, don't lie down on the lovely cool tiled floor, they don't like that.
So, a few weeks ago it was my birthday. Not an event that I take too much notice of - not in a 'I hate getting old' way, more in a 'everyone stop looking at me and making a fuss' kind of way. I didn't mind that my Handsome Dutchie (HD) had neglected to buy me a present. There is a long story attached to this situation but suffice to say I vetoed his gift idea on the basis of extortionate cost (but now I come to think of it, that's a pretty smart move on his part...). 

So the 'averaged sized' day arrived and despite the preceding days being warm and sunny, my now 35 year old eyelids flickered open to find Amsterdam grey and drippy and looking as unlike July as you could imagine. It felt as though the dampness had also found a way into my spirit and it was with heavy limbs and  downturned mouth I that flung myself out of bed. HD on the other hand, having worked a double shift at the deli the day before, stayed buried in the duvet, barely opening his eyes and managing only a mumbled 'happy  birthday' which trailed off into a snore. 

Okay,  no present - fine. Mumbly snorey birthday greeting - not as fine but still forgivable. I clumped down the stairs feeling distinctly middle aged but cheering myself with the thought that I would probably find a birthday card with one of HD's exceptionally loving messages inside, propped up on the table. 


No card, no note with cheerful birthday themed sketches scribbled in the corners. Not even cup of tea looked likely. I said goodbye to an unconscious HD, walked out the door and promptly burst into tears. And the tears continued all the way to my Dutch class. Luckily with the rain it wasn't all that noticeable and I probably just looked like I was in pain, sort like the face I made when I rode my new bike for the first time and the saddle was tilted too far back. 

I just had time before my Dutch class to stop and buy birthday cake. (In the Netherlands  you buy your own birthday cake, which everyone else eats. Maybe also good to know that it is also you who picks up the tab at the bar should you be daft enough to suggest everyone goes out to celebrate your special day. I know, it's not right, and from now on I'm never going to reveal the date of my birthday to anyone.)

I greeted my Dutch teacher cheerfully and handed her a mini version of my cake, explaining "ik ben jarig", which means literally "I am year-ish".  We talked about what I had been given (niks), what I was doing later (ik weet het niet) before I couldn't help but blurt out the awful fact that my boyfriend obviously didn't love me anymore because he didn't even get me a card. She looked at me like I had just started to speak Russian instead of Dutch (okay,okay, by this point I had run out of birthday-related Dutch and was complaining in English). 

"A card? Why would he give you a card? You live in the same house!"

So apparently the Dutch, as a rule, don't give birthday cards, they only send them to people they aren't going to see on the day. Of COURSE! That makes sense, that's practical, that's Dutch. It also makes the whole affair even cheaper, but I won't resort to stereotyping.  To someone who has a desk draw literally stuffed with cards just in case I get the urge to express a feeling of love, gratitude or general good will towards someone in my address book, this approach seems a little cold. But then I guess my approach could also be viewed as extreme, but coming from the opposite side.  

So, the main thing to bear in mind should be 'year-ish' while living in the Netherlands is that you shouldn't really expect anything, except what you pay for yourself.

Note: this post was updated slightly after my lovely Dutch friend pointed out that she gives cards, including to people living in the same house, and that my story made my adopted countrymen sound a bit mean.