Thursday, December 31, 2009

R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Find out what it means to me.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Find out what it means to me. That was what I wrote on my desk in high school. And kind of a life-long motto for me.
I was always a bit obsessed with feeling like people don't respect me enough. I have had heated discussion with superiors at work who I suspected didn't respect my work, I have dropped friends who didn't respect me enough to show up on dates, I have not gone back to stores where I felt I wasn't treated with respect. Treating people with respect and being treated with respect is important to me.

But in the last few weeks I had a light bulb moment when I realized even though I expect to be respected - I do not treat myself with any respect. In fact, if any of my friends would treat me the way I treat myself, I would have dumped them a long time ago.

The 3 year old girl I am watching - L - has a book called "I'm gonna like me - Letting off a little self-esteem". She has asked me to read that book to her a lot recently. And one day I asked her "Do you like yourself L?". I had asked her the same question about 3 month ago and back then her answer was "Yes! I am great!". Well, now the answer was "No ... I mean ... I don't know.".
Of course I started listing all the reasons why she should love herself - she is witty and smart and funny and cute and lovable.
But it's sad that a 3 year old is not sure if she really loves herself.
If it is so shocking to me that a 3 year old doesn't love herself, why do I think it is ok that I do not love MYSELF? And how do I expect my future children to love themselves when their mother doesn't manage to even LIKE herself?

And that is when I decided I would start to work on that. Loving and respecting yourself if you haven't loved and respected yourself for at least the last 20 years doesn't just come naturally. You don't wake up one morning and are like "Yeah, I am great". And loving and respecting yourself doesn't mean that you can stop working on yourself.
But self-hatred is destructive. And thinking back - nothing good ever came of self-hatred. I guess part of myself thought that if you hate yourself, it won't hurt as much if other people don't love you. But that's not even true.
So really, there is absolutely no reason to not love yourself.

As I said in my last blog post - I have big plans for 2010. Learning to respect myself is the most important endeavor though. I am writing about this because I think a lot of people don't respect themselves and maybe this will inspire them to make this their big endeavor for 2010 too.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

And I'm feeling good

You know how I feel
It's a new dawn
It's a new day
It's a new life
For me..
And I'm feeling good

I hadn't been feeling so good lately. I actually felt really, freakin' bad for a long time. I didn't know, I still don't know what was going on with me. But sometimes it just happens. Sometimes you just find yourself in a deep hole and you don't know how to get out of it. And most of the time this just lasts for a day or two. Maybe you've had too much to drink. Or something bad happened. But you get over it. But for me this has been taking a long time. Weeks. Maybe months. I don't remember. I had a few good, happy days (or should I say nights) in between but the next day everything just went back to normal. And in my case, normal was the deep hole that I couldn't pull myself out of.

But then, out of nowhere, you see the light at the end of the tunnel. And everything gets better. Despite things not really being better. Despite the things that you thought made you so depressed in the first place still being very much present. You feel better. And better. And all of a sudden - you feel GOOD. And you can't believe you are feeling good because you thought you didn't remember how it was like to feel good. Not an alcohol or fun evening triggered good but a genuine good. A good that you expect to still be there the next day.
And maybe even the day after.

I have big plans for 2010. 2009 was a year to get me sorted out. To find myself. To get some sort of sense to my life. I am not saying I have it all figured out but I have a plan. I have goals and I know what I want to do.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Today is Thanksgiving in this big country that is the US of A.

The thing I might like best about living in America is how people here celebrate the holidays. Decorating and cooking and dressing up and ... well ... celebrating.

I grew up in a household with hardly any tradition. I don't know if it's due to my mom being a buddhist (though she only converted when I was 16 years old) or my mom growing up in my grandparents restaurant where I am sure they had to work on all the major holidays. What good is it that your mother (my grandmother) is a trained chef when she has to cook for 400 people that night and you are not one of those people.

So Christmas for us was usually frozen pizza. I liked pizza and my mom always said that on a special day you should just eat what you like and not what people tell you to eat. I remember one Christmas Eve we went to MacDonalds. A special treat since at that time the only MacDonalds was reachable by car and we didn't have a car. That year, my aunt drove us to the drive through and got us our Christmas meal. I had a quarter pounder and a chocolate milk shake.
I never had carp or goose for Christmas (or any other time) - which in Austria is a traditional Christmas meal.
We also didn't have a Christmas tree. My mom, a friend of the trees, literally (and yes, I know how to use that word, my mom speaks to flowers, she is literally a friend of the trees), didn't want us to kill a tree for Christmas. One Christmas when I was very little, we won a living Christmas tree in a flowerpot. That was the one year we had a Christmas tree.

So I think it is because of this lack of tradition that I grew up with, that I now crave it. This year I even put up Halloween decorations (we did have a Halloween party though).

I always hear people complain about how commercialized the holidays are. Oh my god, it's November and they are playing Christmas music in the stores! And they are already selling decorations!
I don't think this way. I think this way I get to enjoy the holidays a little bit longer. Ok, usually by the second week of December I am pretty sick of hearing "Last Christmas" but apart from that I am a happy camper when it comes to all things holidays.
It's a time where I start cooking and crafting and knitting and sewing and baking. Winter here (and pretty much every place I have lived) is dreary and depressing. Glitter and bright colors make it more enjoyable.

The Netherlands doesn't really do holiday celebrations. One reason is that they are celebrating "Sinterklaas" which is happening in early December instead of Christmas itself. Another reason is that they are just a lot more sober in general. I really missed seeing people decorate their houses. I missed seeing Christmas trees in windows (some people have them but a lot less people than in the US and Austria where almost everybody has a Christmas tree). There is this department store in the Netherlands called "De Bijenkorf" and I loved going there before Christmas because it was the only store that had made an effort with Christmas decorations.

Today is Thanksgiving and I am very thankful for so many things. I am thankful for my husband who is really the perfect person for me. I don't just love him. There is nobody in the world that I LIKE as much as him. If you have been together for almost six years and you still like being around each other and you miss each other even when the person is only gone of to work for the day, then you know that you are with the right person.
I am thankful that at this moment we are both employed and that we have enough money to live comfortably. We might have a TV that's 30 years old but we have a roof over our head and heating and we don't have to worry that we will lose all of this soon and that is more than a lot of people in this country can say right now.
I am thankful that both my husband and my parents are still alive and are not in a life threatening situation. I can't imagine anything worse than losing a loved one.
I am thankful for finally making big steps towards my dream career of being a photographer.

This year E and I will be spending Thanksgiving with just the two of us. We made enough food for 8 people but that is all part of the celebration. Cooking such a big meal together was fun and I am sure eating it will be too.

Enjoy the holidays, no matter which holidays you are celebrating! And when you get annoyed by the decorations and the music, think about February and how much you could use a little bit of the sparkle then.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

One year in Chicago

Exactly a year ago E and I took our cat, four bags and a big poster box and made our way to Chicago.

When I moved here I was expecting a lot and nothing at all. "You are so social, you make friends easily", "You will have so much fun!", "Americans are so open, it will be really easy to meet new people" my friends in Holland were telling me. Of course, as you know if you have been reading this blog it has been a lot harder for me to make new friends than I could have imagined. It has been harder to find a job. A lot has been harder than I had expected.

That doesn't mean that it hasn't been great. Not all the time but a lot of the time.

The biggest change was probably the change in myself. I have gotten calmer and friendlier and more like myself. More like I want to be, at least on the inside.
Six years of Customer Service really did a number on me. Especially the last year when I managed a team. I hadn't realized how hard I have become, how rude and snappish.
Of course I didn't enjoy having to look for a job for such a long time when I moved here. It made me feel like a loser. But it's also what I needed. I needed the time off to just become a normal person again. To be sane again. And to realize what I want.

Here are some of the things I discovered that I like and don't like about the US. Let's start about what I don't like:

*Feminism or the lack thereof
I have always been an advocate for women's rights. As a teenager I first joined an Amnesty International group for women's rights. I tried and still try to educate people about all the horrible things that are being done to women around the globe.
When I moved to the US I was shocked how many people here still live in the 50s when it comes to emancipation. I just saw a report on this on TV where they said that since the 50s the number of American men who help in the household has doubled - from 15% to 30%. They thought this was a great development. I say SERIOUSLY? You think that's great? This number should be much much higher.
In Holland I would not have called myself a feminist. My views are moderate. I believe in equality for all people, women, men all races, all incomes, no matter what sexual preference you have. I think everybody should be treated fairly and the same way. I don't think women are better at anything just because of their gender. I don't think women should have more rights than men. I believe in EQUALITY.
Well, in America my views make me a raging feminist. I read a few American feminist websites and I am surprised how many women on there think that the 50s were a much better time for women to live in. Who want to live in the world of Mad Men.
I am getting pissed off just looking at the commercials. There is one commercial for a dust cleaner in which they lock a woman into a glass walled, dusty room. She begs her kidnappers to let her out of the room because she has to pick up her children from school. Of course she can't help herself but start cleaning when she sees all the dust. When she is finished she has a satisfied look on her face, as if she had just made love.
There are NO commercials showing a man clean. Or cook. Or do something with his children (unless it's with his boys and they are playing sports outside).
The "Girls Only" toy cleaning set will surely show your girl her future place in the family!
Of course not everybody is like that and there are plenty of emancipated women living in the US but compared to the Northern European countries - even to a lot of the Southern European countries the US is still behind. And unfortunately - it's the women's own fault. Because it's more important to be appealing to men for them than to stand up for themselves. And this is what bugs me most.

*Social/racial differences
Chicago is a segregated city. We have the white North of the city. The safe side.
And we have the black and hispanic South side. The poor side. The criminal side. Did you hear about the young boy who was beaten to death in front of his school? That was on the South side. White people don't go to the South side. With a few exceptions - like my friend who happens to be a one of the teachers of this boy who got beaten to death on the South sides.
The stories I have heard from my friend, the teacher are horrendous. See, that boy was just one of many students who die of violence in this neighborhood every year. The kids - high school kids - can barely read. They grow up not expecting to have any future. The main funding for schools are from the taxes from their neighborhood. Since most of the people on the South side are unemployed and live in poverty of course they are not getting many taxes from them. What a great way to keep the poor people in poverty and the rich people rich.

And you have this happening all over the US. About a week ago we drove up to Milwaukee, along the lake. We saw some gorgeous villages with perfect little houses, perfect lawns, perfect trees, perfect school. Beautiful. Whitey towns. And then in between those gorgeous little towns you had run down villages. Houses that were falling apart. Dirty streets. Liquor stores on the main square. On the streets you only saw black people.
I have heard people say that it's their own fault. America - the country of unlimited possibilities. Well, your possibilities are very limited when you never really learned how to read in school. When you are just trying to survive everyday. When your world is full of violence. When you never really knew anything else.

I myself come from a very poor background. Of course - in Austria being very poor means you still have food on the table most days and you still get to go to any school you want (we don't have many private schools and they are not necessarily better than public school in Austria anyway). I didn't have things like birthday presents or parties and I spent maybe $50 a year on clothes (which is probably why I am somewhat addicted to shopping now) but I still lived. I had problems at home and moved out when I was 17 years old. Thanks to the Austrian social system I could pay for a place to live and with the help of summer jobs I managed to provide for myself enough to finish school. I didn't have it easy but I had a future. Here in America this would have been a lot harder. My life is NOTHING compared to what so many people have to deal with here every day.

*Health insurance
This is the country where a one year old, solely breast fed baby was refused health insurance because apparently he was too fat! At the same time a two year old girl was refused health insurance because she was too skinny. The health system is run by the insurances. People have no rights. It's ridiculous. It needs to be changed and I really, really, really can't fathom how anybody could not agree with this. But so many people don't. I don't get it.

I hear a lot of Americans saying that the European social system (of course there is not just one) is flawed and that they are afraid that Obama will make America "just like Europe" (oh the horror! They might end up with 25 holidays and the right to health insurance even if they have a pre-existing condition!). I have to say - I hope Obama does JUST that (but he won't).

*Body image
I don't get it. So many American women look up to French and Italian women. They admire how they age gracefully (no Botox!), how they don't wear much makeup, how they don't blow dry their hair, how they are so wonderfully and seductively imperfect.
Yet, they do everything to be perfect all the time. To conform. Everybody in America wants to look the same. Everybody wants to be 5.6 ft (or taller), skinny, with big boobs, with blow-dried light colored, shiny hair, perfect nails, perfect teeth, perfect, tiny noses, wrinkle-free skin - flawless.
When did we forget that people don't all look the same? And that this is ok? We don't have to be perfect to be beautiful.
TV and magazines are full of photos bashing people for not looking like they are supposed to look like.
About a month ago this picture (NSFW) caused an uproar in America. It was published in Glamour magazine. Most people said that they loved it. Finally a woman in a magazine who is not perfect but who is still beautiful. And then you had quite a few people who said that it is damaging to put a picture like this on a website. That it glamorizes obesity. What a bunch of crap. This woman is normal. She would have been normal in the 50s. She would have been normal in the 1820s. She is normal. She might not be what people are used to see in a magazine but she is not obese. Just like really skinny women are normal. Women have come in all shapes and sizes - always (except in times of famine). So have men.
I think the yearning for conformity not only creates a bad body image in young people but it also makes life a lot more boring.

But of course it's not all bad. There are a lot of things I like and appreciate about the US:

On one side there is this really conservative part of American culture that I really don't like but on the other side there are the liberal, open-minded people who I like very, very much. And there are more and more of them. There are so many things I am interested in that most Europeans are not interested in. I started so many conversations in the Netherlands, talking about TV shows or music or fashion or home projects and people had no idea what I was talking about. In Austria nobody ever knew what I was talking about. Since I have moved here I have found quite a lot of like-minded people when it comes to my interests. It is strange that I had to move to a different continent to find people who are interested in all the same things I have always been interested in. All my life I have looked for a culture that I fit in - goths, punks, hippies, alternative, fashionistas ... I am not any of this but I am a little bit of all of them and so are a lot of people here.

On Sunday we flew back from New Orleans. We did a curb-side check in. When we stood in line - just when we were going to be next, a young woman pushed right in front of us. She said she was late for her plane and she wants to check in her bag. The woman at the counter said she would help her - right after she helped us - since we were next in line. The woman complained a little bit but eventually stood back.
I'll confess something to you - I am kind of anal and moments like that give me great joy. I really hate when people don't adhere to common rules of society. I think most rules are there to make our life easier and if everybody would follow them everything goes much more smoothly.
And in America most people think just like me. When this woman pushed in front of me, I was surprised. That doesn't happen to me in America. This is not common here. It is in the Netherlands though. In the Netherlands people push, forge ahead, elbow wherever they can. It's all about them getting somewhere first. I have had times when I couldn't get on a train a. because the train company neglected to send a train long enough for all the people who wanted to get on and b. because people were so brutal, pushy and forceful that I decided it would just not be worth it to get to work black and blue. Standing in a line, waiting for anything, you can be almost certain somebody will try and push ahead of you. It's pretty stressful when you have to keep an eagle eye out in the grocery store because people just don't respect the fact that you stood in line ahead of them.
Not having to worry about this is a big stress relieve for me and I often remind myself of this when I am standing in a line at the supermarket - or at the airport.

*Customer Service
What can I say. I like not having people forget about my orders. I like that things get done in time. I like that if I send a letter complaining about something I can be almost certain to get an answer. I like that if I send a letter of cancellation to a company - whatever I want to cancel actually gets cancelled!
Those are all things that seem very normal in America but are not normal in the Netherlands (Austria is not like that though! It doesn't have anything to do with the social system).
I don't care if waiters and waitresses work for tips, I like to be smiled at and to get my food in under an hour.

From experience I know that it will take me much longer than one year to really get to know and understand the American culture. But I do feel at home here. Bad stuff and all.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Last Days of Summer

As you probably have guessed, the fact that you haven't heard from me in a long time means that I have been busy.

In the last month I have been to Indianapolis, Ohio, Northern Michigan, I have gotten certified in CPR and First Aid, I have finally gotten my American drivers license and most importantly - I found a job.

I am now a nanny. Maybe that's not something you expected but it works really well for me, especially since I only work two days a week (I am still hoping to get another job for one or two more days).
I started working as the nanny of a beautiful, well-behaved almost 3 year old little red headed girl three weeks ago and so far I enjoyed it more than any other job I have ever had (granted I haven't actually had a lot of jobs that I enjoyed).
It is amazing what having a job does to you. I am way more organized, motivated and I got more done in my Photography studies in these last three weeks than I have in the whole year before. I tell you guys - having a reason to get up in the morning completely changes your life!

I have been in the US for almost 11 month now and I finally feel integrated. I finally feel like this is my home. 

The decision to become a nanny didn't come naturally for me. In fact, when we first moved to the US a few friends asked us, I think jokingly, if I wanted to be their nanny since I used to be an AuPair 8 years ago. It was my first job in the Netherlands and I have to be honest with you - while I had a great time not having to worry about housing and food and I got to spend a lot of time hanging out with other AuPairs (I met some of my best friends that way) I didn't really enjoy it. I guess I kind of didn't like children that much and what I liked even less was working for families - in particular Dutch families who are famous for always feeling like they are paying you too much when really, they are paying you less than the minimum. 

But I grew up and I changed and I started liking children which was more surprising to me than anything. I still don't like ALL children but I like most children and I LOVE the little girl I am taking care off. If I could adopt her, I would. I like her that much. I hope the parents don't read this. I don't want them to think I want to steal their child. 

Anyway - when our friends (jokingly?) asked me if I'd be interested at all to be their nanny, I said "No, no way". I still don't think I would want to be a (paid) babysitter for friends (babysitting as an auntie is a different story), it would be awkward to get paid by your friends and it would be equally unpleasant to give or receive negative feedback. Well, maybe that would work for some people but I wouldn't like it. 

Also - I have to say - in Europe going from being a manager to being a nanny is something very embarrassing. In America this is much less of an issue since having no work usually means having no income. That's why you have people with PHDs working at Mac Donald's right now. In Europe you can usually afford to be unemployed for six month or a year because the government gives you enough money to comfortably live on which gives you enough time to keep looking for a job you really want. When I first moved here I just couldn't possibly imagine going back to something I did when I first started working. It would be like climbing down the career ladder.

So, why did I decide to become a nanny? Well, when I was having trouble finding a job, I made a list of things I want in a job. And nannying turned out to tick all the boxes.
Things I am looking for in a job:

*No drama
In my previous job I was managing six women. Three of these women were older than me. It was constant drama. There was always something going on: bitching, back stabbing, gossiping, people not doing their job, other people overdoing it with their job and being angry at people who didn't do their job ...
I was in this managing position for one year and I decided that this is not for me. Even when I wasn't the team leader there was constant drama. I had mild anxiety attacks and insomnia. I started knitting every evening for an hour to get my mind of all the drama. It worked. The winter of 2007/2008 I made four scarves.

*No customer service
After being an AuPair my first job was working for a telephone company as a call center agent. In the beginning I liked it, as crazy as it sounds but I like talking to people, I like solving problems and I am actually quite good at calming people down. Well, after six month I had had enough of being yelled at all day. Still, I stayed in the business of customer service and complaint handling for six years. The last three years I was working with stores though, which is a little more professional than talking to people who call in to complain that their phone bill is 2 cents more than last months, when really, they didn't call any more than the previous month!
Unfortunately I was working for a clothing manufacturer, providing to individual stores and I didn't know that at the time I started but people who work in Fashion are not necessarily the most reasonable crowd. 
I don't think a lot of people can stand working in customer service for six years, so I definitely have had it. I was overdue. Never again.

*Earning at least $10 an hour
You wouldn't believe it but most office jobs I looked at wanted to pay $8/hour! I used to earn a lot more. I am OK with not earning nearly as much as I used to but I am not OK with earning $5/hour after tax. Being a nanny pays more than these office jobs. It doesn't come with any benefits unfortunately (I does though if you are a full time nanny) but I heard that most part-time jobs in the US don't come with benefits. Oh and I will be paying tax on my earnings, in case you were wondering. I am a good immigrant. 

*No sitting around in an office all day
I really wanted a job I could be a bit active in. A few of my choices were mail woman (but you earn very, very little and you have to wear ugly, uncomfortable uniforms), bike courier (I had been thinking about this a lot but I am just too slow on my bike, especially compared to the crazy cyclists here) and dog walker/cat sitter (this was my number one contender until our cat sitter gave me six forms to sign, afraid I would sue her if something happened to one of the cats while we are gone - too much trouble, also you only earn about $8 per walk). As a nanny I get to be a bit active - we go for walks, we run around the apartment, playing tag - there is always something going on.

It turned out nannying full-filled all of these requirements - plus - when the girl naps and once I have done a bit of cleaning up - I get to study for an hour or two which is how I got so much studying done these past few weeks.
Luckily I realized that having a job you enjoy is much more important than the status a job comes with. 
I am probably not going to be a nanny for the rest of my life but until I finish my studies and until I am starting to get some business in as a photographer, I will be doing this. 
Because I chose to.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

10 Things I Love About Chicago

I have had my fair share of negativity when it comes to my new home. This transition hasn't always been easy for me. 
Maybe I just entered stage 3 of culture shock, maybe it's just because the sun is shining almost every day but on some days, Chicago feels like the greatest place on earth. So here is my top-10 list of things I love about Chi-town:

1. The Lake

I won't lie to you. The lake was one of the big draws for me to move to Chicago. I told E my requirements for where we would move are: at a big body of water, easy to cycle, big city, good public transportation and not as much rainfall as in Holland.  Chicago fulfilled all of those requirements, so did San Francisco, New York and Boston. But in the end Chicago is not only cheaper than those other places but we already knew a lot of people which makes life a lot easier.
And Chicago has the lake. The beautiful Lake Michigan. 
I had no idea how beautiful the lake is. I didn't know that the beaches here are much, much nicer than the beaches of the North Sea in Holland. 
When I feel down or stressed, I often go for a long bike ride along the lakeshore. Nothing relaxes me more. Unfortunately it's forbidden by law in Chicago to drink alcohol outside (unless you are in your own garden or on the terrace of a bar or restaurant) because nothing would be more perfect than a cocktail at North Avenue Beach.

2. Bikeability

According to my spell check - bikeability is not a word, neither is cyclebility (which I found out IS a word but means something else). Anyway, if walkability is a word, then so should bikeability be.
Chicago is definitely not the most bike friendly city in the US. I remember when I was planning to buy a new bike here, I was talking to a guy from a cycling meet up group, asking him how he likes cycling in Chicago. His word were "It's great, I mean, I cycle all year round and I love it. I mean, it's not very safe of course. I have had a lot of accidents and I have a near-death experience pretty much every day but you know, it's still fun."
After hearing that I still bought a bike and four month later, I am still using it almost every day to get to almost anywhere. Sure - it's definitely not as safe to bike around Chicago as it is in Holland. There are even a lot of American cities that are way more bike friendly than Chi-town. I have had a lot of car drivers threaten and yell at me even though I follow traffic rules religiously (unlike most other cyclists here who don't even know what a hand sign is. Seriously - I saw a Chicago cyclist giving a hand sign for the first time yesterday. I was so impressed, I tried to follow him to see if he would do it again but alas he was way faster than me) and I try to stay out of the cars way as much as I can. And for the first time in my life, I am wearing a helmet even though it gives me really hideous helmet hair.
But what makes cycling in Chicago fun is the cycling community. The people who cycle here are proud to be cyclists. They help each other out and I haven't seen cyclists trying to cut each other off or be mean spirited against each other. I have seen this sense of community before with joggers. Many years ago I used to be a jogger. I ran between 30 minutes to an hour a day, almost every day and whenever I ran past another jogger they would wave or say "hi". I tried to start jogging again in Holland, about two years ago and I saw the same thing there. I quickly found out that I prefer cycling to running though and I am glad I have the same feeling of community here with cycling, that I used to have with jogging.

3. Art

My pictures hanging up at Logan Bar&Grill

I just got myself a membership card at the Art Institute of Chicago. This place is definitely one of my favorite art museums and it's so big that even after having been there quite a few times now, I still haven't seen all of it. Chicago is full of art. Most cafes and bars have art from local artists hanging up (for example the Logan Bar and Grill which has MY photos hanging up), there are art walks all around the city. If I am ever going to make it as a photographer, my chances are definitely better here in Chicago than they would have ever been in the Netherlands. It's a very inspiring environment. 

My husband found out about this place through a friend who was visiting and we have been back a few times since. Two weeks ago I helped out with some admin stuff they needed done and got to meet the crew and some of the actors which was fun.
Their main show is called "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" and it consists of 30 plays, 2 minutes each, which change weekly. All those plays have been written by the people who perform them, they are personal and touching and sometimes funny, sometimes sad. Seeing one of their plays is an experience and a treat.

Lincoln Square is the German neighborhood of Chicago. I am sure I have written about it before. There are German shops, a German/European cafe, there is a German spring festival and a German October Fest. It's easier for me to buy German food in Chicago, than it was in the Netherlands!
But even if you ignore the German influence Lincoln Square is just a lovely place. It looks like a village in the middle of the city. And they have a wonderful farmers market every Tuesday morning which is much cheaper than a lot of the other farmers markets.

6. Culinary Chicago
If you have ever been to Chicago you have probably heard or even tried the famous Chicago Deep Dish pizza. I am personally not a fan but luckily Chicago has a lot more to offer than pizza. In recent years Chicago has become a culinary mecca, people traveling from all over the country to visit some of the best restaurants of the United States. Most famously - as I have mentioned before - Alinea. Alinea is not only one of worlds top ten best restaurants but it also has a very touching story to it. In 2007, Alineas chef - Grant Achatz - was diagnosed with tongue cancer. He went to different doctors and all of them told him that his tongue needed to be amputated. He wouldn't have any of that. Imagine having your tongue amputated when you are one of the worlds best chefs! Not being able to talk or taste is as depressing as it gets but he would also not be able to do his job anymore. After a long search he finally found a doctor who was willing to do chemo therapy first and only amputate the tongue as a last resort. The radiation worked and Grant Achatz is now a cancer survivor with a functioning tongue and a world class restaurant. Of course after I heard about this story I started panicking about tongue cancer myself. 
The large ethnic diversity in Chicago also provides beautiful ethnic foods from flavorful Korean food to fresh Vietnamese to authentic Southern Italian cuisine. Who wants a Big Mac if you can have Bánh mì made with freshly baked French bread? I know I don't.

7. Free festivals

In the summer there is always something going on in Chicago and almost all of it is free. There are the local street festivals which celebrate the neighborhoods with music and food and little stands that sell home-made stuff. There are free dancing classes with an orchestra playing, so you can try out your new moves on the spot. Almost every day there is a "Movie in the park" where you can sit on a blanket or a camping chair in a park and watch a movie for free. 
In Chicago there is always a reason to celebrate.

8. Fashion

The first two times I was in Chicago I was pretty underwhelmed with the Fashion choices of people. I saw a lot of black and grey and boring. But Chicago has really taken it up a notch in the last few years. I LOVE the style of Chicago women. Because everything goes. 
Let's have a look at the rest of the US: You have New York style which is very high fashion, Prada, Burberry, it all screams rich and perfect. LA is all lazy and relaxed, sweat pants, hippy style, lot's of jewelry. Boston is preppy and styled but not very inventive. New Orleans is hip and funky all the way. Miami is as little clothes as possible with hints of vintage.
Well, Chicago is all of those things. You go downtown and you see women in power suits as well as soft, feminine Michelle Obamas (who is definitely a style icon for a lot of Chicago women). If you go to other parts of the city you see all kinds of people. Fashion in Chicago is something more personal. Having your own style is appreciated. There are people who follow fashion, people who create fashion and completely unfashionable people and that mix makes it such an eclectic, interesting place. In the Netherlands I often felt overdressed (even though 90% of the time I wear American sports wear like the Gap, because I think it suits me and it goes well with my lifestyle - cycling everywhere). If something in Holland was in fashion, you could be sure everyone would be wearing it. There was no space for individuality. So I absolutely LOVE that  people here just wear what they want. 

9. Thrift Stores
I know I have mentioned this before and it kind of goes with fashion but I think it deserves a place on its own.
Thrift stores are awesome. I got so many cool things from thrift stores. Granted - you need to look around a bit. Clothes are difficult because often all the sizes are all mixed up. I got two silver watering cans at thrift stores for $2 and $5 dollars which are each worth about $100 and look really good with flowers in them. I am also buying most of my books in thrift stores. I am very lucky to live in a neighborhood populated with people with the same taste in books as my own. I can get new bestsellers for $1.50 and I always find a book I want to read whenever I go to a thrift store (however I don't always allow myself to buy it). 

10. The fact that I live in the middle of a giant city and I can grow tomatoes in my backyard

Chicago has trees and gardens and parks and probably much more greenery than most other American cities. Right now I am sitting in my living room, looking out of the windows to the street and all I can see is green. 
The lake is surprisingly clean and you can swim in it most days without getting trash stuck in your bathing suit. The many, many farmers markets around the city enable you to buy fresh, home-grown produce that tastes like it came from your own garden. Yet at the same time you do get that urban feeling that only a really big city can give you.

And that is why, ladies and gentlemen, I am glad we chose Chicago over all those other interesting place. Sure, all of those cities have some of the things I mentioned but only Chicago has all of them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

One more cup of coffee 'fore I go to the valley below

"Everybody in America is addicted to coffee. It's disgusting. They can't do anything before having their first two cups of java in the morning." E told me one day, years before we even decided to get married and move to Chicago. We were watching the Gilmore Girls. Lorelai and Rory had just entered Luke's Diner, asking for coffee, proclaiming they wouldn't be able to function without the delicious dark brew.

Like with beer, I started to drink coffee somewhat late in life. My mother never drank coffee, neither did she drink beer (except one year, when her doctor told her she needed to gain weight, she drank a bottle of alcohol free beer every night). I was robbed of the childhood memories of waking up to the smell of freshly ground coffee brewing. I didn't spend my Sunday mornings begging my parents for a sip of that black magic juice, like so many of my friends did.

I had my first cup of coffee at 19 years old. I was studying for my finals. I had always been better studying at night, only opening my books at around 8pm, often going until past midnight. Well, if you have to study 200 pages of Marketing, Accounting and Business Administration in two nights, studying from 8pm to midnight won't cut it anymore. That's when I bought my first jar of instant coffee powder. 

It wasn't very good (I wasn't used to the bitter taste and I did not know how to make it, ending up using way too much instant powder) but it did the job. At that point I was a clean slate. My adenosine receptors were open and welcoming to the caffeine and I was able to spend the next few weeks studying for long hours and surviving on a very limited amount of sleep.

I only started to actually enjoy coffee when I moved to Holland. My first host-family who I was nannying for had a coffee-shop-grade coffee maker which would make you the most amazing cappuccino just by pressing a button. They also drove an hour to buy their coffee beans. 

You know the term social drinker? Somebody who only drinks alcohol in social situations? Well the next seven years in Holland, I was a working drinker - working coffee drinker that is.
Sometimes I would drink 8 cups a day, arriving at work in the morning shaking, craving my caffeine fix. Other times I gave up coffee for months after my friend promised me giving up coffee would not only eliminate my cellulite but also give my skin a beautiful, peachy glow. Well, it didn't.

But my weekends were mostly coffee free. I was too lazy to make it myself and it never really turned out tasting the way I liked it anyway. Also if I didn't have to get up at 7am, I didn't really need something to wake me up.

I was sure that once we did the move over the big pond, at least until I found a job I would be caffeine free.

But I was wrong. What my husband told me back then is absolutely true. In America drinking coffee is more than enjoying a beverage you like or simply needing something to wake you up. It's a lifestyle. It's a fashion accessory. Holding a cup of Starbucks in your hands makes you instantly cool. Since smoking has become a big no-no in the US, coffee is the new smoking. 

I wish I'd be above all of that. I wish that seeing my favorite Michelle Williams with a cup of Starbucks in her hand wouldn't make me crave a cup of joe. I wish that if when somebody says "Oh, I could so go for a coffee right now!" we'd go to a cafe and I'd order green tea instead of cappuccino. 

But I am not. One of our wedding presents was a beautiful coffee machine which I have been utilizing every day for the last few month. 
Despite still not having a steady job, I have two big, hot steamy mugs full of coffee with breakfast every day. I even bought a coffee grinder, so I can grind my java beans freshly every morning (which made an amazing difference in the flavor of the coffee).
At this point I am not sure if I need the coffee to get me going or if it's the taste that I can't live without. Or maybe it's the feeling that you belong to the club? The exclusive club of coffee drinkers which is really not very exclusive at all here.

I am not sure what it is but one thing I am sure of - that America has a contagious obsession with coffee.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Independence Day

It's been a long time! I know! I just haven't felt like writing at all. And I know if I don't feel like writing my posts will be very uninspired. 

The weather has been mostly great here. It's humid and somedays it has been so hot that it was almost impossible to do anything outside. But luckily we have many beautiful beaches, only about a 10 minute bike ride away.

It is quite amazing how the city changes with the weather. The one thing people often tell me they like about Chicago is how unique the different quarters of the city are and this is definitely much more noticeable now that the weather is more pleasant. There is Lakeview - where 
we live which in itself has like three different sides to it. We live all the way in West Lakeview, almost North Center. It's all families and cute neighborhood cafes here. But Boystown (the gay neighborhood) and Wrigleyville (the frat boy and sorority girl party neighborhood) are also part of Lakeview. A bit more South you have Lincoln Park and Wicker Park - full of expensive shops, fancy bars and rich girls wearing tiny sundresses and oversized bags and designer sunglasses. Even more South (but still North of the Loop - downtown) there is Old Town which is more urban and funky. It reminds me a bit of the Village in New York.
Downtown is downtown. Busy, bustling, crawling with corporate workers and tourists during the day - dead at night.
And then you have the whole South side. I honestly haven't seen much of the South side as it's supposed to be the "Bad neighborhood", dangerous after dark, don't go there wearing your expensive jewelry, don't look too white. Bladibla. But there are definitely parts of the South side that I am interested in getting to know better. Pilsen for example. A good friend of mine lives there. It's a poor neighborhood but also an artsy neighborhood full of galleries and street art. According to my friend Pilsen is not dangerous at all but the people who live there don't want their area to be turned into the hip new neighborhood. Because that has happened to a lot of parts of Chicago. Yuppies discover the area, move there and soon the area is so expensive that people who originally lived there can't afford it anymore. Apparently the gang signs on the street corners and people running around with knives in  their pocket are mostly there to scare the yuppie-crowd off. 
I personally can't confirm if this is true but it does make sense.

I also got to experience my first 4th of July celebrations this weekend. Strangely the big party was happening on the 3rd. 
We started the day (the 3rd) cycling down to Grant Park to visit the "Taste of Chicago" festival. This is a yearly food festival where restaurants sell small "taste" amounts of their food for very high prices. 
Later we were invited to a BBQ party, close to the lake. According to what I have heard there were about 1 million people BBQing and waiting for the fireworks that day. We were right next to Lake Shore drive - which is a 3 or 4-laned Autobahn - usually closed off even for cyclists. Well, at around 5pm they closed it off and people were allowed to walk on it, play on it, cycle, whatever you want (except driving). It was a strangely liberating feeling to stand in the middle of an Autobahn.

Kids playing on Lake Shore Drive

Our bike ride home on Lake Shore Drive

The fireworks weren't bad either. 

My life here has been an up and down. I have good weeks and I have bad weeks. I am glad to say that it's mostly good weeks at this point. I noticed that there are mainly two things which turn a bad week into a good week - sunshine and good company. If I have a week were I am out a lot, spending time with my new friends I feel very much in love with the city of Chicago.
If the weather is bad and my friends don't feel like leaving the house, I usually get really homesick (to Holland). 

And then of course there is the whole career thing which also depresses me. I am still looking for jobs every day. But I'll talk about that some other time.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Subterranean homesick blues

As you could most likely see from my last post, I have entered the expatriate state of "culture shock". I had a bit of an outburst of hate there. I am sorry about that.

I am usually not one to put people in categories and just because I had a tough week and I was angry at the whole world does not mean I get to condemn all of America as flaky, rude people. Because they are not. 

People sure are busier here than in Europe but life is tougher here too. You have to fight a bit more for having a good life and ... you know ... basic things like health insurance ... but the rewards for fighting the fight and winning are higher.

Soooo ... culture shock. I think on a deeper level the Americans are not that different to the Euros but it takes a bit longer to get to this deeper level.

I am pretty good at reading people. Usually my first impression of people is always correct. I can also tell if somebody likes me or not, if I annoy somebody or if they are really delighted to see me, when somebody says "Hey, let's hang out" I could tell if they meant it or not ...
This "talent" helped me a lot when I was managing a team, I would even go as far to say that it got me the job in the first place. I think this ability even helped me with my portrait photography because I could make people feel comfortable in front of the camera.
Well - strangely - in America I can't do that. I can't read peoples faces and body language. I don't really get it. I talked to my Euro-friends about it and they have the same problem.
This makes me feel like a dog who lost it's sense of smell and is trying to find home. I don't know if somebody is being serious or sarcastic, I don't know how far I can go with my jokes until it's too late, I don't know if I am saying the right thing ...

So I am asking myself what this is all about. Can I simply not read people because people show their emotions differently or do people see it as rude to show their emotions on their face or is there something else I am completely missing?

Only now I am realizing how much I depended on this "talent". It really helped me a lot - to make friends, to get jobs, to get people to help me, to get people to like me ... 

What I am getting at is that I still have a lot to learn about this country. I might be interpreting things that people do or say in a wrong way. I must keep that in the back of my head because it's not their fault that I am absolutely incapable of "getting" them. 

The Dutch culture is pretty different to the Austrian culture but I guess I already kind of was more like the Dutch, so that was an easy transition. This transition will be more difficult I just have to deal with it. There will always be times when I am doing really well and times when I am not feeling so great.

Talking about culture: Last Sunday I got to part-take in the German-American culture. I worked as a beer-wench in my Austrian dirndl at the German Mayfest. It was a lot of fun, especially after I had my first beer! All of my friends from the library were there too. Good times! I didn't think I'd enjoy polka music an drunk people that much but it was great! On top of that people loved the dirndl. I got a lot of compliments and people who wanted to take pictures with me. After I finished working there E and I went to Home Depot to buy some soil for my tomato plants. It was fun to go soil shopping in my dirndl!

So things are looking up even though I still have the occasional bouts of home-sickness. Bear with me. I promise I won't turn into a hater. And adjustment is next on the list.

Monday, May 25, 2009

You can't always get what you want

You know how you sometimes wake up and you are instantly in a bad mood? People call it "Getting out on the wrong side of the bed" and I am sure lots of other synonyms which I do not recall at this very moment. I think this happens to most people, right? But you get over it, mostly after your first cup of java or a morning cigarette if that's how you roll.

Thursday morning I got up and I have been grumpy ever since. Ok, to be fair there have been interruptions to my grumpiness (mostly when I talk to people which distracts me from my moodiness) but the general state is "grumpy". Everything annoys me, I do not feel fully functional and I most certainly am NOT enjoying myself.

Being moody is nothing new to me, everybody who has ever worked with me knows that but I was never really in a bad mood for more than a few hours. Something would happen and I would forget all about it and usually grumpiness was followed by really good mood. Call me crazy and bi-polar, maybe I am but it has not been officially diagnosed.

What I am missing here is the distraction. My days are pretty eventless and nothing really ever happens that gets me out of my mood. So I have had the longest grumpiness streak I can remember. 

Now don't get me wrong, I can behave myself pretty well. I am not some crazy fury going around yelling at people but I continuously feel slightly annoyed. 

So this is why I haven't written anything in a while, I just didn't feel like doing it. 

But since this is a blog and not a diary and I haven't really written much about how it is to live in America as an Austrian in a long time, I will tell you what annoys me most at the moment, specifically about the Americans (not all of them of course but a lot of them)(and for the Americans reading this - I am sorry - I know you are not all the same but this is just a general feeling I get sometimes):

*"We should totally meet up/hang out/go for dinner/do something together!"
Blablabla. Yeah, you all want to hang out but don't I dare actually taking you up on your offer because, you know, you are an American and as such you are always busy. But maybe you'll have time in six weeks, tentatively?

A little story: When I grew up we didn't have a car, I think I mentioned this before. My mom was too short sighted to be allowed to drive and we didn't have the money for a car anyway. Growing up in a small town, any time I wanted to go anywhere after 6pm or on the weekends, I had to have one of my friends parents drive me home because there was no public transport. One night one of my friends mom drove me home and I got out of the car and didn't say "Thank you for bringing me home". My friend asked me about it later and I was SO embarrassed. After this happened to me I made sure I would always say please and thank you.
In Austria having good manners is very important. I think it's part of the "old world" thing - in many ways Austria is much more old fashioned than the rest of Western Europe.

We take our shoes off before we enter somebody's house. If we are invited for dinner we bring flowers or dessert and we make sure to thank the host as much as possible. If you are at a party and people don't know some of the guests, as a host, you introduce them to everybody. You eat with your mouth closed. You do not chew chewing gum loudly into somebody else's ear. If you have lunch or dinner with other people, you make sure everybody (including the host) is seated and ready to eat before you start eating. If you receive an invitation to something, you answer (to the person who sent the invitation) and you don't just ignore it or tell somebody who didn't send the invitation if you can come. 

There are even more "rules" like using the formal "You" (Sie) when talking to strangers and often even to your colleagues which is something I am not so fond of and I have kind of gotten used to not doing but those basic manners mentioned above are something I grew up with and I am shocked to see are not necessarily the norm in America. Maybe people are just too damn busy to be friendly and courteous. I don't know.

As I said, not everybody behaves like that, luckily. But more people than I expected seem to have grown up without learning simple manners. Or maybe they did grow up with manners but decided that those manners are antiquated? This is something that just really bugs me when I am not in a good mood.

*"The economy is so bad, so we have to ask you to do this for free but we might be able to pay you later"
So I have decided to go for it - to change my career path. I am not applying for data entry jobs anymore. I am actually trying to become a photographer. I am however also looking at other things, as long as they don't make me want to kill myself (like data-entry would - I hope I don't offend anybody here ...). There are actually a lot of jobs that make me "not want to kill-myself". I wouldn't mind being the "girl for everything" for a little, new company (even if part of the job would be data-entry), I wouldn't mind being a cup-cake baker in a cute bakery or sell pretty fabrics in a crafting store. I wouldn't mind doing admin stuff for a web-design office and learning a little bit on the side.

On my search for jobs there are so many unpaid jobs. It's unbelievable! Since I am not quite a professional photographer yet, I don't mind doing some shoots for free, especially when it's a new subject for me - like I am going to do some product photography for a friends website for free but there are people who look for everything for free:

"We are a new food magazine and are looking for experienced food photographers who would like to take pictures for our next issue. Please be aware that we cannot pay you at this point but you will get plenty of exposure!"
"Looking for a young and upcoming fashion designer who wants to dress me for the next few events I have to attend. I will not be able to pay you but if people ask me I will tell them that you designed the dress!"
"Looking for an intern, working 40 hours per week. Work includes data-entry, customer service, sales and some general office duties. Internship will be unpaid but with chance of some payment after having worked for us for some time. College graduates and bi-lingual/Spanish preferred! Must be available on Saturdays."

I mean, come on! One of my friends pretty much just lost her full-time job to an intern. And not because the intern is doing better work but because the intern is much cheaper. I mean, seriously, where is this leading to? When will people realize that a happy employe (who can afford to pay rent) is a better worker? This is a trend that I started to see when working for American companies in the Netherlands. Get one person to do the job of three because why not? It's cheaper! Well, it might be cheaper but you also take all will to live from people. 

The worst is that the situation here is so bad that companies which offer those unpaid jobs get hundreds of applications.

And another thing which annoys me which is in the same spirit:
*We don't actually want to hire, we are just checking out the market.
When I first started applying for jobs I was surprised how I never got answers. I mean, I have 6 years of work experience, I have worked for reputable companies, I have references, I have a green card and I am fluent in three languages, at least give me an interview. But I didn't even get a standard rejection email. Recently somebody told me that most of the job offers you find on the internet are not even real. There are not many position available right now so companies just send out their HR to "check out the market", see what's available and how desperate people are. You know, in case they might really need somebody some day. 
In America the "letter of motivation" - the letter or email which accompanies your CV - has to be very specific. For almost every job I applied to I had to change my motivation letter to match it to the job, to point out all the stuff I can do. This takes time. Knowing that 90% of the jobs I take the time to write this stupid letter for don't even exist makes me very unhappy. Sometimes instead of going through all the pain of writing the motivation letter and sending my CV, I just want to write "Is this job even real? If you are indeed searching for people for your company, let me know and I will send you a proper motivation letter!". 

I know that this is just the way the economy is right now. In terms of jobs it is definitely a buyers market. There are too many people with fantastic qualifications who can't find a job and of course, companies are taking advantage of this.
But it is still disrespectful, it's inhumane and it's simply a waste of my time. 

This is by the way a big reason why I decided to try to change my career now when I originally just planned to find a job "for now" until I had settled. I figured if I have to go on my knees and beg for a job I might as well do that for a job I actually want. 

On a more positive note - until today the weather has been gorgeous here. Spring is pretty much gone and now it's summer (yep, we had only about three weeks of spring). We had temperatures up in the high 20s (Celsius) this week, I planted about a million tomato plants and we did a lot of BBQing in our backyard.

Now I am going to put on some of my Eels CDs and sew curtains for the kitchen and maybe that will lift my mood.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Back to basics

It seems like Chicago becomes more and more beautiful as summer nears. 

Our street is in full bloom now, the tulips are flowering, the cafes put their outdoor seating up and my face has turned a much more appealing shade of light golden brown.

Despite all of this loveliness I have been very homesick to Holland recently. There is one thing in particular which triggers those emotions: the Amstel Light commercial
The first time I saw this ad on TV I cried. Yeah, I know it's sad. I didn't expect it to happen either but you know - I have a lot of memories connected to Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is where I first could be who I wanted to be. Where I met people who understood who I am. It's where I realized that I could be a photographer. It's where I changed from being a little wallflower who was too shy to order a beer into a person that people want to hang out with. It's where I learned to appreciate alcohol.
It's where I first kissed my husband.
And it's also a lot of other things which are too TMI to post here.

The reason why I miss it more than ever right now is that it's the most beautiful time of the year there - Spring. Spring in Holland is when the sun is shining, when everything is colorful and pretty. People sitting outside and having a beer. Queensday and more importantly - Queens night which I have very fond memories of. The Amsterdam parks are full of people with cheap bottles of wines, sitting on old blankets until the sun goes down or at the beaches in Scheveningen in one of the many beach bars. 

But I do realize that it was time for me to move on. As much as I loved living in Holland there was one thing that always bothered me (apart from the weather). I felt like I was stuck. I had wanted to do a creative job all my life but I was stuck in the jobs for German speakers. Boring office jobs. And while I met a lot of fantastic people that way I felt like it was eating at my soul. I was very unhappy doing what I was doing. I could have gone back to school and then maybe move into marketing but this is pretty much the hight of creativity I could have gone for. To make a living as a photographer in Holland is possible but difficult. It's a small country with a lot of creative people so the possibilities are limited. I met a lot of professional photographers and I know they were all having a difficult time unless they were Dutch or famous in their field BEFORE they had moved to Holland. I met one photographer who was working as a cook at night to be able to work as a photographer during the day. I also met a few non-Dutch photographers who were successful like my mentor Wanda Michalak but she had been famous for her landscape nudes (check them out) long before she moved to Holland.

So I am trying my luck here in Chicago and I am surprised how things have been working out for me so far. I mean, I am not actually doing paid work but I have been working on different projects and it's been a lot of fun. 

One thing which I am very proud of is that I will have some of my pictures exhibited for a few weeks at the Logan Bar and Grill for a few weeks. So far in my life I have only had my pictures exhibited once - that was in Amsterdam at the Amsterdam Center for Photography - thanks to my former mentor Wanda Michalak who I mentioned above. Those pictures will be available for sale and I will also open an Etsy shop for my pictures. I have checked out the competition and found a Chicago based Etsy shop which funnily enough has pictures very similar to mine (same locations - Italy, Chicago, ...) but mine are (and I hope that doesn't sound really arrogant) way better. And that woman sells!
So after opening my shop I will have to start promoting as much as I can. I am not sure how to promote an online shop but I'll read up on it.

My photography classes  are  also teaching me how to do studio work and I am in the process of building a little photo studio in our dining room. I have been studying a lot recently and it's been very helpful. I am now pretty confident that I can do professional work once I finish my studies (which will still take me at least 6 month even with me studying about 10 hours a week right now). Looking at other peoples work on the internet I see that I am better than some people who call themselves professional photographers but that I still have to learn if I ever want to become as good as the people I look up to.

So things are very good. I have made a few new friends through the German center I have been doing volunteering work for and I am actually really enjoying my time here.

This might sound strange to you since I started this post off by saying how homesick I am but you know what - you can be homesick and still be happy. And happy I am.

And a big shout out goes to my friends A+M who got engaged!! And my friend L-A who is pregnant with a baby boy! I wish I could be there with you guys to celebrate!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I left my heart in New Orleans

After we left Memphis we went on a six hour long road-trip to New Orleans. The drive itself was pretty nice - it was all green and pretty in Mississippi. The last 20 minutes or so on the highway before you arrive in New Orleans the highway goes over swamp land.

I had never seen swamps before, not big ones like this at least. It's pretty much lots of water with trees growing out of it and of course the water is alligator infested (I didn't see any on our drive though). And then to my surprise there were houses in the swamps - even little villages of swamp houses on stilts. It was quite fascinating really. Next time I go get to Louisiana want to take a boat tour around the swamps. It must be really creepy growing up in a swamp house. Google swamp house and you'll know what I mean.

I saw one house in the middle of a swamp, far, far away from any other kind of civilization, which had clearly been destroyed by Katrina. It made me wonder - who lives in the middle of a swamp, all by themselves? I doubt this person even got electricity or running water. You could only reach this house by boat.

We were very lucky and got to stay in the French Quarter. E's uncle owns a house there, with adjoint "Slave Quarters". See - a lot of the houses in the French Quarter had a separate house for the slaves to live in. It is the South after all. We learned however that the slaves were treated much better in New Orleans than anywhere else in the South - their "owners" were not allowed to abuse them physically, the slaves had the right to buy their freedom by paying their original price, they were allowed to own property, they had to be provided with an acceptable living space, they had to be trained in the three main languages of the city - French, Spanish and English and they had to learn how to read and write. People of African blood were not allowed to marry white people but they were allowed to make babies together and those babies inherited part of whatever the white daddy left. According to what we learned pretty much every rich, white man had a black or mixed race lover.

On the night we arrived we took a ghost walk tour. This means we walked around the French Quarter and were told stories of what had happened in the different houses which are now haunted. This is also where we received our New Orleans history lesson. It was pretty interesting but I didn't see any ghosts. I did however get to see the LaLaurie house which is pretty creepy. I took a million pictures hoping to capture something but the ghosts were not very social that night. Still - it got me scared enough to have us sleep with the bathroom light on for the next five days. Some of the ghost activity that our guide was talking about happened just a few houses down. I also kept on hearing noises at night. And in general - I was just creeped out by the place. I know I am a wuss. The city is very mysterious at night - maybe it's all the voodoo shops around town. I am not sure.

Apart from the ghost activity the place we stayed at was really nice though. It even had a beautiful pool in the yard. 

The weather was great except the first day when it was sunny but really cold. The rest of the week it was in the mid 20s and I got a sunburn. I am embarrassed to say that after spending seven years in Holland I have become a bit of a sun worshipper. I don't really care so much about getting a tan, I just want to feel the sun on my face, I want to soak up every little ray of sunshine. 

My in-laws are originally from New Orleans and we had a big family meet-up with them and all the aunts and uncles and my sister-in-law, her husband and my nephew. It was very nice to see them and I could see part of myself in my in-laws - that sparkle in their eyes when they devoured the foods they had grown up with and walking down memory lane seeing places they were once so used to. This is where they first met each others, started dating, ... before they moved to Ohio and started their little family. In a way they are expats just like me and no matter how much you love the place you are living now, no matter how long you have been living there, you always have a connection to the place where you grew up. And I saw the connection they had to New Orleans - which is in so many ways different to the rest of the US. It made me feel really close to them. 

One thing I could not agree on with them was the food though. They LOVE the food. Typical New Orleans cuisine consists of seafood, different kinds of sandwiches made with white bread and brown stews (Gumbo, Jambalaya). I don't eat seafood, so I was left with the white bread sandwiches. In retrospect I should have eaten more Gumbos and Jambalayas but a lot of them are made with seafood too. At the end of the week I was so incredibly sick of white bread, ... 

My mother-in-law kept on going on about how great the bread is in New Orleans - to me it tasted like stale french bread. And I am also not a big fan of white bread. You should know that Austrians and Germans will never be happy with bread which is not German or Austrian (we can live with Polish bread though). We are by definition bread snobs. 
So I just politely nodded. 

However I have a new found love for sour-pickle flavored potato chips which are - thank god - only made and sold in the South. Otherwise this would be part of my daily diet and that would not be healthy.

Of course people tried to make me eat seafood and I gave in one night - eating a fried oyster and some lobster risotto. I threw up all night. And this confirmed my theory that often people are disgusted by foods they are allergic to. No more seafood for me.

The French Quarter in New Orleans is amazing. It is by far the nicest architecture I have seen in the US (although whenever I say that people tell me I should go to San Francisco). The houses are old and very colorful with iron balconies much like you see in Barcelona. New Orleans was both French and Spanish in the past so it shows influences of both cultures.

Do you remember how a few blog posts ago I posted about the self-sufficient, alternative feminist movement which started in Portland? Well, New Orleans is full of those kinds of people. These kind of girls often wear 50s style clothing, have Betty Page-style bangs and lot's of colorful tattoos - oh and retro-bikes. I think it looks beautiful and even though I don't have any tattoos, I do have a lot of 50s style dresses. So I am not sure if New Orleans had always been such a hipster city but it is now. A lot of people, hipsters or not, cycle in New Orleans which is another reason for me to love this city. Maybe they cycle because it is quite flat there, maybe because there is no place to park in the French Quarter.

Alternative hipster girl

Hipster bike (well, in this case - tricycle):

The French Quarter has been almost untouched by Katrina. The areas around unfortunately not so much. E's aunts house had to be completely rebuilt - they had to live in a trailer outside their house for a long time. You still see a lot of trailers in front of empty houses but there is a feeling of upturn in the city. The people of New Orleans are fighters. They go about what happened to them with humor and they just - well - they just move on. I have no doubt that if something like Katrina was to happen again, most of them would just come back and rebuild - again. 

You might know that a lot of people DIDN'T come back last time. The poorer, mostly african-american citizens of New Orleans couldn't afford to rebuild. A lot of them moved to Memphis or Houston. Most of them found better jobs there, better lives. 

To me the city of New Orleans is almost magical. The spirit, the history, the people, there is just something about the place that I really love. 

We are definitely going to be back there. We are invited to Es cousins bat mitzvah in October so we might be back then already. And if not then maybe for Mardi Gras in February which E's aunt described as "You stand in a big crowd and people throw stuff at you! It's great!".

I think New Orleans is one of the most underrated cities of the US. If you have any chance of going there - go.