Thursday, November 5, 2015

To Alaska with no luggage

It has been a childhood dream of mine to visit Alaska and recently an opportunity came for a free ticket to Portland, OR on air miles so I thought I head off and check it out.  I researched a few options but cruise seemed the easiest and fastest way to see a lot, so I opted for that. The little that I knew about cruising....

My flight involved a stop over in New York for a night and that was hardly a punishment despite the fact that I arrived in the city sweaty, sticky and with no luggage (!). They misplaced my carry-on suitcase at Amsterdam airport so I basically was heading to Alaska with only the cloths on my back, my laptop, phone and camera.
New York... I am in love with big cities and this is one of the most happening exciting ones of all. So was my might there, however short. I really liked being back in the USA. Ever since we moved out of the States I have been going every year and every time I go I sense this familiar feeling that I belong. I like how people chat you up on the street, how everyone smiles with their big white teeth, how big things are, how much energy there is and cheerful consumerism. USA is great, and New York is epitome of that greatness. You got the point, I am so cliché, I just love New York :)

Next day, tired, little hungover and still with nothing but my sweaty cloths from the night before (I arrived too late to shop) I headed back to JFK to fly via Portland and Seattle to Anchorage. At the airport I purchased from a gift shop: a tank top with NYPD logo and a t-shirt saying "property of New York", so long to good taste. Luckily I had a lounge access and could take a shower and change into my newly acquired "fashionable" attire. And so ridiculously dressed I started making a plan how to attack my problem of not having even a jacket.

In Portland I headed straight to Columbia store at the airpot and bought entire hiking gear for only 250 bucks. My knowledge of of PDX made me take the Max, light train, and head two stops away to Target. In literally 20 min there I got a lot: basic underwear, shoes, 2 skirts, 4 t-shirts, a dress, a coat to match all, 150$ total, gotta love the USA. And of to Anchorage.

That entire episode with the lost luggage made me realize several things:
1) you can get all you need in total of 2 hours visiting couple of stores so the amount of time I have spent to buy the items in my lost bag which I estimated is about 20-25 hours is absolutely waste of time
2) you can buy all you need in about the quarter of the price simply by asking yourself do I really need this or just because of lack of time to buy it
3) you can fit a week of luggage in a small sports bag and there will even be space left
4) we are too attached to material stuff, favorite t-shirt, sweater, jeans. At the end these are all things. Should not matter if you lose the, Crying over it is a waste of time.


The cruise ship name is Norwegian Sun, part of the Norwegian cruise line. As it was my first experience I could not compare it with anything. Food options were pretty good, only the intense hikes during the day kept me from getting some brand new good american body fat.

The Trip
As a child I was fascinated by the Klondike Gold Rush and I read everything I could find about it. I have spent months dreaming about the beauty of the Last Frontier, about the cold, short sunny summers, frost-biting winters, it's rugged coast line, bears and glaciers, dog-sledding, tiny wooden towns. I never stopped thinking of Alaska as this dream world coming from my childhood and in a way I thought it was all imaginary. But it was actually all true.
One just need to look at this and say no word more. I was lucky to have seen many beautiful things in my life but this one certainly ranks in the top of the top of the list:
Hubbard glacier seen from Norwegian Sun, September 2015

Valerie Glacier, September 2015

Alaska was more I have expected it to be. There was more to see, and whatever it was there was was far prettier than I thought. It helped a lot that the weather was great at least at the start of the trip.
The moment I could have embarked straight to the nature trails the moment I could and what I saw there was just repletion of the same story line, no, it's not a dream, Alaska is really That pretty.

I was looking for a history book to buy in pretty much every town we stopped but all the ones I found seemed to me too dry so I ended up with this, a historical research of prostitution during the Gold Rush era. Since most women in Alaska were actually involved with some sort of prostitution and most men sooner or later were customers it actually was a very good book to learn how society worked. Was good way to learn and pass time also.
One significant down side on that trip was the fact that the majority of alaska cruise goers are well into retirement age. That fact and also the fact that every night you are forced to spend on the boat as we did not stay overnight anywhere just made me feel a bit like in prison and I don't think I will repeat the cruising experience. What I like the most about traveling is the unknown, the discovery all by yourself. There is really no sense of adventure or discovery when you dine surrounded by the same gray-haired ladies and gents night after night. But hey, everything is a learning experience I certainty was well rested when arriving in Vancouver to spend 2 glorious days with one of my besties.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Summer in Cyprus

It was a wet and cold June in Amsterdam. Just as the wind and rain were abusing the windows of our downtown apartment and the temperature rarely raised above 14 C I could not help myself but count the days the customary Cyprus holiday. 
Finally July came and our winterly pale selves have been promptly installed back in our Cypriot lifestyle. It’s hard not to like the later when on daily bases one can: go to the beach, spend majority of the day outside, meet friends spontaneously, eat out, buy fresh  delicious and incredibly cheap fruit and vegetables, hire inexpensive help, send the kids to daily swimming lessons, daily dancing lessons and several other activities without breaking the bank, go to gym and park the car for free right outside.

The 6 weeks of vacation bliss passed incredibly fast. It was very much involved around the kids and from what I sense so will be any summer holiday going forward until they turn the appropriate age when spending time with your parents becomes utterly uncool. But you know what, I am totally fine with that age ;) I fact when is it again?? 

The strawberries, age 5, learned the basics of swimming, riding a bicycle, had their first hiking trip, first vacation with other families, first sleep over and mastered the skill of communicating without speaking the language. That’s right, I find it incredible how adaptable children are. In the summer school all children spoke pretty much only Greek. Yet they made friends incredibly fast.

One of the many reasons I really like Cyprus is our home there. I have always been so much against holiday homes because I like to travel and the thought of having to go to the same place all the time seemed burdening. But that concept entirely changed after having children. Traveling with the little ones is a very expensive exercise: it’s 4 plane tickets, 2 hotel rooms, rental car, lots on food and entertainment.The maximum we could sustain is 2 weeks at best. Besides the hassle is so much bigger having to pack and discovering where everything is on arrival. All of a sudden having a fixed place to go to sounds like a fantastic  idea. The packing is limited as there is everything on arrival, including cloths, toys and other children paraphernalia. There is a car waiting outside. The grocery store, the bakery, the pharmacy, the doctor etc is all located nearby . There is a thrusted nanny on call, who also cleans and irons. The apartment is big, not a tiny crammed hotel room. Basically there is nothing to do except enjoy, and for good 6 weeks, not 2. Besides the place rents out easily pretty much over the entire year when not in use, so it ends up bringing money, not costing. The only down side is that it’s a bit far, 4,5 hours on the plane. But that’s also why the climate is so great. Cyprus is closer to Lebanon and Egypt than to continental Europe. 
And its home. I have mentioned that before but it gets more and more home each and every time. Even now I can close my eyes and stroll around dreamingly the sun drenched streets of old town Larnaca, 
If you ask me should you visit Larnaca I would say don’t. There is really nothing special about it. It’s small, a bit dull especially in winter, it’s not particularly picturesque, the beaches lack the azure color of the ones in Napa and Protaras. I don’t think you will feel the child-like excitement I have. It would be just another holiday destination for you, and probably not the most memorable one. 
But to me it is haven on earth.  There are memories coming in from every corner. I love the beach promenade, the old churches, the ever changing sea, the covered with fruit orange trees, the white houses, the warm wind and not to forget, the Sun the mighty Sun.
I told you I am in love, I was not kidding :) 

But like all good things, the holiday came to and end and with a heavy heart I had to say goodbye to the island. It was a bit depressing really. Netherlands welcomed us with a bucket of rain in the face. 16 C, wet and plentiful of that adorable piercing cold wind that makes you just love your life. Luckily more school holidays are coming and therefor more Cyprus trips. If it wasn't for that I would have been crying, literally. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Democratic Republic of Congo, not your usual cup of tea

Not long ago my adventurous self got the travel itch and booked a trip to Congo. I did not think about it much, I saw Air France had a direct flight, the travel advisory said the political climate is calm and so I thought, why not. I have never been to Africa before, let's just see the "real Africa".
And Real it was. Congo is one of the least developed and poorer countries in Africa and the world. It's also one of the least travelled as it has been rampaged by disastrous politics. After I booked the ticket I did a little research and all I found out about visiting Congo was rather concerning. First of all as it's not touristy, if you do find a tour or so to join is ridiculously expensive, accommodation in hotels is either in a 5 star hotels of which they have 2 in Kinshasa for which you pay dearly, or cheaper hostels and the likes where safety and bugs is a major concern. Strangely enough though they do have a few private accommodation and I booked one of those via airbnb. That meant I had to share an apartment with a couple but what the hell I thought, it's an adventure right.

And so one dark evening in June I arrive to this house. This is a upper middle class neighborhood in Kinshasa with "proper" two level houses, canalization, electricity, a generator when the electricity stops  working, which is often, security guards. They all look like prisons from the outside. The main streets are paved but not the side streets which are covered with sand and because of that sand tends to be everywhere, in your room, bed, shoes. Not far from the house there is a western style supermarket which makes the neighborhood a desirable place to live, as it's pretty much the only one of that sort in town. Options for getting food were very limited. Either you buy food from the store, which made sense for breakfast, or go to a restaurant which was a very expensive ordeal. From what I gathered it is like that because the country is so corrupt and inefficient that it takes me 5 times as much resources to produce anything. Restaurants are for the most quite empty except the occasional expat or Congo-elite.
There is of course street food. I have never seen this before but I know all my vegetarian and vegan friends would have nightmares for eternity watching a lamb being skinned and cooked right in front of you.
For the rest Kinshasa is practically one big ghetto. There is nothing beautiful in that town except the eye-opening experience that human beings can survive and even be happy in the worse of circumstances.
Just a brief lesson in history. What sets Congo apart from most other African countries is the fact that during colonial times they had the worst of luck to be ran as Belgium King Leopold's private estate where for years he just drained the country resources and treated it's people inhumanly. Things got not much better after Belgium took over and practically did nothing to develop the country or "teach" the locals how to run their own country. Independence came and after a brief political havoc Congo's infamous gen. Mobutu took over and for over 30 years fucked the country up. Corruption is what it seems the most thriving part of the economy, poverty, famine, rape, illiteracy, secret police, lawlessness, off the scale child mortality,  you name it, they have it. Last few years civil wars were added to the mix causing all sort of disasters on it's own.
Basically if you believe in reincarnation, you may think you have done really awful things in your previous life to be born in Congo at your next one.

But there is hope.
I had to do something to get out of Kinshasa and pretty much the only place around worth visiting is the Bonobo monkey sanctuary. Those are the very famous monkeys that solve all their disputes with sex and are bisexual, incest-prone and do masturbate. All in all interesting characters.
But just as any of these places during summer, this one was also visited by school kids.
Here they are, funny, shy, curious, pushing each other around, laughing. Children are hope. They don't know any better than what they have and, as long as they are safe and loved, they are all full of joy and hope, same as all over the world. It really was a breath of fresh air to see the energy of those school kids in the jungly after couple of days in the chaos of Kinshasa.

And it was time to go. I could not even push the whole week so booked a d-tour back via Casablanca after 4,5 days in Congo.
What would I say about if you want to visit Congo. I think if you are crazy enough that you thought that's a place for you to go, then do it. Because you are obviously out of your mind and that's what is great about the world. Just beware to get your yellow fever certificate as that's a moment just after arrival to immediately face corruption, you will be harassed until you pay money, 20 USD in my case.
Also beware there is departure tax at the airport and you need to bring cash. Generally speaking the airport is a dodgy place and if you get the chance someone to help you out, someone that you thrust, go for it. If you have money to spend, you will. Prepare for that too. For the rest, when I went, June 2015, it felt relatively safe and relatively friendly and I must say, they know how to cook chicken. I don't think I have ever had such a good grilled chicken ever before. And brush up your French, you will need it.


Casablanca was the creddle of civilization after Congo. I saw the famous Mosque, roamed the market streets  in old town, had wonderful inexpensive food and even went to the mall and had my hair done.
If it wasn't for Congo before, I would probably find the city and bit dirty and chaotic and the locals a bit too intrusive. But since I did come from the darkest heart of Africa, I couldn't care less.
To me Morocco is a bit like visiting Turkey. It's a light, beginners version of their parts of the world. Very user-friendly for the most. What I found particularly pleasant is that most people speak at least basic English and usually fluent French. Visit by all means.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The big bad Repatriation

As I wake up in this gloomy Dutch morning I can't believe it's february in 2015! Where did the time go? They say the years between 35 and 45 are the most productive and surely the whirlpool of productivity has gone on to me. 2014 was a year of R&R: read Relocations& Remodeling. Nothing much to do with  Rest and Relaxation mind you.

2014 was one hell of a intense year. In April hubs moved from Moscow back to the Netherlands.  His commuting schedule changed from flying to Cyprus from Russia every weekend, to flying to Cyprus from the Netherlands. That added another hour to his 3 h flight time one way, not to mention far less flexible flight schedule. But you gotta do what you gotta do.

We decided that the kids and I will stay in Cyprus August, so that we can enjoy the summer in our Mediterranean paradise and they will continue going to their English school. There were virtually no schools available in Netherlands in April on such a short notice. Apparently for most schools you need to sign you children up since birth, virtually impossible concept for people like us, since how would we know where we will live in 4-5 years.

As we realized we might spend couple of years in the Netherlands, we decided that we want to have a permanent place to return to in Cyprus for holidays. I have been looking already for years but finally we found The one. It was a total wreck but I had a vision. When I mean total, I mean it. New doors, windows and redoing all the walls and floors as the leaky roof has damaged them all. We pretty much stripped the place down to the bones and rebuilt it again.
The living room "before"

And so that was Remodel No 1. Most of the time I was left alone with it and the two children. I only know few women that will take on something like this, and I think that's simply because we are a bit crazy:) It took 6 excruciating weeks and another 2 to put all furniture in place, shipped from our storage in the Netherlands, but finally in May 2014 we moved in.

Most thanks to my project manager who has been a true visionary and perfectionist and patient enough to deal with my own perfectionistic demands. And to my husband and friends who kept my sanity and joined me countless times in Leroy Merlin and all the DYI stores on the island. The result was the penthouse of our dreams.

gotta miss those sunny breakfasts outside
We knocked out the small windows in the living room and replaced them with floor to ceiling huge ones giving a 180 degrees panorama of the Salt Lake and the mountains, true wow-factor together with the 80 sq m sea-view rooftop terrace.

The summer went on and it was time to move to the Netherlands. (Deep sigh here). As you may understand, leaving Cyprus where I have been living for 2 years was a very hard thing to do. I grew to like this place so much and it has became a home to such an extend, that I suffer true as if it was a love-sickness. But we had many plans to return, all school holidays and even a weekend trip here and there, so I braised myself and on to the next adventure:

Repatriation i.e. Relocation back to the Netherlands
Back in the "matrix" in Utrecht

If you have ever experienced a true Repatriation, you probably know that going back to the country you left is probably one of the hardest things you ever had to do. It has been 7 years since we left first for the USA and then Russia and then Cyprus and we have learned and experienced so much. And what it feels like when you get back is that things haven't changed together with you. In fact it's almost like revisiting your past, but not as an observer, no, as a transplanted into your old self unwilling participant.

Living in Western Europe, especially in the Netherlands has it's indisputable advantages, high-level of organization in society, lack of poverty, thriving economy, architectural beauty, culture, tolerance to a lot of of other things I value. But it also has things I can't stand, for instance bad weather and traffic jams. To add to the rising nationalism, judge-mentality and "burgerlijkheid" ( in english something like small-mindess). If society is something that you can learn to accept by creating your own sub-society or likeminded people, bad weather and traffic jams are there to stay.

Dec 26 2014 in sunbathing in Cyprus
Bad weather meaning from over 300 days of sunshine in Cyprus on to 300 days of overcast in the Netherlands. Let me tell you that, you may find charm the the rain, you may see overcast as romantic and even mysterious, but that ware off really fast when the S.A.D. settles down. And there is no escape, unless you leave the place, either for holidays or permanently. Once you have lived at the sun and you know what it means to be able to run, hike, eat, sit, drink and do whatever outside, year round, then you know that everything else is a compromise. Maybe if you are born with the bad weather and you don't have anything to compare it with, then maybe you are alright. But all those scandinavians flocking Southern Europe whenever they can, well, I rest my case.

And then there are the traffic jams. And I don't mean it literally even-tough a human being trapped in a motorized metal cage, stuck immobile together with herds of other entrapped human beings it's a really sad thing to see or endure. I mean life in the Netherlands is one big traffic jam. It's no secret that this is one of the most overpopulated country in the world. 17 million sharing a very small territory with no mountains, under sea level, like a giant human pot with a lid of overcast. And all those 17 million need to go places such as work or school, buy food, cloths, go out, go to the cinema, the museum, pay bills, go for a run, to the park, sign your children for sports classes etc etc. And all of these is a fight, a queue, a waiting list, a struggle, a few hundred other people to share it with, a number you need to call to, a person you need to talk to who only works 3 mornings a week and is on a sick leave.

It's an overpopulated country, and all the good things you need to share with a lot of other people. Comparing to the abundance of space and resources of the USA or Russia and the ultra relaxed Mediterranean island lifestyle, the Netherlands is a whole different cup of tea. The society there works like this: In NL you can count on the basics and they will be better than pretty much anywhere in the world. You will never starve, you will have a place to live, a job to do and if worse happens the life hits you hard, there will be bunch of NGO's jumping on to help. From then onwards it will be a struggle for any improvement of your life you want to achieve. You are punished for earning good money because the taxes model is a bit like Robin Hood, stealing from "the rich" to give to "the poor". And even if you have any money left to afford certain things such as for instance owning a car, they government after taxing it heavily will regulate that you can't park it in front of your home, because oh God, you live in the city center and that means at least 2 years waiting list. But there are people with children like us living in the center, what would you suggest? Drop the 4 years olds at home alone and go park the car 15 min bike ride away? It's even struggle to buy groceries, queues, ridiculously overpriced fruits and vegetables that taste all the same (like water), lack of parking, inflexible opening hours. I almost can hear some of those Burgelijk people I mention before "So if you don't like our beautiful country why are you still here" and exactly that kind of mentality can really tip you off at the end of another day of various struggles.

Flatlands, view from Utrecht's Dom tower
And then it comes where you live. The truth is there is only one place for people like us in the Netheralnds and that's Amsterdam. Only within 2 months of landing at Schiphol I knew we had to move from out Utrecht canal house to the "big city". Amsterdam is what New York is for the USA and Moscow for Russia. It's just another city in the Netherlands, it's a bit of a different place, city with it's own lifestyle and subculture, very liberal and expat-friendly.

new place
And the bank made it very easy for us, we could not renegotiate our mortgage deal for our house in Utrecht without paying a huge penalty so the best way was to sell and buy a new one. And so it started. After couple of intense months of looking and pure struggle we found just the right place downtown Amsterdam in De Pijp, which is something like the Latin Quarters in Paris. The apartment though was also in need of thorough renovation. Most people do one or two in their lives. I did two in one year (fixing Cyprus And the house in Utrecht that was rented for 7 years and needed some serious work) and getting ready for the third one. Funny enough though, it's a bit like running a marathon. It's hard when you do it and question your sanity, but after you are done it's such an invigorating feeling that makes you feel you can do it again. And now we are in process of knocking it all down and creating proper two bedroom with two-bathroom proper family place from what it was a big one bedroom bachelor hut. I think we will move there in April 2015. It basically took one year since we first "moved" to start an actual life in the Netherlands and the question is always, for how long.

People often ask, so how do you like to be back in the Netherlands. It always puts me into the dilemma wether to say what I think or lie not to offend them. So I usually make a weather joke and avoid straight answer.
the girls waiting for Sinterklaas to arrive in a typical gray december day

A good thing I started this year is that I sort of created a job for myself. I am simply renting out our places when we are not using them but in such a way that I made far more money in the last 4 months as I would have with a full time job. It's a short term renting and it means quite some work to organize it, especially remotely with checkin/checkout, the cleaning etc. I have the Cyprus penthouse in 3 websites and it requires a good follow up to avoid overbookings. But it's flexible hours and pays great.
It has gone so well, that I am thinking to invest more in it and make it a bit more of a business, but more to come on that in the next year. The older I am getting the more I value having free time as one of the essential parameters of how well you do professionally. It's not only the satisfaction and the money you earn, but the combination of the satisfaction and the time you spend versus the money you earn. For instance doing renovations has been really paying off as it's very intense work for a few weeks but the time vs. money earned ratio is fantastic, besides it really pays off later to have a modern latest/greatest outfitted home to rent out.

Well, besides all the intesity of the R&R there was time to relax and enjoy and do some of my favorite things, paraglding, travel and hiking. We started the year with a trip to Paris and kept on roaming Europe the whole year, I missed it when I was away and learn to apprecaite the old continent so much more. We finished up with a great "romantic" holiday to Israel and Jordan for hubs and I and fullfilled a childhood dream of mine to see Petra. Paraglding was basic in Cyprus but in got a week in Italy and that was absultely amazing. And did a quick trip in the Dominican Republic in Jan 2015 to ditch the winter gloom a bit. It was not really flyable there which was a shame but had a great time with a really nice group of new/old friends. I have never thought it was so much fun to take a ride of the back of a pickup truck, the views, the wind in your hair on some dusty Dominican road... ah:) Now "enjoying" the Dutch overcast. Can't wait for next long haul holiday with hubs. Since we have lots of  air miles we booked a trip pretty much for free to Jakarta and we see from there. I am absolutely in love with Southeast Asia, really can't wait.

And then over the last year I hiked Cyprus left right and center. The amount of time one can spend outside in here is simply amazing and I take full advanatge of it. I don't think there is a trail I havent done, mostly I have done them few times. I love being in the nature and the smooth combination of physically challenging activity combined with fantastic views, fresh air, mountain smells. Each time I come back from a hike I feel I rebooted the system, it all starts flowing again just the way it should. I really miss that in the Netherlands and replacing it with running only partially solves the problem. I hit the gym in hubs work but I need a gym closer to home. in Amsterdam the gym is 5 doors down the street, one more reason to look forward the move.

All in all, 2015 is going to be another intense year. I will keep you posted on my Dutch whereabouts :)