Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Culture Shock: Toiletten

Okay, so this might be TMI (too much information)   !  I know, I know, it's a bit unusual to do a post on toilets.  Because they're all pretty much the same, right?  But there was a lot of culture shock regarding toilets here - at least for me.

Toiletten (they aren't called bathrooms here, that's only for bathing) are different here.  And let me start with what's good about different.

Public toilets are immaculate!!!  You typically have to pay to use one (50 cents or so, collected by a nice woman holding a little plate or else a machine).  But so worth it, because they're sparkling clean and smell nice.  And if for some reason they don't meet your cleanliness requirements, there is always a dispenser of cleaning solution located on the wall, so you can freshen it up a bit if you want to.

But, there is another side to public toilets for men - public urinals.  They are everywhere around the city.  And totally exposed.  Yup - that's a urinal in the middle of the street, next to the canal.

The more modern ones are circular so they can be used by several men at once - see this one right in a square?  And men just saunter right up and use them.  I find this really, really odd.  But it's totally accepted here.

And Dutch toilets are also a bit unusual (At least the older ones - new ones seem to be following a  style like we have in the US).

You see, they have a flat shelf area at the bottom of the bowl.  And well, how do I put this delicately, that shelf holds solids, uncovered by water.  Why?  I have no idea.  But it does present a cleaning challenge.  Which is probably why every Dutch bathroom has a toilet brush next to it, as you see here.

And finally, the typical home
toilet is a tiny, tiny room.   Once you get in there and close the door, you realize that it's tough to do what you need to.  Sitting on the toilet is similar to squeezing into an airline economy seat - your knees will often be right against the wall in front of you.  This means the sinks are also tiny, sometimes it seems like you can only wash one hand at a time.  And only with cold water - the Dutch are thrifty and see no need for hot water in the toilet!

I know none of this stuff is likely to show up in a guidebook about the Netherlands.  And don't get me started on the new trend in other European countries that involve no toilet seat at all :-)  In that case, I'll take the Dutch models!

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Decorating a Rental Apartment on a Small Budget - the Living Room

I naively thought that decorating an apartment would be a lot like staging a home.  Figure out how to mix things you already have (our apartment is partially furnished) with some new things, to create a space you like.  And don't spend lots of money doing it, because its not a long term rental.

But it isn't quite that simple.  Challenge #1 - color palette.  We have a bright red kitchen that pretty much defines the color scheme.  I like the red (at least as a rental, not sure it would be my choice for 10+ years), but it sets the stage for anything else we do.  Secondly, the walls are a light grey.  And while I could paint them, when we move out I'd have to paint them again and that just seems like too much work.

Challenge #2 - Layout and Details.  I typically change things up a bit (like knock down walls) or add details.  But obviously we can't do that here.  So the boring fireplace will have to stay just the way it is.  Ditto with the wall/room configuration.

So with that in mind, we got started.  We decided to go with a pretty monochromatic approach - that incorporates our pale grey walls and white silk drapes - but punch it up a bit with bursts of color.  We chose navy blue, with red accents - which are coincidentally the colors of the Netherlands flag.

But before we get to the room, let me start with the balcony.  Because, I was so excited to furnish it with a small table, chairs and plants.  I LOVE LOVE LOVE the balcony.  And while we don't get a lot of nice weather, when it comes, we open the doors and treat it like an extended living space.  It's so much fun to sit out there with a glass of wine and watch the world go by!

For the living room, here is where we started.  The giant sofa, coffee table and side chairs dominated the room.  So we asked the landlord to remove them, so we could get something that was a better size for the space.
Living Room Before
We furnished it with our IKEA finds as well as lots of accent pieces and a few lamps.
And my favorite suggestion for making a room feel more homey - add some plants.  Even if you have a brown thumb, you can keep an orchid alive for a month or so to enjoy the blooms.  And the price is about the same as a bouquet of flowers that will only last a week!
Living Room Before

Living Room After

Of course a dog is a nice touch to make it feel like home too!

The office is pretty basic - I'm not crazy about the desk, but I'm sure the landlord wouldn't appreciate having me paint it!

So maybe it's not the design we'd go for if it was our forever home - but it will feel like home while we're here!

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Culture Shock - "It's Not Possible"

"It's Not Possible" - we heard that once a day when we first arrived.  And we still hear it a lot....but we've learned to laugh about it.

What's not possible?  Well lots of things, we quickly learned:

-  Want to look at an apartment on a weekend?  It's not possible.  Only Monday - Friday, 9-5.  (Okay realtor friends, wouldn't you love that???)

-  Want your American Express bill in English?  It's not possible.  Forget that the company's name is AMERICAN......you can only get your bill in Dutch.  Which means you have to ask your secretary to help you translate it every month.

-  Want to stop at the store to pick something up on a weeknight?  It's not possible.  That's right, stores close at 6 pm.  With the exception of some that are open on Thursday night.  And many are closed on Sunday as well.

- Want to get on the bus or tram in the middle door?  It's not possible.  And results in getting yelled at by the driver!

- Want a candy bar from the junk food machine at work when the 3 pm munchies hit?  It's not possible.  Because there isn't a junk food machine in a 16 story building!!  Amazing (and no wonder they're all so slim and trim!).

What is possible?  Well, you know the phrase 'when in Rome, do as the Romans?'.  The same thing applies here.  We've quickly learned to follow the norms (and rules, there are lots of rules) and things work just fine.  But do you want to do something different?  It's not possible!!

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Decorating Inexpensively - Part 1, Furniture and Stuff

There seems to be two kinds of people in the world.  The ones that love IKEA.  And the ones that hate IKEA.  Unfortunately, we have one of each in our household!  But when you're looking for furniture for a rental apartment, and you really don't want to spend much, it's a great place to go. And as we noticed when we were looking at furnished apartments, IKEA seems to furnish the majority of apartments here!  This is a country the size of New Jersey, but it has 7 IKEAs!

Did you know the first IKEA store opened in 1958 in Sweden.  The founder was Ingvar Kamprad, owned a farm Elmtayd and he was from Agunnayrd, a nearby village - get it?  IKEA?  It's not a Swedish word!  They've gone from humble beginnings to a company that distributes 2.5 billion wooden dowels (you know, the ones that hold all their furniture together) a year!
But I digress.  We needed to find living room furniture for our new living room.  We didn't want to be sitting on the dining room chairs for too long!  Something apartment sized, that will be comfortable, but with a bit of style.  We looked all around and finally settled on this chair.  Hmmm.....doesn't it have an amazing resemblance to the one from their 1950's store?  I guess you'd call it timeless!  
We decided on the Ektorp sofa - the ultimate inexpensive sofa - with a linen cover that includes nice detailing.  

And I couldn't resist this mantle clock.  The yellow doesn't really work for me, but spray paint is easy and cheap 

(please don't tell our landlord I painted this on the rooftop deck.  I have a feeling that wasn't allowed in our Dutch lease).

Amazingly, IKEA was able to deliver the same day!  But I was disappointed they were able to get everything up the stairs.  You see, in Amsterdam, the staircases tend to be so tricky, they usually take the window out and hoist the furniture up the outside of the building.  Ever wonder why those hooks hang out of the top of houses here?  To mount a pulley for hauling.  

And for more sophisticated movers, they use this ladder like thing that has a hydraulic lift to bring things up and down.  
4 Floors of Home Furnishings!  What a mall!
Next we needed some side tables, lamps and accessories.  I heard about a mall devoted entirely to home furnishings - and could hardly believe my eyes when we arrived.  My poor husband was worried we would never get out of there, but thankfully they had this cool restaurant to provide sustenance on our extended shopping trip.
This restaurant appears to float in the middle of the mall!

We found a great coffee table and some nice accessories.  I keep gravitating to these Dutch house decorations - we definitely need a few of these!
One of the biggest challenges in the apartment is what to do with these 4 lighted curios cabinets.  With 5 shelves on each one - that's a lot of accessories.  The cute Dutch houses will help, but there will be more shopping to do!

Of course we have more to find - but this gives us a nice start!  It will start feeling like home soon - at least once we get everything assembled.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Design Consult - Contemporary Style

I rarely do design consultations, but when I was contacted about a house that I had wanted to buy and renovate (but missed out on it!),  I couldn't resist helping the new owners.  We teamed up with Waterhouse Builders and got started.

This house was built in the late 1800's and had been divided into two apartments.  The highlight - it has a fabulous location at the top of a hill, with sweeping views of Casco Bay.  The lowlight - it had a distinctive 80's vibe.  With dark cabinetry and tired spaces - made worse because it's chopped into two apartments.

The new owners wanted to change all of that and turn it back into a single family home.  Yay!  Fans of contemporary design, they wanted a modern look, with a bit of traditional thrown in - to help connect to the original structure.  The plan is for this to be their forever home and they're thinking ahead.  They want one floor living for their senior years, but for now they'd like to capitalise on the fabulous views with a great second floor living space.  

We jumped into the design and quickly came up with some ideas to reconfigure the space.  This included moving the original staircase and creating a master suite on the first floor.  And of course, eliminating the kitchen upstairs.  That required some major demolition, to prep for the new interior.

And the result?  It's an amazing transformation.  They plan to take their time adding more furniture, artwork and other elements, but it's already a fantastic home.

Let's start at the top - in the upstairs apartment.  

It originally had a small, dark kitchen with a great view.  

Next to that was a living room with a french door out to a large deck.
Deck before - look at that view!
Now, it's a huge open space with a wall of windows to enjoy the view.  The staircase sports a cable system, which adds to the contemporary, open feel of the space.
There are two bedrooms on the second floor, off of the family room.

And the bathroom?  Well as you can see, it was ready for some updating!
We expanded the space by just a few inches, but that made a huge difference.  Now it has a nice open tub, with a beautiful glass surround.

On the first floor, we eliminated the old staircase and built this new one.  It connects to a big, open hallway, that lets you enjoy the water views as soon as you walk in the front door.

The new master suite replaced the old living room.  

Believe it or not, this living space is now the master bath.  Don't you love the  glass 'barn door' for the shower?

And the kitchen?  Well it has seen a huge transformation - and no longer includes a bathroom behind the refrigerator!

Deck and back of house - before
Don't you love this place?  The owners certainly do - and enjoy many hours on the new deck, watching the ships go by!
New wall of windows, to allow the sunlight to stream in.

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