Keukenhof: Tiptoe through the tulips, and daffodils, and hyacinths…

by Danielle Tomich, AWCA member

If you’re lucky enough to live in Holland, with the world-famous Keukenhof Gardens in your back yard, you’d have to be some sort of April’s fool not to visit at some point during the season. Here’s some information to help you plan your own tiptoe trip.

What’s up, buttercup? Is it all just hype? No. Consistently listed among the most beautiful gardens in the world, the Keukenhof is a must-see for anyone who enjoys flowers, gardens or convening with nature. Granted, the gardeners leave little to nature: these lush, manicured gardens are artfully designed by people who know what they’re doing. Graced with dozens of varieties of hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips that bloom at different times, the garden changes throughout the season. In fact, it changes each year: At the end of the season all the bulbs are removed and the beds are replanted with different varieties and designs.

More than gardens. The garden naturally has beautiful ponds, bridges, and water features, but it also includes children’s play areas, a windmill, great views of the tulip fields, sculptures, boat rides through its small canals, places to eat and, of course, gift shops. An unexpected delight in 2016 was an area of garden pots and decorations done in Dutch tile mosaics. And don’t miss the flower shows in the pavilions. Not your ordinary state-fair fare, these flower-based art displays are professionally done with great care and creativity.

When to visit. The gardens are open daily March 22 to May 13 from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Whenever possible, visit on a weekday, preferably mid-week, either first thing in the morning or toward closing time. Check the schedules for the flower shows (in the pavilions), as they may influence your choice of dates.

Early in the season, before most of the tulips have come up, a heavenly fragrance floats like a mist through the gardens: the hyacinths are in their prime. They bloom in violet, pink, blue, white and every hue in-between, and they are often mixed in a bed-bouquet with an equally astonishing array of daffodils and early-bird tulips. If you’re lucky, the cherry trees will be spreading their pink lace canopy. But perhaps the best reason to visit early is to avoid the massive crowds. In its 69th year, the garden is expecting one million visitors this season.

If you go later, you’ll see the most tulips, both in the gardens and in the fields viewable from the vista spots. Timing is tricky (from year-to-year the peak varies), but the last week of April is a good bet. You can check out what’s blooming weekly on the garden’s Facebook page; they update the bloom status every Wednesday.

Rain is a good possibility no matter when you plan to go, but keep in mind that the soft light on those cloudy days will make the colors pop in your photos.

Bike the fields. For a completely different experience, pedal around the fields on a bike from Rent-a-Bike van Dam, located in the parking lot of the gardens near the main entrance. From March 22 to May 13, they are open from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Not surprisingly, the strategy for beating the bike rental crowd is the same as for the gardens: go mid-week, early or late in the day. Or, take your bike with you on the train. More information on biking near the Keukenhof can be found on

Getting there. There is no direct public transportation from Amsterdam to Keukenhof; shuttle buses run from Schiphol, Haarlem, and Leiden. Combination tickets for the bus and the garden are available on On peak days, such as Easter and weekends, get there very early to avoid long queues. Other public transport options can be found on Driving is convenient, but parking can also get very competitive during peak times, so get there early. A taxi will set you back about €100 (one-way) for up to four people. It wouldn’t be Holland if the most convenient and affordable option wasn’t to bike. It will take about 2 hours each way from Amsterdam, so consider taking your bike on the train and biking from Leiden or Haarlem. Parking your fiets at Keukenhof is free.

Beating the crowds. Skip-the-line tickets might be a good idea during peak times. They are available from websites such as Get Your Guide.

The final bloom: Bloemencorso (Flower Parade). The annual parade makes its flower-strewn way from Sassenheim to Haarlem twice: in an illuminated evening parade at 9:15 p.m. on Friday, April 20 in Noordwijkerhout and a day-long parade on Saturday, April 21 as the floats travel from Noordwijk and arrive in Haarlem at about 9:30 p.m. On Sunday, April 22, floats will be on view at the Gedempte Oude Gracht in Haarlem. Tickets for grandstand seats and more information is available on the parade website.

Whichever way suits you and your family or visitors, just get to these world-class gardens. And don’t forget your camera!

Time Travel? No, Just a Book Club in France.

by Allison Ochs
Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

As I sat at the Jardin Publique in Bordeaux, I overheard a mom talking about a book club. A month later another mom at a ballet class spoke about the same book club. My French was getting better, and I decided what better way to improve my French than to join a book club? I did what any American would do, "Hi, I just heard you talking. I am Carli's mom, and I am trying to improve my French. Would you have room for one more at your book club?"

The look on their faces was of utter shock. "This is an exclusive group. I am not sure we could accept you. I will ask." Gwendoline didn't get back to me. I didn't give up. "What about that book club? What book are you reading?"

A few weeks later I heard I could come if I promised not to take the discussion outside of the group. They decided having an American perspective could bring an exciting twist to their club.Their focus was classic French literature... Balzac, Camus, Gide, Victor Hugo and much more. I had four weeks to prepare for my evening and inhale one of these classics. In French of course.

I was nervous on that first night. I arrived and was told not to ring the bell but rather to tap on a window. It opened, and I was told to climb in. Not waking the children was a priority, so in I climbed with the rest of the women. Once in the kitchen, the wine started flowing. Six women were putting the last touches on the dinner, always a four-course meal with a beautifully set table. We then sat, discussed and ate. Within about one hour the first personal links to the book came out; struggles, illness, affairs, missed chances. These ladies were not best friends, they were well educated and from wealthy backgrounds, and once a month they let their guard down in this group. Everything was shared. When the cigarettes came out of the Louis Vuitton bags, you knew it was going to get even more serious. I felt like I had been transported back to an era long gone.

At first, I worried I was spying on the French bourgeoisie as if I were an intruder, but then I realized they had included me, they wanted me there, they trusted me. I won't share their stories, but I will say I was educated on just how different and yet beautiful cultures can be. It was one of my great successes in France. Thank you, ladies, I will never forget you, your lovely homes and lavish dinners and your sometimes scandalous stories.

Women’s Human Rights in Rwanda Revisited

Story and photo by Lauren Mescon, FAWCO rep


In 2014, the FAWCO HR Team sponsored the first Strength of a Woman tour to Rwanda to learn about advancements in women's human rights in the country. Team member Lauren Mescon recently visited Rwanda and shares her experiences. While Rwanda has unquestionably made significant strides under President Paul Kagame's leadership, some accuse him of suppression of human rights to quell opposition and remain in power, and many Rwandan women remain marginalized. This article does not seek to reconcile these conflicts but rather to simply share Lauren's observations from her visit.

I was reading "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families" by Philip Gourevitch as I headed to Rwanda last summer. The book was written in the aftermath of the genocide, which occurred during 100 days in 1994 when it is estimated that more than 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus were killed. The causes of the genocide are complex, stemming from the colonial system and an unnatural categorization of people based on their looks. I visited Rwanda to see the gorillas, but arriving 23 years after the genocide and three days before the national election opened my eyes to issues that, as Westerners, we only glimpse as filtered by the media.

The experience was nothing short of remarkable.

After the U.S. elections, witnessing Rwanda's election made me think of the campaigns from when I was a child: red, white and blue banners flying, live speeches and people excited about the opportunity to vote for their favorite candidate — not resigned to voting for the person they least dislike. From the capital, Kigali, to the remotest village with a single community center, there were campaigns, and banners, and kids with fliers, and street, bike and barrel decorations, all for incumbent President Paul Kagame and his party. Many critics question the "landslide" win of Kagame, saying it was impossible. My observations and interaction with local people indicated that it was possible; they seem to have a leader who puts them first and whom they believe in.

Which takes me to why Kagame is there in the first place: most of us were distant sideliners to the Rwandan genocide. Even today when I mention my trip, I get incredulous looks and questions about a vacation in Rwanda. After WWII and the horrendous genocide perpetrated on the Jewish people by the Nazis, the UN created a formal genocide policy, including a definition of the term and a requirement that all participating countries treat genocide as an international crime and take steps to stop it. Despite this policy, the world literally stood by and watched, as within a matter of weeks, up to one million people were exterminated. The world's indifference led Rwanda to a leader, Paul Kagame, who believes that Africa must look after Africa. Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the military organization that ended the genocide. He closed "refugee" camps where génocidaires continued to perpetrate their crimes, led his country through the reconciliation process, and leads it in his third term as president.

While the UN International Criminal Court set up a tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania to try the ringleaders of the genocide, Kagame and the government decided to use Gacaca courts. These courts correspond to traditional, village-based courts, where village elders and their communities gather for problem solving. Following the Gacaca process, the genocide suspects were taken to the villages where they allegedly committed their crimes to be confronted directly by their accusers. The trials were overseen by local people respected for their integrity and were designed for both accountability and healing. As expected, there was criticism of this process, but, with a country entirely decimated, prisons overflowing and the urgency to move the country forward, these Gacaca courts tried two million people as compared to the UN's trial of 62.

Rwanda has also made big strides towards gender equality — almost 64% of parliamentarians are now women. Gender equality is enshrined in the constitution, requiring 30% of parliament to be women, which has enabled women in the country to make economic advances. A Ministry for Gender and Family Promotion, a gender monitoring office, a commitment to gender-based budgeting, and in recent years, a strong emphasis on fighting gender-based violence, have led to increased gender equity. Women now have the same rights to inherit land as men. Girls are equally as likely to attend school as boys, and there is a Girls Education Policy and Implementation Plan in place.

Everywhere we went we saw activity, from the largest cities to the smallest villages: women walking up the mountains, carrying babies on their backs and items on their heads; men and boys with bicycles loaded with sticks or plastic jugs of banana beer. The country is spotless. On the last Saturday morning of each month, everyone aged 18 to 65 participates in a clean-up day, called Umuganda (community work). Everyone must participate, even at the highest levels of government. Each community determines the needs to be addressed that day. Each month there is also a sports day when everyone runs or walks or bikes and ends up in the community center together. Critics from afar love to find fault, and Rwanda is no different. But I can tell you that I found it one of the most uplifting and hopeful experiences of my travels. The people were some of the most gracious, warm and enterprising I have ever met.

The sights and sounds of Rwanda are not to be missed. It’s a country I hope you will visit and support. It is a country that offers examples not only for Africa but for the world: lessons learned when the world closed its eyes to the genocide and the countries complicit in its perpetration; the swift process of justice employed by the country; conservation efforts in the mountains; community days; the burgeoning tourist trade and the feeling of hope that this country, with a majority population of women and children, emanates in everything it does. Rwanda is a country to visit for the genocide museum, the people, the mountains, the gorillas; a country to watch, as it has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa; a country to emulate when it comes to women and gender equality. The government seeks to transform Rwanda from a low-income, agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based, service-oriented economy with a middle-income status by 2020. My money is on them!

Dating A Man From Another Country

Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

by Allison Ochs

"Should we go get some dinner?" My heart was pounding when he said this.  I was an 18-year-old freshman at university, and this charming, handsome German man was asking me on a date — or so I thought.

He had told me he wanted to go to a real burger joint, better yet a drive-in. "I can show you," I chirped, and so it was planned. He was 25 and had been in the States for three months at the time; his English was still sketchy and I don't think he realized he was asking me out.

The diner was bustling with people, we talked, flirted (or at least I thought so) and had an amazing deep conversation about life. I was mesmerized.

A waitress chewing gum plopped the bill in front of him, "Here's your bill, tell me when you're ready." He picked it up slowly, looked and it and then at me. I just smiled without moving, thinking nothing of the bill.

He then proceeded to pay with a scowl. I couldn't figure out why as thoughts were racing through my head, "What was wrong? Had I offended him? Was it the waitress?" It didn't take long for me to find out. "Where I am from the bill is split. You obviously think I should pay for you, but I don't think so. I cannot afford this, and I don't want you to think you owe me something."

I felt awkward as another long conversation unfolded; it was to be one of many. Now 30 years later, we still have these discussions from time to time. Yes, he is now my husband, and I guess it was a date after all. Sometimes he says with his adorable accent, "You know I am not from Mars." He isn't, but it can feel like we’re from different planets, especially as we have moved and had to navigate other cultures together. It's no wonder I love the song “Fly Me to the Moon;” I feel like he has.

Ask Allison: Bad Days Abroad


When I first moved to Europe some 28 years ago, I struggled. I was young, hip, and daring and chose this step myself.  Yet I found myself making cultural faux-pas, struggling with the language and being ultimately homesick.

On a great day, I would sit in a café with a friend, sipping my drink, feeling intrepid — I owned the world and was proud of all of my adventures. Then, out of the blue, I would stumble on a silly challenge that would throw me:

  • a postal worker who scolded me
  • a shop owner who asks me, "How can you stand being American with your President?" (As if I have a personal impact on Washington D.C.)
  • a doctor who lectures me on how his health care system is the best, and I should be happy he is not giving me the medicine I am begging him for to relieve my symptoms

Any of these things could and have sent me into a fury. Whenever this happens, all I want to do is go home.

My trick all of these years is... I do just that; I go home. Okay so my home is down the block, but I shut the curtains, call a girlfriend or my Mom and just pretend I am in my bedroom somewhere else. I find a good book and take the day or evening off from my life abroad. It’s my own little virtual reality.

The saying “my home is my castle” has taken on a new meaning. My home is not only my castle — it is my haven.


Ask Allison: I’m Bored.

Dear Allison,

I'm bored. I know I will be going back, so I don't want a full-time job in my career field. I'd like to work part-time or get involved in a project or venture —something new. How can I re-invent myself while I'm here?

—Bored in Amsterdam

Dear Bored in Amsterdam,

I understand what you're going through. After the first excitement, visits to museums and trips, your days might get long. I don't know what you did or what you want to do, but regardless, these pointers apply to everyone:

  • Find something you are passionate about and create your job. That way you can make it part-time and be in power of what you do.
  • If you don't know what your passion is, start a project with someone; it may lead to another project or job.
  • Volunteer. It's a great way to try new things and possibly discover a talent or passion. The AWCA and schools have a lot of opportunities for volunteering.
  • Take a class or workshop in something you've never had time for, such as painting, photography, art history, language (see Learn Dutch, below), cooking, dancing — whatever!
  • Look for a part-time job. There are plenty out there. If you don't know what you want to do, start attending professional workshops and seminars, dabbling in new things.
  • Start talking about it, so people know you are looking. Ask advice and invite others who have re-invented themselves for a coffee. Ask them how they are doing and how they did it.
  • Learn Dutch. Practice everywhere you go and don't give up. Once you speak Dutch, other possibilities will open up and finding a job might be easier. It will always look good on your CV.

When you hear yourself thinking, "Hey, I could do that," you know you're getting warm. Start exploring the possibilities. Remember that failing is part of re-inventing. You might have to try a few things along the way before you find the right fit. Believe me, I know; I have reinvented myself more than once.

Try not to worry about the money. If you've been out of the workforce for awhile, or you are starting in a new field, you'll need to ease back in. If you're thinking, "I'm not getting paid what I'm worth," stop. It's never a waste to try new things. Eventually, you may earn money, but if not, ask yourself if it matters. The real reward during your time here is growth. And that always looks good on your CV.

It's never too late to learn something or start a new career. Just get going.

Good luck, Bored in Amsterdam. You are not alone.

Beyond Germany: Five Must-Visit Christmas Markets 

by Jennifer van Lent

Everyone knows about the legendary German Christmas markets - glühwein and feuerzangenbowle, the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store, bratwurst and currywurst stalls. For my family, Christmas isn't the same without visiting Bonn, Cologne or one of the many German markets located within driving distance of the Amsterdam area.

However, over the years, we have started to travel further afield during the holiday season, and we have discovered some amazing locations outside of Germany which help us get into the holiday spirit. I hope you find inspiration for a future trip and enjoy the mini-tour of — drumroll, please— my top five places to visit during the Christmas season.

Step back in time in Matera, Italy  

Many of you might be asking, "what and where is Matera"? While Matera in Basilicata (and I'll add Lecce, in Puglia) aren't the first cities that spring to mind for a Christmas location, I have included this UNESCO World Heritage Site as a must-visit due to the incredible Living Nativity Matera Edition presentation in the ancient Sasso district of Matera. Hosted by the city of Matera during December, over 400 volunteers re-enact the Nativity story in a setting which evokes ancient Bethlehem. It is an amazing and surreal experience to walk through the sassi (stone houses) of the ancient city. Christmas markets are located around town and also in towns across the region (ie. Lecce in Puglia). My husband and I stayed at the wonderful Locanda di San Martino in the Sasso Barisano. You need at least four days to visit and explore this hidden treasure of Italy. The easiest way to get there is to fly to either Bari or Brindisi and rent a car to drive an hour to Matera. This is a Christmas experience you will never forget.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus - and he's in Helsinki

Helsinki is an off-the-beaten-path location for traveling at Christmas. With various markets - including a big Christmas market - located throughout the city, it is the only place where I have actually visited an outdoor fur market. Which - if you think about it - is logical in Finland. Add snow and cold, beautiful harbors and majestic buildings which mirror the architecture of classic St Petersburg, Russia and you have a perfect December holiday destination. The bonus when I visited in December: I actually did meet Santa Claus as he and Mrs. Claus arrived at the airport and were greeted by local television crews. My favorite place to stay is the Hilton Helsinki Strand.

Fun for Kids: Hyde Park Winter Wonderland

London is a great city to visit any time of year, but at Christmas, one highlight for children from two to 92 is Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. It has it all in one location: ice skating, an ice bar (adults only!), attractions, beer tents, a Christmas circus....the list goes on. Once you have tired of the Hyde Park crowds (yes, it is crowded!), there are 101 other Christmas markets and holiday activities to keep you busy in the City of Dickens.

It's better in Budapest

Budapest is one of the must-visit cities for millennials right now, and during the holiday season, you can see why it is top of the list. The Christmas Market on Vorosmarty Square (the main square) has its own unique Hungarian feel - fabulous handmade items and local crafts, great holiday delicacies, concerts, light shows, performances and more. The city is decked with holiday charm, dining is amazing (and often surprisingly affordable) and - if you are lucky - you might be able to soak in one of the famous outdoor spas under falling snow. It is an easy weekend destination: my favorite hotel is the Boscolo Budapest, but you can find a host of locations at any price range.

Seasonal serenity in Strasbourg 

Strasbourg at Christmas is high on my "Christmas market x-factor" list for many reasons:

  • the markets continue to Dec 30 (German Christmas markets usually end on the 23rd);
  • It's an easy drive or train ride (via a connection in either Cologne or Paris); and
  • with Strasbourg hosting its first Christmas market in the 12th century, it is one of the oldest, ongoing Christmas market towns in Europe

....and of course, the food and wine are just SO great!

Explore over 300 chalets and 20+ markets across the city. Every year, there is a "guest country" market which highlights its unique holiday traditions: this year, the host country is Iceland. Our family loved staying at the funky, half-timbered Hotel de L'Europe.

Thanksgiving Turkeys in The Netherlands

by Jennifer van Lent
Photo by Alison Marras on Unsplash

Haarlem area members have a secret for roasting the perfect Thanksgiving turkey. Instead of the hassle of basting the turkey every hour, worrying whether it's ready to serve or has been roasting too long, ask your butcher (or in Dutch, "slager") to roast it for you! 

Many years ago, I stumbled upon (the hard way!) how to serve the perfect turkey. I was celebrating my first Thanksgiving in the Netherlands with family and friends and ordered a beautiful, free-range turkey from her local slager, Rob. When I arrived home with the bird, I discovered it was too big for my oven! So Slager Rob saved the day: he roasted the turkey, filled with my homemade stuffing, in his roaster at the butcher shop. The result was a beautiful, tasty turkey without any of the fuss. Since then, each year Slagerij Rob has roasted turkeys for my Thanksgiving dinner, and his business has expanded to other area members.

His English is great, and don't forget to mention you are an American celebrating Thanksgiving. After roasting perfect turkeys for so many years, Rob has a soft spot in his heart for our holiday! Slagerij Rob has been roasting Thanksgiving turkeys for Haarlem members for 17 years and has shops in Badhoevedorp and Zwanenburg (plus a large catering business). Ask for Rob when you call: 020 822 2911. 

Old and New Friends: Finding Time

by Allison Ochs
New expats often ask, "How can I find the time to keep my old friends back home and also find new friends here?"

Unfortunately, this is part of being an expat. When I went home for the very first time, I remember not having fun with my friends. These were my high school girlfriends; I loved them, but I became bored. As I walked into my parent's house, the door slammed behind me, "Ali, how was it?" I slumped onto the couch. "They've changed!" My mom sighed, "No, they are the same; you've changed."  I follow them on Facebook and every five years or so I take the time to see one of them and realize: we will always have high school.

True friends will love you even after you've taken a leave of absence. They will get your stories, care, laugh and cry with you. I saw one friend after an eight-year break. It was as if we had never separated. I know I can go to her anytime, I am always welcome, and she will love me even if I don't call. Now that is a friend. Ask yourself: how many friends you do have time for?  Let go of thinking you need to hang on to all of your friends. If you have to work to remain friends, they aren't friends. Real friends love you and will let you soar while they wait for you to come back, loving you the entire time. Those are the only friends you should care about losing, and here's the best part: you won't lose them.

Two other pieces of advice:

— Don't spend all your time here playing tour guide or hotel for your friends. If you are in the mood for them to come and it’s convenient, that’s great. If not, just say “no,” or tell them, "Sure, you can come, but this is when I have time." If your free time here is taken up seeing the same sights over and over, you will never have the opportunity to make new friends: to make new friends, you need to experience life where you live.

— Don't spend your entire time Stateside just visiting people. Do whatever you want to do. Don't feel obliged. If they care about you, they will make an effort to come to you. If they don’t, either they don't care or they are just caught up in their professions and kids, and it will sort itself out in due time.

The Complaint Club

by Allison Ochs, Social Worker (M.S.W.), Coach
When I put my kids in the local schools in Europe, there was one thing looming over me that I loved to complain about: lunch! My mom used to joke, "I do dinner and breakfast, but I don't do lunch." I grew up hearing this and took on her mantra. I remember my meals at school, the smell of the overfilled cafeteria, the peanut butter finger desserts, giggling with my friends, running to recess, exchanging food, learning to be social. I was just horrified that my kids would not have this experience.

I spent years whining and complaining to family and with friends about having to pick them up, cook for them and drop them back at school. I stood with other foreign mothers in the parking lot complaining at pick-up and drop-off. We dreamed of a cafeteria. Then one eventually opened in our village. I just about threw a party, but was promptly told, "You can only sign your kids up two days of the week; those are our rules."  I threw another little fit. Oh, how I wanted to have the day to myself.

A few years ago we put our two youngest into an international school. Do you know what I miss most about their old school? The lunches at home! The crazy thing is I spent all this time fighting against the culture, complaining about it I didn't even realize I was loving it. During the lunch break, we talked, cuddled, worked on homework and had downtime. Sometimes the kids invited friends over, and I got to know their friends.

Sometimes you don't realize how good something is until you don't have it. Complaining in a foreign country just becomes second nature — something we do. I hear it all the time and am guilty of hanging out with girlfriends and doing just that. I try not to complain, to embrace the moment and I think I have gotten better over all the years. But I am human, and living in a foreign country has its moments — both the good and the bad. Just think, the thing you hate the most might just become the thing you'll miss when you leave. On a side note, I think the complaint club exists all over the world; it's best to identify it and realize when you are taking part.