Archive for the 'Netherlands' Category

September 17th 2007
Adventure in Amsterdam

Posted under Europe & Netherlands

The relaxing four-hour train ride provided a good mental transition from bustling Paris to Bohemian Amsterdam.  We arrived at Centraal Station in the early afternoon and, after a few tense moments of trying to locate our tram stop and (unsuccessfully) the whereabouts of Aaron’s Ray Bans, we made our way to the address of the room that we’d booked for the next five nights.  To our surprise, the address was residential so after checking and re-checking our notes, Aaron hesitantly rang the bell and was greeted by a smiling woman who introduced herself as Henriette.  As it turned out, we had unknowingly rented a spare room in someone’s home and it is absolutely charming!  The house is a narrow, brick four-story, we think owned by Henriette’s delightful mother, Jes (I’ve been calling her “the Dutch Yiayia” because she reminds me of my own beloved Yia) who lives on the ground floor in the rooms next to ours. 


Henriette and her siblings live in the three floors of apartments above with their respective families.  How cozy!  Our room gets its distinct charm from the Nordic antique furniture: dainty, delicate wood chairs upholstered in red-and-cream-striped silk, a gorgeous wooden built-in closet and marble-topped nightstands and artsy accents.  There are “little hippy” touches too – the kaleidoscope curtains and psychedelic bed cover and they quaintly contrast while strangely complementing the antique décor.  The Dutch Yiayia is a lovely hostess and has stocked a small pantry with an electric hot water pot, utensils, glassware and dishware for two as well as an assortment of instant coffee, teas, candies and cup-o-soup packets.  Each morning, after we leave, she comes in and washes all of our dishes and takes out our trash (and refills the chocolates because we eat them all every day).  When we first met her, we inquired about the nearest laundry facility and she offered to let us use her washing machine.  The next morning, she was going to show us how to use it but we weren’t supposed to knock on her door because she sleeps late.  We gathered our pile of laundry on the bed and went out for few hours.  When we returned, our clothes were washed and hanging neatly on a drying rack in the foyer.  This little lady has melted our hearts with her warmth and endearing sweetness.  You meet her and you just want to hug her!  She’s so cool.  This has been the best place that we’ve stayed so far; it has felt like a home on the road!


Amsterdam and Holland are famous for a lot of things – canals, tulips, wooden clogs, cannabis-selling “coffee shops” and, of course, the Red Light district.  There are also museums, high-end boutiques and outdoor cafés, and hundreds of years of history in this one-time capital of Europe.  We’ve spent a lot of time walking around this very compact city, sitting in cafés, observing locals and tourists alike.  Having been in Amsterdam for five days, it’s hard not to notice some things that we’re simply not used to seeing.

First, a little drug education: Probably most famous are the “coffee shops” that dot the streets in the greater metropolitan area.  At these local purveyors of higher enlightenment, any one over the age of 18 can walk in and order his/her choice of cannabis or hashish from an extensive menu with selections from around the world.  The process is similar to ordering a bottle of wine at a nice restaurant, where the knowledgeable sommelier is happy to impart the differences among the many varieties available.    You can order pre-rolled joints or in bulk quantities by the gram and a side of paraphernalia if you please.  If an establishment calls itself a “café”, then you cannot buy or smoke “soft drugs” there.  If it says “coffee shop” on the sign, then you are sure to inhale an aromatic, evergreen-like, inviting soft smoke wafting out of its doorway.  These establishments do not sell alcohol but have an otherwise enticing selection of coffees, teas, and fruity concoctions for the amplified taste buds of their patron stoners. 

The ambience inside is a collaboration of dim lights, smoky haze and psychedelic melodies.  People are happy and relaxed, peacefully celebrating the liberties they have only in this liberated city, where soft drug use is viewed as a health issue rather than a criminal issue.  Interestingly, Amsterdam also boasts a number of “Smartshops”, which sell fresh psychedelic mushrooms and truffles.   These come in as many “flavors” as marijuana and the legal distinction is this: fresh mushrooms are considered to be in the “grey area” between soft drugs and hard drugs.  The process of drying converts them to hard drugs so, even though the euphoric effects are similar between the fresh and dried versions of these trippy vegetables, Smartshops can legally sell the fresh while the dried are illegal.  That said, the public cigarette smoking in both Paris and Amsterdam is much more offensive than any of the above-mentioned vices.  Next summer, when we’re back in Europe, we’ll have to remember to pack our gas masks.

Second is the omnipresent testosterone vibe that permeates this city.  For the numerous young adult male entourages (seemingly the most prevalent demographic) who come here to sow their young oats and experience the wild life, there are many temptations, besides legal drugs, to gain their attentions.  The Gentlemen’s clubs and pornographic cinemas advertising live sex shows and other perversities, the numerous erotica stores, and the infamous Red Light District draw them into a world of Godless indulgence.  As it is our goal on this trip to see the world, in all of its beauty and ugliness, we took the tram into the Red Light District on Saturday night to observe it during its highest magnitude of bustling activity. 

The streets were packed with an odd mix of gawking tourists, curious young couples, and the aforementioned groups of males on the prowl.  The streets of the district are intermixed with pubs, Gentlemen’s clubs, and, of course, the Red Light women of the world’s oldest profession.  The unfortunate women of all nationalities, young and beautiful in skimpy lingerie, smile and sway in their windows, ignoring the gawking tourists, waiting for a customer to come in and take another little piece of their souls.  It pains us to look too long at them…pretty caged birds.  We want to save them but it is a lost cause.  Each window has a red light above it.  If the red light is on, and the curtain is closed, it means a customer is being serviced.  If the red light is off, then no one is working that window at the moment.  This environment invariably brings to light the worst faces of men.  In their drunkenness and testosterone-inflated states of mind, they taunt the birds in their cages and shout obscenities at them but these birds are tough, hardened by the circumstances of life which have dealt them their current lot, and they fire back with verbal atrocities that ring through the streets.  As we were passing by, one of the women opened her door and threw water and insults at a man on the street, which splashed us also.  She quickly apologized to us and shut herself back in…two minutes later, she was back to smiling and swaying.  Tough birds.

Finally, as in most large cities there are of people hurriedly rushing around from one place to another, but in Amsterdam they are all on fiets (bikes).  We have never seen so many bikes in our entire lives!  There are approximately 800,000 people living in Amsterdam and an estimated 600,000 bikes.  Bicycle-riding is truly a way of life for the Dutch.  Men wearing suits and women in beautiful flowing dresses ride next to cell phone-holding students and mothers with children in seats on the front handlebars and back wheel.  As a pedestrian, you are much more likely to be hit by a bicycle than a car!  Bicycles dominate the landscape here, so we decided to see what it’s really like to be a fietser (cyclist) in Amsterdam.

“Hell on Wheels” as told by Aaron:

We rented a couple of heavy, steel-framed, fixed-gear bikes from a local outfit named Mike’s Bike Tours.  After some paperwork and quick instruction on how to lock them, we were off on an adventure to explore the countryside and towns north of Amsterdam with only a rough Lonely Planet map in tow.  Tina has been fighting a head cold but agreed begrudgingly to go along, knowing how much it would mean to me.  We spent the next 10 minutes working our way through the city traffic, coming within six inches of getting clobbered by a tram, and arrived at the ferry dock just behind Centraal Station.  Taking a ferry across the waterway and setting off just after 10am with an expected high temperature of 70 degrees and a light breeze out of the South, it was a seemingly perfect day for riding.  Almost immediately after disembarking the ferry we got lost and quickly discovered that while many people in Amsterdam speak fluent English, the Dutch people outside of Amsterdam did not.  We finally found our way and although we were now riding our original planned loop in reverse, we were happy to be on our way.  The sturdy, 30-pound bikes were like beach cruisers, not extremely comfortable or aerodynamic for a long ride, and the seat began almost immediately to chafe me in all of the wrong places.  But we were riding through the Dutch countryside, through centuries-old towns and cobblestone streets, across rustic wooden bridges and adjacent to reed-studded canals, lined with small wooden boats, and lush green fields with grazing jersey cows and sheep.  It’s easy to see how so many great artists were inspired by these tranquil, rolling landscapes.

After stopping for lunch at a small café in Broek in Waterland, we continued on our journey through a number of small towns, occasionally taking wrong turns but eventually making our way to the center of Edam, our final destination about 25km northeast of Amsterdam.  Many local bike tour companies do group tours to the town of Edam with stops at cheese and clog-making factories along the way, so we thought that it might be worth a visit ourselves.  It was a quaint, historic town with the original construction of narrow brick lanes and small brick shops lining the canals that snaked through the village.  After a brief stroll, we began the long ride back which, unbeknownst to us at the time, would transform our leisurely countryside bicycle ride into “Hell on wheels”.  We noticed that the wind had begun to pick up from the light breeze earlier in the morning to sustained high winds with strong gusts and we were now facing it head on.  As a cyclist I’m used to riding into the wind but riding a single speed bike that weighs twice as much as my bike back home into a constant headwind was not fun.  And it was about to get worse.

Our original plan was to ride a counter-clockwise loop through several country villages, then return to Amsterdam.  However because we started off in the wrong direction, we amended our plan to now complete the loop going clockwise.  What we failed to realize was that the last leg of the loop, a distance of about 15km, would be along the coast of a huge lake atop a dyke that was completely exposed, heading south directly into the wind.  We pedaled along at a snail’s pace, occasionally dismounting and walking because our legs were burning and the wind was so fierce that we could no longer make the pedals turn.  After what seemed an eternity of pedaling, a lot of cursing (mostly by Tina), and sour attitudes all around, we made it back to the shelter of town and miraculously found the ferry dock on our first try.  We returned to the center of Amsterdam, fighting the pedestrian and car traffic, and eased our pain, both psychologically and physically, with steaming dishes of Italian pasta and pizza.  Limping home, we both agreed that we had been a little over-ambitious about the 35-mile itinerary with our tank-like bikes.  In hindsight I probably wouldn’t do it again, but it was my first long bike ride in almost four months and I feel like a fietser again.

Tomorrow evening, we leave for Cairo.  Our adventure in Amsterdam has been fulfilling in a different way than Paris.  We’ve spent our days and nights aimlessly wandering and exploring the city with no agenda but to take it all in.  We did check out the Van Gogh museum; while the story of Van Gogh’s tortured soul was fascinating and his works divine, we still had the Louvre in our hearts and the little Van Gogh museum was less impressive (and ironically more expensive) in comparison.  We spent one gorgeous sunny day barefoot in the park, where we witnessed some tone-deaf German (just guessing) adolescents singing off-key odes to Jesus and proceeding to “baptize” one of their members in the creek.  We spent one chilly night in the warmth of our cozy room, talking for hours, listening to music, and overdosing on Dutch cup-o-soup.  We have wandered along the canals and narrow, brick side streets and popped into cafes and coffee shops at random. Amsterdam is similar to Vegas in that it has a lot of guilty pleasures to offer the curious traveler but when it’s time to leave, you’re ready to go.