Monday, December 03, 2012

Amsterdam and the Surrounding Countryside

I was definitely happy when Clarence suggested we take a little excursion to another country in Europe. While I had just arrived in the UK, he was there finishing up a master’s degree and wanted a vacation of his own. I was happy to accompany him. He had his heart set on a visit to Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is a pretty damn awesome place. One obvious difference on street level is how supremely bike friendly the city is. The bike lane isn't just some faintly painted line on the road that cars ignore, it’s a separate lane with separate curbs and everything. It’s bike friendly to the point of sometimes being pedestrian unfriendly. Because bike riders have dominion over their little roads, they were sometimes pretty aggressive. I had quite a few bike chime/bell things rung at me whilst absentmindedly walking in their lane.

View Amsterdam in a larger map
As you can see from the map, Amsterdam is covered in a web of canals. This is an echo of the city's trading empire past. The traditional buildings had a few unique characteristics of a port town. Many of the buildings leaned towards the water, and had a little hook looking thing at the top. This allowed inhabitants to use a pulley system to load cargo straight from the water into their attic for storage. Sometimes the lean was quite dramatic, and it looked like the buildings were in danger of tipping over.

Of course the lax marijuana rules have a big impact on the city. There were little pot "cafes" everywhere, and every souvenir shop we entered had a little head shop area. We also visited the red light district. It was funny, I've been to some pretty scummy areas in Asia especially, but this red light district was very tourist friendly. There were women advertising themselves in the windows of buildings but there was no nudity. I saw a senior citizen tour group being led down the narrow streets, which reinforced the cartoonishness of the place.

File:Flag of Amsterdam.svg
The Amsterdam flag is pretty cool.  It's 3 white x's on a black stripe over a red field. I was relieved to learn this because when I saw a sign at our hostel that read something like "we're xxxstrodinary" I was worried that we may have just checked into a brothel.

We made our way over the to Anne Frank House but the line was epicly long and we were not feeling patient. We satisfied our culture fix with a long visit to the comprehensive Van Gogh Museum instead. We visited a tulip market but I resisted the urge to buy anything. We also hit up a cheese shop. It was cool because all of the cheese came in those big wheels. Even the sliced cheese I bought at the supermarket had been carved off of a huge wheel.

I of course went out of my way to sample the local cuisine. While sitting at a little table outside a cafe I ordered bitterballen. They were sort of like meaty hushpuppies. The waitress sensed my weakness and hinted that if I wanted to be like a real Dutch guy then I should order a shot of jenever. That was really all the encouragement that was necessary. It's pretty much like gin.

Another weird thing was the Dutch version of black licorice. A bemused store clerk let us try some for free at a little shop we wandered into. It was incredibly salty and awful. I bought a bag to take home and trick my family and friends into trying. I of course opted for the bag labeled "Dubbel Zoute". Double Salt.

The strangest food that I tried was the pickled herring. I saw several posters with pictures of people eating the herring by holding it by the tail over their heads and eating it that way. I'm not sure what that was about. I also tried some chopped up with onions and pickles on a hotdog bun. I didn't mind the taste but the drawback was the tiny little irremovable bones. They give me flashbacks of gagging in Japan.

View Amsterdam in a larger map
I didn't want to spend all of our short time in Amsterdam, and so we signed up for a little day tour of some of the surrounding areas. It was nice to get out a bit, but the places we were able to see were also intensely touristy. There may be a bit of contradiction in being a tourist who longs for authentic experiences. It's something I always have in the back of my mind while traveling.

Volendam and Marken were both sort of fishing village type areas. One had all of their houses on stilts to avoid the flooding. They both put an emphasis on the traditional clothing, with the tall pointed hats and the wooden clogs, though there are few people who legitimately wear that clothing still living. There was even a visit to a clog maker's shop. Clarence and I wandered away from the gift shops at one point and ended up at a little neighborhood pub sipping teas. Clarence really likes tea. 

Zaandam was where a tourist could get their windmill fix. They were pretty cool. I guess the Dutch harnessed wind power this way to drain the water from much of their land, some of which is either under sea level or very close to it.

I met a pretty Quebecois girl named Dominique on the ferry between Volendam and Marken.  She works for the Canadian government doing something or other in Ottawa. She was nice and I liked her French accent, so we welcomed her into our crew and had many a mini adventure together. We met up a few hours after the tour was over for dinner and drinks. She said the whole hostel runaround was worth it in order to make friends on her journey. I can't imagine traveling solo for too long of a time. Witnessing beautiful things and having no one to share them with is a really lonely experience.

I needed to charge my phone every night at the hostel after a long day of picture taking and opportunistic free wireless usage.  The only power outlet was quite a distance from the ground, so I just plugged it in and lowered the cable to the ground, where the phone rested, safely behind the bunk bed.  Worked like a charm. When I was awakened by the sound of the cleaning people working on nearby rooms I was confused.  I had definitely set my alarm to avoid any late checkout fees.  I reeled my phone up from behind the bed and water dripped out of the case.  The floor under my bed was completely covered in water, from the shower drain being blocked or something I don't know. I blame our Basque hostel-roommates.

Our roommates (two guys and a girl) jabbered a lot. They woke me up with their loud talking more than once, and you don't wake a sleeping giant. Anyway, I say jabbered because although the language they were speaking sounded Spanish-like, I couldn't understand a word. I assumed it was fancy Spain-Spanish and that's why I was failing at eavesdropping. Turns out they were speaking Basque. Towards the end of our trip I finally said hello to them, and ever the cultural explorer I asked them some questions about their lives. I inquired whether they spoke Basque or Spanish at home. The surprised me by replying "Spanish". It turns out that the Basque language was repressed by the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, and as result their parents never learned the language. I felt a little bit guilty about hating on them for talking while I was trying to sleep. Then again they ruined my iPhone so I'd say they still owe me one. It was a powerful little history lesson that I'll never forget.

Our return flight was late in the day and we had several hours to kill, but in my head this trip was over.  Many a good time was had and many a euro spent, and I was tired.  I was half tempted to go back to the room after checkout and have a nap until the cleaning people kicked me out.  I had one last pancake (ham and cheese) under an outdoor cafe umbrella. Clarence and I took turns halfheartedly suggesting places to go, both understanding we were only trying to help waste time. The drugstore, the library, a museum, a store Clarence recalled seeing some cute shoes at days earlier.  We hit a Dutch casino for the first time and I messed around on an electronic roulette wheel. I broke even but managed to kill more of those pesky minutes.  Clarence couldn't have cared less about the place but became much more interested when he realized that there were free teas available.  A fun gambling fact is that European roulette wheels only have one green space (zero) while in the US there's two (zero and double zero).  So there are better odds available if you bet on red or black and so forth.

File:Tuschinski front.jpg
We caught a showing of The Rise of the Planet of the Apes in a really cool theater called the Tuschinksi.  It was really a gem of a place, like a less cheesy version of the Chinese Theater. Several signs proudly proclaimed that they were celebrating its 90th anniversary.

It was surprising to me how much Clarence and I's opinions differed on things.  At the airport he gathered up his remaining euro change and did his best to spend every last cent on overpriced airport snacks.  What the heck was I going to do with my ten dollars worth of change?  When I replied that several of the pounds I brought with me were leftovers from my UK trip in high school he was not impressed.  I think his view is that this was a vacation and so it should be relaxing.  When I'm someplace like Amsterdam I really don't have interest in parks, the beach, or the like.  Relaxing is what I do on the couch at home.  This was experience time.

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