July 24, 2014

Eurotrip: Beyond the Red Lights

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” -Miriam Beard

I wasn’t sure if I was going to have time to get to the Netherlands on my trip as I was playing everything by ear. I considered just spending my last few days giving London a second chance since my return flight to the U.S. was out of London Heathrow airport. I am beyond glad I ended up in Amsterdam and got to experience yet another country and culture. Amsterdam is flat out the most interesting city I’ve ever been to. Other travelers I’ve spoken with all tend to agree, so there’s definitely something unique about this city and the Dutch culture. In hindsight, I do not regret the slightest spending the extra money for a plane ticket to and from Amsterdam. However, admittedly I had my concerns and fear of regret when I landed at the Amsterdam Schiphol airport.

It didn’t take me long after getting off the plane to realize that I arrived in a country where English was not the primary language as airport signs were primarily in Dutch. Thanks to my hostel instructions (which I was now good at checking in advance), I knew I had to take the train to Central Station. I saw signs for “treinen” and figured that must mean train. I decided to Google it to make sure. One problem, the WiFi sign-in page was in Dutch and Google can’t translate pages without being connected to the internet. Uh oh. What did I get myself into? I followed the “treinen” signs until I reached a desk where I could purchase tickets and also saw the English word “train” for validation. So with my ticket in hand, I continued to follow the signs. I made it to the train ports which were labeled alphabetically. I looked at my train ticket, which was in Dutch mind you, for a matching port letter. All that stood out was “Klasse 2.” My best guess was that meant class 2, but I needed a port letter, not a number. The Dutch signs were useless, so I did what I’ve gotten really good at doing… asked around. The first two people I stopped spoke very little English. I remember actually laughing out loud at one point because I didn’t know what else to do, and thinking about it knowing I’d manage like I had so many times before, made the situation quite funny. I tried asking around again with success on a kind woman and her teenage daughter. They showed me which train to catch and which stop to get off at. Twenty minutes later, I made it to Central Station where I followed the rest of the instructions to my hostel.

It was rainy with gloomy skies which made the very small portion of the city I had seen on my walk look dumpy and drab. My hostel was by far the worst one I stayed at. It really wasn’t that bad, I just realized how spoiled I had been. I was just one hour in and started questioning my decision and the several hundred dollars I had to spend to end in this city. I’m happy to report this is as bad as this story gets. As the intro to this blog post revealed, it was all uphill from there.

I was staying in an all-girls hostel room which had ten beds and was booked full for the night, so making a friend was easy. There were only two of us older than 21 so Brittney and I, both 28, bonded quickly. We started the evening walking around in search of a decent restaurant. I immediately noticed that the city was covered in bicycles and canals. I had never seen so many bikes and bridges in one place. It’s really neat how the entire city operates on these two things. It’s something you just have to see for yourself. I also noticed flags being hung halfway remembering the flight MH17 victims from Thursday’s plane shooting, 193 of whom were Dutch. It made my heart heavy. It was strange having just been in the airport those people departed from days earlier.

We made a terrible choice for dinner and ate at a bland Italian restaurant. Disappointed in the food, we left to join a pub crawl in the famous Red Light District. We both had already heard the crazy stories about legalized marijuana and prostitution in Amsterdam, but witnessing it was something else. There were nearly naked girls selling themselves in almost every window. You could walk into practically any coffee shop and purchase a joint of which you got to choose your flavor and whether you wanted it bagged or rolled. It was crazy! The pub crawl hosts informed us that taking pictures of the girls was not acceptable and that they will literally throw cups of piss at you if they even suspect you’re attempting to sneak in a shot. Thankfully we were warned and avoided a urine shower. The pub crawl was a blast and we met a lot of cool people. This was one of the only nights during my whole trip that I actually went out drinking, and I couldn’t have picked a better city for nightlife. However, we learned you have to pay to use the bathrooms at places, even if you’re already a paying customer. What a joke! It adds up when you’re drinking and bar hopping all night. The bars don’t really close so it was 4am before we knew it. Actually, for some reason, the time on our cell phones didn’t adjust, so it was really 5am. We were now 7 hours ahead of everyone else back home.

Yesterday morning we hit up a free walking tour. I highly recommend doing walking tours when visiting a new city. Not only do you get familiar with the streets, but you learn things about the city you can’t know exploring on your own. This particular walking tour was a lengthy three hours but was filled with fascinating tidbits about the landscape, the people, the government and the lifestyle both past and present. And all presented by an adorable blonde Dutch woman with spunk and a heart for the city that quickly transferred over to me. This tour is what made me fall in love with Amsterdam. She explained how successful their government’s approach has been to legalizing things other countries would consider outrageous. She repeated the motto, “If people are going to do it anyway, we might as well regulate it.” It’s pretty amazing what they’ve actually managed to accomplish by adopting this mentality. It made me think differently about government and the role it plays. One of my favorite little factoids was that people used to pay taxes based on the width of their property, which is why all the buildings there are so tall and narrow. One home was just six feet wide! The people who occupy it today are literally taller than their house is wide. They also, still to this day, use pulley systems to get goods into their homes since the houses are so long with lots of really steep steps. Cool stuff!

After the tour, the guide pointed us to a great lunch spot where a small group of us, all from different countries, had a lovely conversation and excellent Dutch food. Luckily I liked what I ordered because I couldn’t read a lick of the menu. The cheese and sweets in Holland are to die for! It sucks you have to pay for drinking water at restaurants in Amsterdam though. They sure charge you whenever possible there. After our late lunch, we saw the city in a whole new way via boat through the canals. Then we chilled back at the hostel for a bit getting to know the other girls and, still tired from partying the night before, took a much-needed nap. When we woke up, we headed to the Anne Frank House (Huis) because I had heard lines were much shorter the later at night you go. We stood in line for about an hour cutting it really close to door closing time, but we made it inside with just five minutes to spare. We spent about 40 minutes touring the home and historical articles inside. The whole experience was moving and left me speechless. I exited with feelings you can’t put words to.

Afterwards, we ate at a tapas restaurant and bar where I once again picked something random off the non-English menu and crossed my fingers. It was pretty good, though not my favorite. Brittney and I ordered a few drinks and toasted to our last night of vacation (both of our trips were coming to an end). My flight today to London wasn’t until 10pm, so I had until 7 yet to digest Amsterdam. I slept in like I love to do and checked out of my hostel around 11. I grabbed some lunch and made the 20-minute walk back to the Anne Frank House to buy her diary. I was conscious of using the rest of my euros with every purchase today so I wouldn’t have to trade back for the lesser value of U.S. currency. I then killed a few hours at the Amsterdam Museum followed by some downtime and more food! I think I’ve eaten ice cream about 20 times in the last three weeks, no joke. The Dutch do ice cream with powdered sugar Belgium waffles exceptionally well!

I caught the 7pm train to the airport and landed in London around 10:30pm London time. When I got off the plane there was a foreign woman, very old and tiny, who was terrified and crying and didn’t speak any English. She had a cane and a carry-on bag she could hardly pull, and she was all alone. I was just about the last person exiting the plane and couldn’t believe so many people walked by her without offering assistance. Even the airport baggage man was yelling at her to get moving. So using hand gestures I communicated to her that I would help her. She reluctantly accepted. I found her a wheelchair and hauled her and all our stuff to customs. After we both passed customs I was able to speak to her son on the phone whose English was rough but good enough for me to know he was outside waiting to pick her up. Well, it’s a HUGE airport and we were not exactly in the same spot. After a while of struggling through the language barrier, I managed to get the lady to her son. I knew it was getting late as the airport was almost a ghost town. I walked to baggage claims to get my backpack crossing my fingers it made it and was still there. I waited nervously for a few minutes watching the empty luggage belt spin. Then finally my blue backpack peaked through the black rubber curtain, the last one standing. Relieved, I walked to the bus station where I learned I missed the last bus to my hostel by ten minutes. My hostel wasn’t close and taxis were very expensive in London going that far. Well shit. That left me with a few choices: pay for a taxi, get a terrible night’s sleep and just stay at the airport (my flight to Chicago is at noon), or spend the taxi money and then some on a nearby hotel instead. I opted for the hotel option – which seemed reasonable in pounds but really cost me a nice penny – because it was my last night and why not spoil myself. I’ll say it felt amazing to check in to the hotel tonight and take a shower without sandals. Even better, I HAVE AIR CONDITIONING and can keep lights on and make all the noise I want! This is great. I don’t even want to go to sleep I am enjoying this so much.

Ironically, rather super ironically, I picked up the book I’ve been reading just before and happen to fall right into chapters where the characters visit Amsterdam (which I didn’t know was even part of the story). They describe the city and the things they did vividly. It was so cool to literally be able to picture everything verbatim and feel their same feelings having just spent three and a half days there myself. From this book came a quote which I’m quite fond of and find very fitting to wrap up this post: “Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth, it is a city of freedom.”

Lights out. Hoping for safe travels Home tomorrow. Good night world!