Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Netherlands: Day 1: Amsterdam

[Notes from the trip continue.]

April 23, 2011: Amsterdam

Our houseboat
We knew it was a stroke of good fortune to buy the tickets to Amsterdam the day before from the moment we entered Brussels-Central train station: Saturday on a holiday weekend was in full swing, with long queues to both the automated and traditional tellers. [Note that we had difficulty buying tickets from the machines in Brussels and Amsterdam -- even those that said they accepted Maestro didn't; you're better off going to straight to the tellers, we found.] Our congratulatory mood quickly faded as we boarded the train, however: the air-conditioning wasn't working, and each of the six-person cabins we passed were jammed with luggage and sweating bodies (as was the corridor, shortly thereafter). In retrospect, the extra €50 for the high-speed train would've been a much better option.

Tea, modeling it -- it was long
This country is flat. I haven't been to the Prairies, but I'd imagine this is what it's like. My guide to the Dutch includes a famous story about a son who bought his parents their first holiday, to Switzerland, for an important anniversary. When he called them to see they were getting on, his mother replied that they were miserable, and coming home early: "There's no view here; all these mountains get in the way."

Once we passed Antwerp, the train began to thin out; still sweating profusely, I was then able to sit and take in the passing land: perfect rows of lurid tulips broke it up. At one point, a couple on bicycles led a horse. [At the time, I struggled to think of something more Dutch, but, then, I hadn't been to Zaanse Schans yet.]

Bikes near the ferries
The lady we were renting from said the houseboat was very close to Amsterdam Central Station, so we headed for the docks, where hoards of bicycles, scooters, motorcycles and pedestrians were making their way on and off ferries in a deliberate, measured chaos. [I did not witness a single accident of any kind during the visit. I still don't understand how.]

I am sat at the raised table in the kitchen of our houseboat as I write this. A cool cross-breeze brings the lapping water to my ears. There is a slight rocking, no more. Our neighbours are close -- we share a dock on one side -- but everyone is quiet, calm... gezelligheid, as my guide tells me. Each set of keys is on its own little pink buoy. I could get used to this.

My first afternoon is overwhelming, as I try to wrap my head around the Dutch way of life, while avoiding the cycles, scooters, motorcycles, small cars -- which share the lane reserved for those first three -- larger cars and trams. As in Rotterdam, there are many places where you must cross five different lanes of traffic moving at different speeds.

Some early observations:
  • No one wears helmets; no one; not scooter-riders, not young children, not babies (in infant seats on the crossbar, right in front of mom), not girls riding side-saddle behind their boyfriends. (On the latter, my guide tells me that early courtship can be a painful time for these girls, as their boys slowly discover how far their knees stick out. Also, they hop off and stand by them at the lights.)
  • Coffeeshops are to be avoided. We couldn't remember whether it was coffeehouses that sold recreational drugs, but quickly found out as, sitting at a table outside a coffeeshop, we overheard "Hello, do you smoke weed? I'm doing a survey..." from the next table. We immediately stood up, offering an apologetic shrug to the waitress who was already making her way toward us, menus in hand.
  • So much is geared to relaxing: yes, as exemplified by the coffeeshop menus, but also in the decor, with fully reclining chairs for two -- beds, really -- under awnings outside them, and the regular coffeehouses. And in the pace of traffic as well: no one is honking or even pedaling strenuously. Even the tourists seem to grasp this respect for others that is at the heart of gezelligheid (which is so much more than easygoing, or any other English word that comes to mind).
  • The power of human potential is on display. I don't know how else to phrase it. The energy -- like Brussels in some respects, but channeled so differently -- brings me up regularly, wondering why it can't be like this at home. (Is it simply the hills and distances back home, or is it something more fundamental?) So modern and clean. Like a utopian movie set.
  • It's common to see boats that I would say seat six carrying well over a dozen folks, standing, havin' a drink 'n' a chat. (And not a life-jacket in sight, I'm sure you're surprised to learn.)
  • Shirts with banal English sayings seem to be very popular.

"Come to Mama!"
We're tired when we make it back to the houseboat, burdened with groceries that include a wheel of cheese the size of my head. Well into our antipasti-style meal, I notice Kae's brow furrow as she reads an ingredients label I've peeked at earlier. As she's about to voice the question, I say, "Tomatosaurus! ROWRrrr!" She can only nod, collapsing in the laughter of the exhausted, and we soon join her. (I have no idea what the ingredient actually was, but, honestly, Dutch looks that foreign a lot of the time.)

The 'floating playground'
Luckily, the houseboat is a fantastic place to kick back. After a kip, we hang out for a bit, planning our evening. On the agenda: De Bekeerde Suster, where they brew their own beer -- a rarity in Amsterdam, as the Dutch national drink is undoubtedly coffee; very strong coffee -- and the Red Light District. The former turns out to be an excellent choice -- the Blonde Ros and Witte Ros are both very good, as is the food -- which surprises me, as I hadn't had a chance to do much research. (Truth be told, I've been spoiled these last three trips, with Good Beer Guides for each.)

Partway through our meal, a safely-dressed gentleman approaches our table, asking, in perfect English, whether the ladies can help him finish his shirt. Turns out that "Bob the Builder" is a local -- more shocking for us than his outfit -- on his stag do, and needs to get 26 ladies, each with a name beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, to sign the back of his shirt. He was very excited when "Princess Zara" (a.k.a. Kae) told him he only needed a 'Z' to finish. Much congratulations all 'round ensued.

Then it was off to the Red Light District. Some observations:
  • There seemed to be a good variety of all that nature has to offer on display. Ahem.
  • Some seemed keen; others bored.
  • Some men were negotiating just inside some doorways, either for themselves or their stag dos. It's odd, to see such a public transaction, in the sense that it's keenly watched by so many.
  • There were more cameras around than I expected, given the warnings in our guide books. And it was much smaller, and therefore, crowded, than I expected as well.
  • Like many other aspects of Amsterdam, and Dutch life generally, it is very... contained. If you seek it out, it's there; if you don't, you might easily miss it, and certainly won't be bothered by it. (Unlike, for example, the constant flippity-flip of call-girl and escort cards and brochures being handed out on the strip in Las Vegas.)

And with that, we headed home. An exciting hunt for the light switches later -- that boat gets dark -- and we were off to bed.

Up next: Zaanse Schans

Check out our Amsterdam album for more pictures from the day.

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