Friday, January 13, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 2: Amsterdam, or, I Might Need To Learn Dutch

The good news is I've figured out how to post updates via email, thus circumventing the blocked blog issue at last. The bad news is it appears that the formatting gets a little wonky, and also, I still won't be able to post pictures this way. Nothing is ideal. Of course, since it appears that I mostly only get traffic through Facebook, chances are no one will see my emailed posts until I can log on to Blogger anyway and post links to Facebook, but oh well.

I love the light in Bretagne. I don't know how to explain it, and I don't have the photography skills to capture it, but there's something about it that's different from everywhere else. It's magical. A sunny day is bright, bright like you wouldn't believe, and on overcast days, the colors of the clouds and the way the sun looks when it breaks through the clouds, is amazing. I love the way the sun shines on the ocean through a gap in the clouds, and I love the way daylight sneaks up on you on grey mornings, and I love rich, velvety grey of the rainclouds. I love the intense contrast between patches of dark clouds and bright clear sky beneath them, especially late in the day when the sky and the fluffier clouds are all pink and orange and the darker clouds are blue and purple and grey. The thing I love most, and the thing I most wish I could describe effectively, is the way sometimes I look out the window--usually in the evening, shortly before sunset--to find that everything just... glows. There's no other word for it. Even if the sky is still full of clouds and they're still that wonderful deep grey color, there's light coming from somewhere, and it's not just illuminating things, it's bringing them to life, and they just glow like there's a light inside them somewhere shining out. It's glorious. It makes me long to be a painter.

Anyway. Speaking of things I love. Amsterdam.

I love Amsterdam. From the very first day we were there, I loved Amsterdam so completely I was already talking about moving there.

I love the canals. I love the flowers and the churchbells. I love the fleets of bikes (and I don't even ride bikes myself), little jangly bells and all.* I love the trams. I love the neat rows of tall, skinny brick buildings, many of them leaning, almost all of them with pulleys on top for moving furniture into the upper stories. I love the narrow, dark alleyways and the wide, open bridges. I love the cobblestones and street performers in Dam Square, and I love the quiet green of Vondelpark, surrounded by Victorian mansions. I love the houseboats docked in neat lines along the canals and the swans peering through their windows. I love the simple comfort food in American-sized portions. Yes, I love the coffee shops, in all their tacky, semi-legal glory--and I love the attitude they represent, not to mention the incredibly low rates of hard drug use. Amsterdam is now an incredibly safe city, and an incredibly clean one--by which I mean not just that drug use is down, but that the streets are immaculate. I love the spirit of tolerance that once let "secret" Catholic churches flourish when they were technically illegal and now lets tourists smoke up and LGBT people live openly and without fear or discrimination.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: For someone who writes compulsively, I am terrible at expressing myself. When my father asked me what it was about Amsterdam that so attracted me, all I had were platitudes and generalizations (it's beautiful; it's tolerant and laidback but still organized; it has a fun, friendly atmosphere) that didn't really explain why Amsterdam, specifically, was so captivating. Likewise, I was and am certain that there was something about the contrast I perceived between France and the Netherlands that contributed to my feelings, but I have yet to put my finger on exactly what that something is.

That's not to say that I don't love France. I'm very happy with my life here, and I'm sure there are things I will miss once I'm somewhere else. But I don't want to stay. I'm more sure of that than I have been of any life decision in a long time.** I don't regret this year for a second, and I would not even mind living here again for another short stint or two, but I think in my quest for a home (an at least semi-permanent home, that is), I can now cross mainland France off the list of possibilities.

And I don't really have a concrete explanation for that, either.
We're just not right for each other, France and me. Not for a long-term relationship.

But I'm getting of track again. Back to my adoration of Amsterdam: I do think it mattered that I was so happy to be there with Sam and Jimena, both of whom are wonderful and both of whom turned out to be really good traveling companions for me--which is awesome and not easy, since I'm so often a solo traveler and so happy being free from having to plan what I want around what other people want. I have a hard time being around people all the time, even people I really like, under any circumstances, so it really says a lot that I can't think of a single moment on the trip that I wanted to get away from them. We did split up a few times to do our own things, but never because we were sick of each other, and never with any bitterness on anyone's part that I was aware of.

We were also staying in an awesome hostel, one of the best I've seen. We had a private room with two sets of bunk beds and our own bathroom. There was a huge common room with WiFi and vending machines. The front desk staff was super nice and always helpful; they could and did answer every question we had and they sold everything from stamps and lighters to transportation passes and discounted museum tickets. The bar was cozy and fun, and super cheap, and never empty of other guests, and the bartenders were all nice and had our order down by the second night. Seven euros per night, prepaid when we paid for our room, got us a yummy dinner that was more than we could eat, and the best breakfast buffet of all time was included in our stay and didn't even have weirdly early hours like some hostel breakfasts. In short, I would highly recommend Stayokay Vondelpark to anybody looking for a cheap, clean, fun place to stay in Amsterdam (and no, I am not getting paid to plug it, I was just that happy).

Our first day there, we met up with a friend of Jimena's who lives in Utrecht and came in to see her and show us around the city a little. He marched us through the Red Light District and to a hotel near the train station that has one of those glassed-in bars with a view on the top floor, where we could look out over the whole beautiful city.

After that, we caught a ferry across the harbor to an area full of abandoned warehouses and rundown shipyards. It's apparently undergoing a sort of revitalization movement trying to create concert spaces and things like that, and there is interesting graffiti and odd sculptures everywhere. There's also a charming cafe next to the water that's either in an old greenhouse or just in a building designed to mimic a greenhouse, I couldn't decide. Either way, it was delightful. We went in to warm up and had grilled cheese sandwiches and coffee before heading back to the ferry. It was the sort of adventure we would never have had without a guide who knew where to take us--it would never have occurred to us to go exploring over there, and it was totally worth it.

Back on the downtown side of the water, we just wandered around for a long time, criss-crossing canals, looking at churches, browsing a market, eating French fries. Jimena's friend showed us one of the secret Catholic churches (now unexpectedly located, but no longer hidden), which looks out of place sandwiched between department stores on a pedestrian shopping street and is probably the narrowest church I've ever seen. It also had a metal parrot hanging inside, which the priest explained once hung outside and marked the location as a church.

Late in the afternoon, we went to a brandywine bar that makes its own and has been in operation since the seventeenth century. That alone was cool enough for me, but it turns out brandywine is also DELICIOUS. They had a long list of flavors (I tried apple and cherry; other choices included blackberry, passionfruit, lemon, cranberry, and blueberry, among assorted others I've forgotten), and it's served in tiny little stemmed glasses with flared rims. The glasses are waiting in a bucket of water, and the bartender takes one out and sets it down on the bar and fills it all the way up to the very top, just before spilling over. You have to bend over and take the first sip without picking up the glass. It's kind of syrupy, but not too sweet (in fact, the cranberry, which Sam had and I tasted, was ridiculously sour), and you can barely taste any alcohol even though it's stronger than most regular wine. We all had two glasses, and Jimena and Sam and I attempted to order our seconds ourselves in mangled Dutch, much to the entertainment of Jimena's friend (who then proceeded to order his in English just to be smart) and the bartender (who, like every other Dutch person we met, also spoke perfect English).

It was a great day, and I'm very grateful to this guy (whose name I can't spell, unfortunately) for putting up with an afternoon of making decisions and translating for a bunch of much younger foreigners. He was really cool, and really nice, and I'm really glad Jimena shared him with Sam and me, and we decided to tag along with them in the first place.

The next morning Jimena and I went for a walk in Vondelpark, right next to our hostel. It was cloudy, but not raining, which I always imagine makes everything look even greener than it is. Vondelpark is not obsessively landscaped like most French parks are; it's a little more natural, and I saw so many different kinds of birds (including one of my beloved grey herons) in under an hour that it was a little ridiculous. After that the three of us headed downtown to take a walking tour of the city.

The first stop was, again, the Red Light District.

The Red Light District makes me uncomfortable.
Not because I have some kind of great moral objection; I'm in the live-and-let-live camp on this one, and I think prostitution happens everywhere no matter what and everyone involved is a lot better off if it's legal and regulated than if it's underground and full of disease and violence and coercion. I also don't normally think of myself as a prude, but still, there's something about rows of windows full of lingerie-clad women posing suggestively that I find somewhat disconcerting. The closest I can come to explaining it is that normally in Western cultures the polite thing to do upon seeing a mostly-naked woman is to avert one's eyes (which is even more the case if one is sexually interested in women), whereas in Amsterdam's Red Light District, not only is permission to look the whole point, but there is nowhere else to look. Very narrow streets. Windows on both sides. Boobs unavoidable.

At any rate, the rest of the tour was very enjoyable, albeit long and cold, and I learned a lot of fun facts about Amsterdam. For example, a popular pastime among the young and drunk is to seek out unlocked bikes and throw them into the canals; the canals are periodically dredged for these bikes, which are then refurbished and sold to be used again (at least until they find their way back into the canals). Also, the old church in the heart of the Red Light District was known in the Middle Ages for giving out preemptive indulgences, specifically to sailors who weren't going to have time to come to confession after the fact and instead stopped by the church on their way to the brothels.

Our guide was a young British guy who was very engaging and told a lot of corny jokes. As long as I already plugged the hostel above, I might as well add that I would highly recommend New Europe Tours to anyone traveling in major European cities. I've now been on three of them and can say that they're always very high-quality, with very friendly and knowledgeable guides. And the best part is they're FREE aside from tipping the guide at the end.

Anyway, after we'd seen the sights and heard the history and stories (including an interesting mini-lecture that clarified exactly how the cannabis regulations work), we ended the tour next to the Westerkerk***, the church near the Anne Frank House, and Sam and Jimena and I parted ways for a few hours. I wanted to go to the Anne Frank House, while they preferred not to intentionally do depressing things while on vacation (a standpoint I totally understand), so they struck out in another direction and left me in line near the Prinsengracht to undergo the painful experience that will be the subject of my next holiday trip post.

* Bikes everywhere, by the way. I've never seen so many bikes. You wouldn't believe it if I tried to really express how many bikes there are. When some of my students returned from a trip to Amsterdam several weeks before I went, they told me it was "like an invasion of bicycles", which is pretty accurate.
And if I hadn't been before, I think I would have been once Brest welcomed me back on New Year's Eve with a series of closed bars and with having a lit firecracker thrown from a car at us--yes, actually at us--at the bus stop.
*** In looking up the name just now, I discovered that Rembrandt is buried there, which I think our tour guide failed to mention, since that would probably have prompted me to go inside.

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