I had to go to Holland. There were only a few things I wanted to do there: ride a bike, see the tulip fields, and visit the Van Gogh Museum. I was ready to go alone, but traveling with a companion always makes things more fun. I decided to check in on fellow Hokie and snazzy dresser, Jiewon.
Jiewon is working on her Ph.D. in French right now and is spending a year in Paris. She and I began and finished our M.A.s together at Virginia Tech. We shared an office for two years, which is the equivalent of having been in battle together: we spent an average of 10 hours/day, 7 days a week for 2 years together. We ate meals together, cursed the bureaucratic silliness at our college, discussed theory, and drank gallons of coffee. As the saying goes, we’ve seen some shit. If I could be straight with anyone about my travels plans, it was Jiewon. My email was essentially the first lines of this post. Jiewon had time off when I did and liked my general lack of itinerary, so she was in. I booked an apartment and a train ticket and it was off to Holland!
The apartment was a little nuts. The website I booked through was very helpful and professional and everything worked out well on that end. The apartment layout and owner were the wacky parts. The apartment was advertised as being above an art gallery. This was mostly true, since two bedrooms, a sitting area and a bathroom were upstairs. Our kitchen, TV and living room area doubled as the gallery office and were located downstairs in the back of the first floor. Since we didn’t spend any time there during the day, it wasn’t really a problem, but it was a bit awkward. The craziest part were the cats. Upon my arrival, the owner showed me around a gave me a key. Then she pointed to the oldest cat I have ever seen and said, “That’s Käs. He lives here. He goes in and out through the kitty door in the back, but he is not allowed in the front of the gallery or in the kitchen. If you want to, you can feed him when you come in at night.” (Really? Can I?? Thanks!) Note that the ad had made no mention of a cat. Good thing I’m not allergic to cats and absolutely adore them.
Despite the wacky apartment, or maybe partly because of it, I fell in love Amsterdam. It’s a magical place with narrow streets, crooked houses, colorful shutters, canals, bridges, boats, flowers, bricks and cobblestones. The city, like the Dutch themselves, is comfortable, inviting and alive. I spent each day looking in ever direction, listening, tasting, smelling. Amsterdam is a full sensory experience. Jiewon and I spent our time walking around, taking photos, getting lost and alternately searching for coffee and bathrooms. We had incredible luck with the weather; it only rained a little. We drank excellent Belgian beers and had not-so-excellent chips and salsa at a bar called Proust. (Yes, it’s named after the writer.) We looked at tulip bulbs in the market and took a canal cruise that supposedly showed us 100 Amsterdam highlights. (I lost count, but I’m skeptical.) Many street level homes don’t even have curtains, so passersby can see right into their neat, narrow rooms. We tried not to gawk, but the allure of the warm glow of lamps and sleek, modern furniture nestled inside of really old buildings was sometimes too much to resist.
Speaking of voyeurism, I did take a stroll through the famed Red Light District. Prostitution and, well, everything is legal in Holland. To sell their wares, the women stand in windows with red lights. I suppose that to make a purchase, you just go to the door. I expected the area to be a bit seedier, like Hamburg‘s Reeperbahn times 100, but it wasn’t at all. There are hoards of tourists there. Some of them were quite literally on a walking tour with a tour guide. If you have ever wondered how thirty senior citizens react to legalized sex trade, Amsterdam’s Red Light District can provide visual evidence. My reaction? It was awkward in two ways. First, I can’t imagine what person could have the guts to approach one of these women in front of the crowds of people in the streets. Everyone would know what you were doing. Second, once I had made eye contact with one of the women, I could hardly look anymore. I was, after all, window shopping for humans.
The other wonderful thing to see in Amsterdam are the bicycles. I realize how strange that sounds, but the sheer number and variation makes the bike culture there an attraction in and of itself. In addition to regular bicycles, there were some with a bench on the front on which parents can transport up to two children. Some had metal racks built into the front and back for hauling crates. We saw old people, young people, people with dogs on leashes, all on bicycles. We saw a father with one child in a seat behind him and another in a seat in front of him. We saw two very well-dressed and coiffed businessmen, one riding the bicycle the normal way, while the other sat on the back with his expensive leather briefcase dangling off to one side. The Dutch know what they’re doing on two wheels.
I had mentioned wanting to see fields of tulips, which required a trip out of Amsterdam to the Keukenhof Gardens. The gardens were lovely, and I am so glad we went. There are arranged gardens of all kinds, landscape design ideas, a windmill, ducks, and a pipe organ at the entrance that plays pop music. (Can you guess the song?) Keukenhof is certainly worth the trip, but the fields outside of the gardens were insane. Jiewon and I had wanted to ride bikes in the city, but after seeing the speed and expertise required to hack it with the Dutch, we opted for a countryside ride around the flower fields at a leisurely pace. We made the right decision. Imagine a mid-western cornfield, but filled with tulips and hyacinths instead of corn. Imagine country air that smells like a florist shop. It was one of the most dramatic and vivid things I have ever experienced, and definitely one of those moments when I look around me and realize how fortunate I am to have seen what I have seen.
- AmsterdamStay: apartment rental site.
- iAmsterdam: discount card available at the tourist office. Includes public transportation, a free canal cruise, and discounts on museums and restaurants.
- Keukenhof Gardens: tulip gardens with pop music circus organ
- Proust: Cozy bar in the Jordaan District. Marcel Proust graffiti in the bathroom = bonus!
- Small Talk: a cafe with an excellent view of the street from the second floor. Order a jenever, the classic liquor of Holland, and watch the many kinds of bicycles and cyclists go by.
- If you can, go to the Van Gogh Museum on Friday night. They have a DJ and a bar set up in the lobby. Looking at famous works of art, and then having a drink and mingling with an interesting young crowd is a good way to start off your evening.
- When you ride any form of public transportation in Amsterdam, you have to scan your ticket both when you get on and off of the vehicle. Hopefully this tip spares you an embarrassing incident. 😉
- I think everyone speaks English in Amsterdam, but those of you who speak German will have the delight of discovering that you can read Dutch. Score!
- Food: the cheese in Holland may be delicious (hello Gouda and Edam), but bakeries are not on par with those Germany and France. You have been warned. French fries are a big deal, and the traditional apple cake is wonderful.
- Watch where you’re walking. If you are in a bike lane, you will be run over by an angry cyclist. It’s your own fault.
- Jenever: the classic Dutch liquor. Pronounced “Yeh-NAY-ver.” Jenever comes either aged (old), or not (young). I like the old better, but I like whiskey, so there you go. Have one.
There are a LOT of photos.