Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Amsterdam: a tale of two cities

In VondelPark
I learned so many things this past weekend on my trip to Amsterdam; one being that there is no way to singularly describe this (or any other) city. Of course I was aware of this, but Amsterdam seems to be a city of extremes. On one hand you have the beautiful canals and the historic homes that line them and the delft and diamond dealers and the beautiful Dutch people biking to and from work, and on the other hand you have the red-light district and nightclubs and the coffee shops and the ever present smell of weed everywhere you go. Of course you can’t forget about the artists and the hippie communities that don’t neatly fit in to either of those categories.  There are historical relics all over the city, some sad, some scary, some beautiful as well as secret (or not so secret) gardens and parks that can make you forget you are in a city at all. This eclectic mix of identities is something that I am still trying to make sense of. While I continue pondering this dynamic, let me tell you about my trip.

Thursday night: I had finished all of my mid-terms, had a posttest treat, and was all packed. After dinner I was planning on showering and curling up in bed to watch “Nightmare before Christmas”. These plans were of course changed when I realized that 1. I couldn’t have a personal item on my flight and 2. I didn’t have any room to bring back any gifts/souvenirs. Decisions were made, outfits were consolidated, and things were left behind. I decided that I was not going to bring my winter coat, a controversial decision that I justified by packing my gloves (thanks for the pro-tip Jordyn!). I affirmed that I was an adult and I could do whatever I wanted, but I wasn’t allowed to complain about it (note: I didn’t). After packing and re-packing several times, I got into bed ready to wake up bright (but not because the sun isn’t up at 6am) and early. I of course couldn’t sleep because for me the night before traveling is like the night before Christmas. I love the overwhelming feeling of “something amazing is about to happen”. I would also like to note, when I find someone that gives me butterflies like the ones I get while packing for a trip I’ll know they’re the one.

In VondelPark
Friday Morning: I woke up, got dressed, ate some breakfast, and headed out to the bus stop to catch the airport bus. It was much easier than I thought and before I knew it I was on my way to Amsterdam. I of course got to the airport way earlier than necessary but that gave me time to relax, journal, and eat a bit of my bocadilla. The flight to Amsterdam was only 3 hours and, besides being a little cold it was not bad at all. Once I got to the Schiphol Airport and somehow managed to hop on the right train and got to Amsterdam Centraal by 3pm.  I will say, the Dutch countryside that I flew over was absolutely beautiful. Though I did leave Amsterdam for a bit (more on that later) I wish I had even more time to explore the country side. Also, from my side of the plane it looked like we were about to land on grass, I had a mini heart attack.

Friday Afternoon: I met Madeline (a friend from the JYS program) at the train station. I was a bit frustrated that I got there so late in the day because the sun sets around 5pm this time of year. Once we met up we walked around looking for somewhere to eat. I will admit, I’m terrible about eating consistently while I travel. I was already aware of this but it was reinforced quite often during this trip…I got very grumpy and very frustrated because of not eating properly. Anyway, we found a café were Madeline had lunch and I had a snack, coffee and a croissant with jam and butter. I also got my first introduction to Dutch, by learning that “check” is “rekening” though I wrote it phonetically as “lake-a-ning”. It’s interesting how Dutch reminds me so much of the Amish. I mean it makes sense but it’s just such a distinct language. It is similar to English but the vocalization makes it sound very different. After we ate we walked around a bit more trying to get oriented. The sun was setting so we started to make the trek out to the house we were staying at. The Anne Frank house was sort of on the way (later in the weekend we realized that it was directly on the way) so we decided to go check that out, though we knew we wouldn’t have time to go in it. Eventually we found it, but I was honestly very disappointed when I saw it. Maybe my opinion is controversial but I did not like how modernized the first level of the house was and that there was a totally modern addition on to the side of it. I realize that it is a world class monument but I feel that it could have been more powerful if it wasn’t so “flashy”. I am sure that the inside is moving, but I was so put off by the modern design that I opted not to go inside at all.

Holly Berries
Madeline and I opted to couch-surf this trip for two main reasons, the first is that the plane tickets were quite pricey and the second is that hostels/hotels in Amsterdam are also quite pricey. I wasn’t very nervous about couch surfing until we walked the two miles (!!) from the city center and were standing outside of a door where no one was home and we had no wi-fi (read: way to contact our host). After waiting for a bit we decided to go to the Domino’s down the street, assuming that they had wi-fi. They of course didn’t but luckily they were very nice and let us use their phone and actually ended up dialing for me. After the first number we had didn’t work, we finally got ahold of our host and he came and met us at the Domino’s. Apparently the streets in Amsterdam are not the same as the States because we had to go to the second part of the street to get to his apartment. Our host gave us directions and his keys and then headed to his doctor’s appointment. When we got to his apartment we met his roommate. I’ve learned since being in Spain that it’s very difficult to read people who are not speaking their first language. I couldn’t tell how I felt about our host’s roommate, if he was sketchy or if we couldn’t appreciate his sense of humor. Overall he was pretty nice and also just getting over the flu. He told a bit about what was around and reminded us to watch our drinks. He also told us about this hippie community type thing called Ruigoord that I actually really wanted to check out but never ended up getting a chance to. He also bought into the “American college girl” stereotype and was very confused when we said we weren’t going out that night #notwalkinganother2miles. We decided to go to the grocery store and buy some breakfast/lunch food and decide what to do for dinner. I bought bread and a jar of peanut butter. I have never been so happy to see reasonably priced peanut butter in my life. We got a pizza from Domino’s which was very yummy, but a “medium” in Amsterdam is actually a “small” (smalls don’t exist) so that was rough. Our host came back as did two other girls from Thailand who were also spending the night. Since none of us were up for going out our host suggested we watch a movie. It was a stoner flick because *surprise* our host was a big smoker #welcometoAmsterdam. The first night was really rough sleep-wise because the sleeper couch, though big enough for the four of us, was a bit cozy for my liking. Also one of the girls from Thailand breathed SO LOUD ALL NIGHT. I couldn’t sleep.

Saturday Morning: Our game plan for Saturday was museums. We wanted to start off the day by hitting the library that (we thought) was on the way to the Rijiksmuseum. Unfortunately it was not the library we were looking for but instead a smaller library that had closed a few years ago. Fortunately it lead us to a really cool street market, the best part was when we stopped to talk to these guys who were manning the hummus display. We got to sample a bunch of different types of hummus (my favorites being grilled veggie, mango, and “spicy”) with pita. It was cool to talk to them too, the older one was telling us how he walked the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage route from France (to Santiago de Compostela, Spain). After we spent a bit more time walking around the market we headed to the Rijksmuseum. When we got there we found out that they didn’t do discounted student tickets. I had wanted to see the museum but I wasn’t about to pay almost 20 euros for it. I like my art but not that much. Madeline decided to go in so we agreed to meet up several hours later. I went off to explore a bit on my own and really enjoyed it. I went into Coster’s Diamonds where I got to watch jewelers polishing and cutting diamonds, a small theater, a cheese store that had tons of samples, the bloemenmarkt (a long semi-outdoor market that lines a canal and sell a variety of things related to flowers/tulips), the Royal Delft Experience, the Waterloo flea market, and the National Ballet/Opera theater (I only saw it from the outside). It was really nice to wander around without having anywhere to be. I also picked up a map before I set out so I didn’t have to use the app on my phone. When Madeline and I met up later we went and bought out stroopwafels (which were amazing) and hung out for a bit by the Iamsterdam sign. We did another market, hopped on a tram, went to the HUGE library downtown, and then decided to get dinner.
One of the things about the trip that really disappointed me was the way I choose to (not) spend my money. Since I had myself on a tight budget I can’t help but feel that I didn’t get the full experience. For example, we ate dinner at a small Italian-ish restaurant and got the famous apple cake for dessert, it wasn’t good because it was frozen.  I also never ended up getting the chocolate and M&M waffle I wanted or Flemmish fries from a good place (both Dutch foods). I am happy with the gifts I bought but as far as treating myself, it’s something I have to work on, even if I am on a budget.

Saturday Night: Saturday night was Halloween. Madeline and I were tired because we left our host’s house at 9am and decided not to back until after we “went out” that night. Our host wanted to go out with us, which was fine but also kind of awkward. We met at a bar in the red-light district and he bought us each a drink (yay cocktails because I never spend money on nice drinks). We sat in the back of the bar, which was pretty cool, the walls were all graffiti. It’s really weird because you can smoke in all the bars but you can’t smoke cigarettes, the waitresses are super vigilant about making sure no one has cigarettes. It’s really different than in Spain and the US as well. My favorite part of the night was meeting our host’s friend from Norway.  They had worked together in Dublin before he moved here. She was a little bit older but super cool, she was kind of like an edgy, Nordic, feminist mother figure. She lives in a flat with a bunch of other people and they all have a big brunch on Sundays, it sounds amazing…that’s definitely something I’m going to do when I’m back at SBC in an apartment! It was also interesting listening to her talk about politics and how Amsterdam is getting stricter and that no one wants the monarchy and all that jazz. We also learned more about our host and how he ended up here (it’s an interesting story to say the least…ask me about it sometime). After we were done at the bar, we all split some fries and our host took us on a tour of the Red-light district.

I had wanted to see the Red-light district mostly because I wasn’t sure what my opinion on it was. After seeing it I’m still conflicted but I think I’m leaning more towards the “I don’t like it” side. I realize that it’s good that prostitution can be regulated and the sex workers can have rights and unions and have access to resources but I think my issue with it is more at the core, why are people paying strangers to have sex? I don’t know, I’m just not on board with that idea. I also hated how touristy the whole situation was, maybe it was worse because it was Halloween but it was kind of obnoxious with all the tourists running around. Also, despite being totally inconspicuous during the day, one of the streets that had women working on it also had a kindergarten! During the tour I also struggled with my host’s insensitive comments/jokes (about various things, not just the RLD), maybe I was being too “politically correct” or don’t have the same sense of humor (doubtful, as my sense of humor is ridiculously dry) but I did not appreciate them.  All and all, I’m glad I got to see the Red-light district with someone who could explain the different parts because I would have been lost by myself. And as they say, you learn from what makes you uncomfortable.
Our host wanted to go out to a club but I was cold, tired, and a bit frustrated with him. I also didn’t want to pay a cover to get in and wasn’t convinced that clubbing with him would be fun. We all hopped on a tram that brought us surprisingly close to his house and watched another (terrible) movie to finish off the night.

In VondelPark
Sunday Morning: Our goal had been to bike to Zaanse Schans to see windmills and a shoe maker, but that didn’t exactly happen. We rented the classic black pedal back bikes (which are not made for short people, I have the shin bruises to prove it), hopped on a ferry up to North Amsterdam and biked for nearly five hours. We didn’t have a map and we got some faulty directions so while I think we got close, we gave up as it got later in the day because we didn’t want to ride back in the dark. We saw a lot of cool things, my favorite being the cobblestone streets of little houses we rode by. I was surprised by the abundance of holly plants. It was also interesting because it was foggy all day and around 2:30-3pm the sun finally started to burn through and it was beautiful!

Sunday Night: After we returned our bikes we were starving (because it was 4pm) so we stopped at a falafel place to get fries. I would have gotten falafel as well but I’m too cheap and we also didn’t know what we wanted to do for dinner yet. We ended up heading back to the house because it was getting cold and dark, though we did stop to look at the Anne Frank house again. I still felt the same way. It was walking home Sunday night that I really had the opportunity to admire the beauty of the historical houses and canals. It felt like I was walking through a fairy tale, this part of the city seemed to be frozen in time. It was pretty magical. When we got back to our host’s house there were two new girls who were really cool. They all went out for a bit and Madeline and I ordered Thai food in (halleluiah tofu!). The night was spent watching a final stoner flick and drinking the yummy vodka milkshakes that our host made us. We all went to bed decently early because we had plans for early in the morning.

Trust Amsterdam
Monday: We left for the train station by 7:15 and left our suitcases in left luggage. Our first stop that morning was the Begijnhof which was a community of single Catholic women who were dedicated to the church but didn’t want to be nuns. During the time of Catholic persecution they were largely left alone. Today the apartments are rented to single women but there aren’t any beguines left. We went to a mass in the chapel which was really cool. I realized that going to church is a great way to learn a language because you can follow along in the books and also hear the pronunciation of the other people. Note: the pews were definitely made for women in the 15th century…they were tiny. One of the things I really liked was that everyone got to go up to the altar and light a candle during the middle of the service.

My yummy broodje
After mass we headed up to VondelPark which was super cool! I’m a country girl at heart so I loved being surrounded by nature. The fall foliage was gorgeous. We took lots of pictures and I dragged Madeline through various little paths and mini forests. One of my favorite parts was an area by the children’s playground where there were all sorts of things like tee-pees and lean-tos for the kids to play in. It reminded me of “wald-schools” (forest kindergartens) and I could definitely see myself taking my kids to play there! I really would have liked to spend the whole day there with a picnic lunch but we had some other things to see. We went back to the Albert Cuyp market because Madeline wanted a sweatshirt and I’m really glad that we did! While I she was looking at things I noticed the coolest café ever. It’s called Trust and it’s got a bit of a hippie vibe to it but it’s a “pay what you feel” restaurant. I had to go in and check it out. It was super inspiring to read about them and the atmosphere was great. The menu was also amazing and I ended up getting a broodje (typical Dutch sandwich, usually open-faced) to go (Madeline wanted something with meat on it). It was called the “Renaissance Broodje” and had grilled aubergine with pesto, hummus, and baby greens. Fantastic. Our last stop before leaving was the Portuguese synagogue. We walked through a really cool neighborhood to get there. There was a “Kilo shop” for vintage clothes (pay by weight) and I totally would have stopped there if I had any more room in my suitcase. I didn’t go in the synagogue because I didn’t want to pay so I sat in the courtyard and journaled while Madeline looked around. Afterwards we headed to the train station.

We had noted that the gates to the trains were always open at the station (you didn’t need to use a card) and that at the airport there were no gates, so we decided not to buy train tickets. A somewhat risky decision but I had my list of back-up excuses. After feeling like a criminal every time one of the train personnel walked by, we got off at the airport with no problems.  I bought my “Holland” sticker for my suitcase, I was not about to buy an Amsterdam one with marijuana on it, and despite a slight delay we were back in Sevilla before we knew it. Note: there were a ton of Spanish speaking people in Amsterdam.

Final Thoughts: My experience in Amsterdam wasn’t the crazy party one that most people have or tend to think of but I’m really happy with how it turned out. I don’t think I would stay with the same person if I went back and there were a couple of things I missed out on that I’d like to do. I loved the historical parts of the city and the amazing variety of ethnic foods that they had, especially Middle Eastern.  Based on the people I talked to, the Dutch are both very nice and very beautiful.  I’m not sure if I could live there, but I think if I was a bit farther from the center I’d be okay. [Note: I’ve discovered that my travels are basically a big search for the answer to “where are you going to live when you grow up?”] One of the things I struggle with while traveling with other people is getting frustrated very easily because when you travel with someone you spend a lot of time with them. Luckily Madeline and I are pretty similar so that wasn’t really a problem. All and all it was a good trip and I think it would be cool to get back to the Netherlands in the spring when the country is in full bloom. I am very excited for my next couple of trips though because I’m meeting up with people I know from home. This is nice because 1. Familiar faces and 2. I’m very slow to trust people when it comes to going out and drinking so my “salida por la noche” experiences have been pretty minimal up to now.
Anyways, I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about Amsterdam!

That’s all for now, my 3 day week is already almost 2/3 over and I have so much to do!

Talk to y’all soon!



  1. That was some trip, I love that you are experiencing different cultures, also I am glad that you disliked the Red-light district. You pictures were the best this time. I love the river and that you used a bike to get around.
    Love and miss you.

  2. Sounds like you had a very interesting trip. It great to read about your experiences, it's almost like i'm there sometimes. Take lots of pics. Enjoy your travels.