Somehow, we managed to get to Amsterdam. We encountered a few rough spots on the transatlantic trip–crowds, long lines, security, heat, noise, cramped spaces, no good sleep, hurry up and wait, etc.–but we made it. We flew from Tallahassee, spent two nights in Portmarnock, near Dublin (in the place we will be returning to for four weeks in January), and then flew on to Amsterdam. We arrived here on Saturday July 26. As I write this we’ve been here over a week, with almost three more before we take a train to France, our next stop.
Click on any of the images to see it larger, and then use your back button to return to the text. These and more images can be found in the gallery, on the left.
Linguistic Soft Landing In Europe
We flew to Dublin first, since we will be returning to the USA from there, and the round trip plane tickets were cheaper to and from the same city. We rested there for a couple of nights. It was great to be in a place where everyone speaks English, and even better that they engage so readily with Americans. Everyone we met in Ireland seems genuinely to like Americans. This always seems like something of a miracle, given the way some Americans behave overseas and how our country is sometimes perceived in the world. We’ll be writing more about Ireland during our three months there.
Amsterdam is language-friendly too. While of course Dutch is heard and read most of the time, nearly everyone seems able and willing to speak English too. Receiving directions and information in English has been invaluable.
Settling In To Amsterdam
It hasn’t taken long to get somewhat comfortable here. We’ve set up housekeeping in a very nicely appointed, artistically decorated apartment, obtained through AirBnB. Amrita Van Veldhoven, a massage and rebalancing therapist, lives here most of the year. She has created a Zen oasis in the Westerpark area of this very busy city. Her creative use of space makes daily living easy. Everything is available and close at hand in this one-bedroom, two-story flat. We have our own little enclosed garden terrace just outside the ground-floor entrance. Amrita is a lovely, charming person. It has been a pleasure to get to know her a little.
We’ve found grocery stores with good prices and a fairly good selection. We’ve bought and cooked almost all our food ourselves. This is important because there is no way we could afford this trip otherwise. We’ve stuck to our $50-a-day budget (for everything in Amsterdam except lodging). Other than some take-out and some airport food, we’ve “eaten out” only twice so far this whole trip. A couple days ago we went to the city center to get a Holland Pass for museums and sightseeing. We explored the area and had a glass of wine and a snack at a sidewalk cafe. Last night we had coffee and delicious, savory crepes in the famous Red Light District. Both times the bill was about $25 for the two of us. Since we will be here for several weeks we will continue to choose cafes or restaurants carefully and to visit them sparingly.
Getting Around Amsterdam
Our apartment has excellent public transportation links handy. The #10 Tram, which crosses the entire city, and the #21 Bus to Central Station both stop on our block. They are easy to ride. Riders use a Chipkaart, a transit card that is prepaid, loaded with euros at Central Station (or at kiosks if you have a “chip and pin” credit card). You just swipe the transit card as you get on and off the tram or bus, and your card is debited per kilometer. Stops are announced well, but it really helps to have a map with you as you ride. Names of streets are long and complicated and the pronunciations can be hard to understand.
We’ve walked the Westerpark area a lot, seeking out groceries, drugstores, hardware stores, etc., and so we are getting familiar with it. The many canals and parks in this area make for very pleasant walking, as long as you stay out of the bike lanes. Bicyclists expect pedestrians to stay out of their way in bike lanes, and they ride fairly fast. It’s easy to wander into a bike lane and then get startled by a bell as a rider barely misses you. Sometimes the only way to walk on narrow pedestrian sidewalks is to walk single file, while the bike lanes allow enough space for bikers going in both directions. This is understandable in a city with a population of roughly 800,000 and 500,000 cyclists.
Amsterdam is for the most part delightfully old and quaint, with cutting edge modern sprinkled throughout. It is easy to take a few steps away from the tourist-crowded areas and walk along quiet streets. The unique architectural details on many of the old buildings are interesting and beautiful. Canals lace the city, so one is never very far from water, with its lovely reflections and funky old boats. Live-aboard boats of every imaginable shape and vintage line the canals. Many are colorfully painted or whimsically decorated.
When asked, or when we have the opportunity to interact, people in Amsterdam are friendly and helpful, but they do not seem so forward with their friendship. As in most cities, rarely will someone say hello on the street, or initiate a conversation to be friendly. We hope to meet some local musicians at open mic sessions this week.
We were quite taken with the monument at the center of Dam Square. The images are stark–a crucified man surrounded by three other naked men in chains. On either side, this scene is flanked by a single naked man and a baying dog. Above them all on a pedestal, soars a woman holding a baby and surrounded by birds. We puzzled over what it could mean. It certainly was unlike any crucifixion sculpture we’d ever seen…. Where were the Marys? And who were those chained men? It turns out this is a national monument commemorating the Dutch people’s suffering under the Nazis and their ultimate liberation after World War II. The central relief, the crucifixion, is entitled De Vrede (or in English, Peace). The men on either side represent the Dutch resistance; the dogs represent loyalty and suffering. It’s interesting how the Dutch chose to represent these ideas in a monumental sculpture. So unlike anything in the States.
Sarah and I went out to De Wallen, the famous Red Light District. It was crowded on the Friday night we went. It felt a lot like New Orleans’ Bourbon Street on a weekend night, only with more porn shops, sex shows, adult movies, and sex toys for sale. And of course, the ladies in the windows. In full-length glass window/doors at street level or on the first floor, scantily clad prostitutes beckon passersby. Some wear bikinis, others g-strings with pasties, still others a sheer body thong that covers only nipples and crotch. Some wore leather, others were clearly going for the sexy librarian look. Hardly a porn type was lacking. The women were mostly young and attractive, as you might expect, and with too much silicone, as you also might expect. Frequently the women’s hair and makeup was so artificial, they looked like mannequins. Most stood under black lights, making them appear exceptionally tan. A few not-so-young looking but very attractive women were also peddling their beautiful natural bodies.
Methods of beckoning varied. Some women were coy and subtle, moving only slightly and making eye contact. Others, more assertive, would knock loudly on the window to get your attention, or even open it to try to talk you into coming inside. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a few talked on the phone or turned away from the window altogether attending to whatever other business prostitutes have during working hours. Windows that are empty, but still lit-up, suggest that the occupant is with a customer.
Among the various sex offerings were regular cafes, coffeeshops, and “Drink & Smoke” bars, where you can order a beer or cocktail, and light up whatever you please. Strangely, amidst this free-for-all, some of these establishments forbid smoking tobacco.
These Amsterdammers sure seem to enjoy their coffee. There must be a coffeeshop on every corner. We’ve tried a few of them, such as Coffeeshop Freedom, which is located just around the corner from our apartment. And the coffee’s great too!
I’ve been taking photographs almost daily. The canals with their funky old houseboats are a natural subject for me. Houseboats come in all colors, and are often whimsically decorated. The water adds shimmering reflections and softens everything. I keep my eye out for any odd detail. I also try to get classic shots of famous landmarks or archetypal scenes.
Houseboat and Car
I’ve bought a guitar. Having one is certainly an extravagance, but one I planned for. The plan was to buy a cheap old beater in a pawn shop. But it turns out that used instruments are hard to find here. I bought an inexpensive Cort acoustic. I wanted something cheap because in about five weeks we fly again. We have five flights planned for the middle two months of the trip. It would cost about $75 each time to check it on flights, and gorillas handle the bags. So I saved the box the guitar came in and I may decide to ship it to avoid air travel with it. If shipping turns into a huge hassle, I may have to sell it back to the store (for maybe a quarter of what I paid.) Or give it away.
But meanwhile I have a guitar to play for the next five weeks. Playing music opens doors to making friends. It has already done so with our neighbor, Frans, and his family. Our host, Amrita, had mentioned to Frans that I was shopping for a guitar. Frans offered to help me find one. He knows the music stores. He aired up his spare bike, adjusted the seat for me, and off we went guitar shopping. Riding a bicycle is no small challenge in busy Amsterdam. Bikes often have their own lanes–and signals and rules–but you share the lanes with faster bikes and even some motorized scooters. All this while you watch for pedestrians who forget that they aren’t supposed to be in the bike lane. The lanes zip in and out among cars and buses and tram tracks. Not for the faint of heart! But it was sure fun. The next day I went back to the store on the tram and brought the guitar home that way. I hope music will open more doors for us here. I plan to sing my songs at Amsterdam open mics, where original songs are expected. And whenever I play on a porch or terrace, I hope it will cause someone to stop and chat, someone who, but for the music, might not have stopped.
Is It Unfolding As We Planned?
So many things have to happen right to get around internationally. Because we want to be as independent as possible over here, we must attend to a thousand details. We’ve tried to find the best travel wisdom and to follow it, but we are learning a lot as we go. I will go back and cover more about planning in a later post, but for now I can say we got most of it right. We’re here, and we’re living as well as we possibly could have hoped for. We already wish we had packed a little differently. We will be leaving some heavy and/or bulky things behind when we leave Amsterdam. Bags get heavy when schlepping them around. Airlines charge for checked bags by weight. (For our six-month stay, we needed two checked bags in addition to our carry-ons and “personal items.”) But now, some things we thought essential seem superfluous or extravagant. When we pack to leave I’ll report on what we ditch. Next week we will visit some of Amsterdam’s incredible museums. We feel blessed to be here, to have pulled off this ambitious plan (so far), and to have reason to expect we can continue.