Postcards from Amsterdam

May 15, 2016

It's funny how you end up meeting people in the most unlikely places

As we departed Iceland, I thought about all the things that I left behind. No, I'm not talking about footprints in the sand (or in this case, snow). I literally left behind stuff in Iceland.

  • A brand new scarf that took me half an hour to pick because I wanted to make sure it was the right color. Shopping is not my best skill. I could spend an entire day and I would end up with one item.
  • A glove that maybe fell out of my coat's pocket while we were walking around town, leaving me with one lonely glove. I couldn't just throw it away though so now it lives in my closet. Forever alone.

Destination #2: Amsterdam

It was December 21st and we arrived in the city of Amsterdam after four hours in the air. The airport is an expansive labyrinth of unhelpful signs and cryptic instructions.

The lady at the information booth told us we can get train tickets from a machine down the escalator but when we reached the machine, it spoke a different language and it refused to accept our credit cards.

We patiently queued in a nearby information booth and the guy told us to go to another line that took almost forever before we were told that we were in the wrong line. In the end, it finally worked out and we got our train tickets to the city.

We arrived at the Amsterdam Centraal Train Station which was bustling with people scrambling to catch their next train. After navigating through what seemed like a tsunami of backpackers and locals, we finally stepped out of the station.

Grand Centraal Station

Outside, I was amazed to see the exterior of the central station. The design is exactly how I imagined Amsterdam buildings would look like — bright, sturdy, and timeless. We took a moment to appreciate the man-made structure and wondered how long it had been standing there.

Amsterdam view
Woman with a red bag in Amsterdam

We hopped on another smaller train that took us to where our hotel was supposed to be. I looked at my phone, familiarizing myself with the picture of the building. It looked like any other building on the block so we took our chances and went inside one of the hotels close to us.

There was an old man on the counter who looked up at us without saying a word. I asked him whether this was the Hotel Plantage and immediately his facial expression changed to a scowl, followed by an infuriated "No! can't you read the sign?!" statement. I stepped out without even apologizing. Jeez. How rude. I hoped we don't interact with people like him for the rest of our stay in this city.

Our hotel looked like a small apartment building with compact rooms for short-term travellers. The bathroom was the size comparable to a boat cabin's bathroom. The place looked kind of old and worn out with a small, pretentious chandelier hanging above the bed. A huge window gave the room ample light but keeping it open meant having audiences outside witnessing our private matters. So we kept the curtains closed and the chandelier on. Fancy.

It wasn't so bad for the price we paid. We were backpacking after all and wanted to spend our hard-earned money on cultural experiences instead of luxury hotels.

What I knew about Amsterdam

These are things I knew about Amsterdam from the movies and books:

  1. Marijuana is legal. Space cakes!
  2. Prostitution is legal.
  3. Canals
  4. Bikes. Lots and lots of bikes.

Too many, in fact, that we almost got hit twice! They move so fast that you don't realize they're behind you until the biker starts making these strange grunting sounds. No, no words. Just grunting.

For instance, Jeremie stepped onto the wrong lane once and this man made a "Huuuuuu" sound behind us. He was able to divert his bike from us in a split second. Sometimes the pedestrian lane and the bike lane were divided only by a line making it so confusing to someone who isn't familiar with them. One wrong move could send you flying.

The other time we almost got hit was when we were walking down a narrow (seemingly pedestrian only) alley and we turned to a corner only to hear a "Pssshhhhttt pssssssssshhhtttttttt" behind me. I turned around and luckily my reflexes were working that day, I was able to jump to the side and avoid a freak accident! Did I mention their average cycling speed is about 25-30 km/hr?

Amsterdam biker
Amsterdam biker
Amsterdam biker
Amsterdam biker

It was still fascinating to watch the bikes though. Standing in a corner, we'd see people cycle by with one hand or other times no hands at all because they were on their phones. We'd see moms or dads with a modified bicycle that had an improvised wheel barrow (for the lack of a better term) in front of it and a toddler or infant enjoying the ride.

As we walked down the road to the city center, we came across a man and a huge dog walking towards us. I kept my eyes on the dog but remembered I wasn't supposed to to avoid provoking it. They got closer and suddenly the dog leaped towards me and I instinctively shut my eyes tight fearing the worst. When I felt nothing, I slowly opened my eyes and realized, there was a knee-high, stone wall just beside me and the dog simply wanted his human to stroke his back. I looked at the man and saw him laugh and then wink at me as if saying "Don't worry, he's harmless". That was embarassing.

Amsterdam bicycles
Amsterdam cafe
Amsterdam cafe
Amsterdam Christmas Tree

Anne Frank museum

It was raining the entire day but that night, it turned into a torrentuous rain. Since we had nothing else planned, we had to wait for our 6:45 PM schedule to get into the Anne Frank museum. Security was very strict about not letting people in until their scheduled time.

People who had no reservations lined up around the block, cold and wet. We managed to find a small, secret corner that had enough protection from the water. A couple of guys joined us and introduced themselves. They were both students visiting from Zurich and were originally from India. We learned that they were studying data science (a course that I had just recently learned about) and were there for a quick vacation. They asked about our trip intrigued by our stories from Iceland. It's funny how you end up meeting people in the most unlikely places and in the most uncomfortable situation yet still get into interesting conversations. They soon left when their friend picked them up in a car and we were back to waiting and exchanging jokes to pass time.

The museum was the actual house where Anne Frank's family and four other people went into hiding during World War II. It was a good-sized house with lots of hidden rooms. Each room had a story, and the deeper you went, the more tragic it became. The staircases creaked when you stepped on them and I tried to imagine what they were going through at that time. One of the rooms had windows that were completely blacked out for fear that someone might see them inside. Anne's room had magazine cut-outs pasted on her wall like any normal teenager. I got teary eyed when we reached the last room of the building.

Amsterdam bus
Amsterdam woman in alley

Looking for that euphoric feeling

I've always wanted to try the space brownies. I've read that people have different results when they consume it. Some would feel euphoric while others would just feel like time is moving too fast and others would feel nothing at all. I am not against using it, after all it has its medical benefits for people who are really sick and it's supposed to calm your nerves. As long as you are in a stable state in your life, I don't see why it would cause any harm.

Some might argue that it's a gateway drug that could lead you to addiction but studies by psychologist Bruce K. Alexander show that addiction happens depending on the environment you are in. His test shows how rats are only likely to get addicted to substances when they are placed in a "bad" or "unhappy" environment.

Armed with this knowledge, and the brief assessment of my current state of mind, I was ready to try out the space cakes. I told myself, I wouldn't overdo it unlike the first time I was introduced to alcohol. By "overdo" I'm talking about drinking an entire glass of beer, which to other humans might be harmless, but to my body was just too much.

Anyway, Jeremie wanted to try it out too but after discussing our situation, we ended up not getting brownies. We had to leave early in the afternoon the next day and we didn't want to miss our train. Also, it's illegal in Germany (our next destination).

Darn it. I was still craving brownies so we stopped by a bakery and bought this ordinary cookie. Suffice to say, we stayed sober that night. I still enjoyed the unspiked cookie though.

Cookie
Amsterdam food shops

Red lights and coffee shops

One thing I noticed about the streets of Amsterdam is that there seems to be an pattern of alternating coffee shops and these calorie-infested, carbo-loaded shops that display mouth-watering food on their windows as though merely showing the latest handbags from a famous designer. They must be doing well. If you see what I mean.

And there's also the occasional sex shop where you can find strange "toys" and giant-sized genitalia exhibited on their windows. Ah, yes. Amsterdam is such a fascinating place.

Anyway, so no space cakes. Next on the list: the Redlight district. I've read somewhere that you aren't allowed to take pictures of the women in the area. If you try to, a huge, intimidating man will come out to harass you. I don't know how true that is though, I never tried to raise my camera. I'm afraid of being confronted by big men screaming profanities in my face. Although, come to think of it, I'm curious to see how Dutch people curse.

Women dance around inside aquariums while bright red lights cast down over their faces. When you manage to make eye contact with them, they'd ask "You want to try?"

I smile and politely say "Sorry, but thanks anyway!" as I move to the next lady who does the same. They are pretty and they don't look like they are abused in anyway so I don't feel sorry for them. In fact, I think they are doing quite well.

Up ahead, I hear cheering and clapping in one of the buildings and see a group of people lining up in a theatre. I read the large neon sign and it says "Live Sex Show". Ok.

Amsterdam streets
Amsterdam streets

Alleys and Corners

A few years ago, I was the type of person who obsessed about itineraries and made sure we followed everything on it. Lately though, I'm more relaxed or probably just lazy when it comes to doing that. In Amsterdam, we didn't have a solid itinerary. We simply walked around the narrow streets, passed by the canals, and watched people do whatever they were doing until we grew tired of it. Sometimes an idea would cross our mind and we'd do it if it was feasible. Amsterdam has that feeling of making you just want to drop everything and just take a walk — a long pleasant walk.

Amsterdam streets
Amsterdam streets
Amsterdam streets
Amsterdam architecture
Amsterdam architecture
Amsterdam streets

The next morning, we took an Uber and tried out this coffee place called De Wasserette. We had a pleasant chat with the driver who told us he migrated to Amsterdam just a few years ago. He was Middle Eastern though I could not remember which country he was from (I have the worst memory when it comes to details) and he told us he had to move because of the war but he was adjusting perfectly in this new city. Just a year after moving, he was already fluent with the local language and had graduated and gotten a job. He was happy, he says. And you can hear it in his voice.

Amsterdam coffee shop
Avocado toast
Amsterdam cafe
Amsterdam market
Amsterdam market

A small farmers market was less than a kilometer from us. People started setting up their stalls and displaying fresh vegetables and mouth-watering selections of cheese. Boxes of produce were stacked on one side, and the sound of people conversing filled the air. We were on our way to our last stops before leaving for Berlin. Soon it would be time to leave yet we haven't seen many parts of the city. We told ourselves we would be back in this beautiful city.

Amsterdam kids in shop
Amsterdam museum

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