My embarrassing superpower is rattling off random and pointless inspirational quotes I’ve picked up from my Pinterest surfings while riding the lightrail to and from campus. Since I was a kid I’ve always loved inspirational quotes; the invention of Pinterest has only fueled this unhealthy use of brain cells.
One such quote is as follows: “What screws us up most in life is the picture in our heads of how it’s supposed to be.”
I could mimic this saying with the simple substitution, “What screws us up most while traveling is the picture in our heads of how it’s supposed to go.”
Because travel never goes as planned.
Not even in 2014, with the aid of tools like Google Maps, online ticket purchases, and extensive planning over the last month.
We woke up Tuesday morning knowing that we had to do the following:
- Walk from our AirBnB through a neighborhood still showing clear signs of the recent (and very close) Pro-Palestinian riots to Gare du Nord, one of Paris’s main train stations;
- buy overly expensive tickets to one of the airport terminals at Charles de Gaulle (which one? we had no clue);
- check into a flight with non-European-sized baggage (what is it with European efficiency?);
- make it through a security line without any knowledge of non-TSA flight regulations; and
- figure out the line-up and boarding process for European flights.
And as the unpredictable nature of travel would have it, something went wrong at every step of the way -- including:
- Broken entrances to our needed train area and trying to find a roundabout way solely from French directions;
- not having enough Euro coins to pay for two one-way train tickets to the airport (who outside of a nonexistent Parisian casino has 20€s worth of coins?);
- having to wait awkwardly around for a Frenchman to accept our cash and use his/her chip-graced credit card because of American Magnetic Strip Discrimination (let's call this AMSD)...but alas, this Frenchman never came;
making a 50/50 decision on which far-spread stop to disembark when arriving at Charles de Gaulle because we sure as hell didn’t know what was going on or where to go;
- finding out that trying to carry an American-recognized “carry-on” onto a European flight is like trying to sneak an elephant into a dog shelter;
- realizing too late that the French don’t like it when you push, shove, and sit on your backpack to make it fit in the briefcase-sized carry-on restrictions, gesture with a grandiose sense of success, and declare that it does in fact fit;
- getting snapped at multiple times for blundering through security; and
- waiting around for an announcement of the boarding process and ending up last in line for a major AirFrance flight.
If you’ve seen Argo with Ben Affleck, you might remember the emotional scene where, after 90 minutes worth of planning and strategizing to get onto an America-bound plane, the characters finally succeed. There are hugs, tears, ear-to-ear smiles…all of the things I would have shown when we finally boarded our flight, had I not realized early on that I’m far too expressive for the Europeans as it is.
When we arrived in Amsterdam, even the airport felt more welcoming. The people smiled, they greeted, they welcomed, they offered assistance.
They even had a Starbucks.
Forget American expressiveness; I thought Ryan was going to cry from ecstasy.
We hopped on a quick train to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, buckled our bags around our waists and chests, and headed out into the humid sunshine outside.
Extensive research suggests that redheads are not only missing a gene that results in their fair complexions and ginger-hued hair: they are also missing (or perhaps have) a gene that dictates pain threshold. We’re more sensitive to heat, but require 25% more alcohol and/or substances compared with non-ginger equivalents. We also register pain in a stunted manner.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t complain when we’re uncomfortable.
And when you’re carrying a 30-pound large backpack and 10-pound smaller backpack, your feet are throbbing and making clicking sounds with every footfall, you’re thirsty and hungry and smelly and gross and don’t know where you are, and the 91% humidity reminds you that you’ve adapted to desert climates -- whether redheaded or not, you need a babysitter.
I griped, grumbled, and groaned our way through several blocks of Amsterdam’s most touristy streets, until we finally turned into a narrow (and thankfully shaded) alley to avoid the crowds and direct sunlight.
And glory be, we found some luggage lockers just waiting to be put to use by a pair of grumpy, complaining Americans.
And just as Reims transformed into a completely different city when armed with a map and sunny skies, so too did Amsterdam transform as we made our way down the alleys, maps in hand.
Earlier I mentioned the Paris Museum Pass, which saved us quite a bit of money on admissions around the city, as well as time that would otherwise have been spent in line.
The I Amsterdam card was our first purchase in The Netherlands. It not only afforded us unlimited admissions into any (with the exception of the Anne Frank House) museum in Amsterdam, but also free public transportation, a free canal cruise, and dozens of 25% off deals and free gifts from participating restaurants and organizations. (Read: We now have Amsterdam house-shaped metal tins filled with Dutch sweets and four Heineken glasses, and that’s not even the tip of the iceberg.)
So after sitting outside at The Five Bells pub while planning our five-day stay and enjoying the breeze that played off the nearby canals, we set off for the IJ -- a waterway that runs along the north of the city and provides access to many of its hundreds of canals.
The cruise was a perfect way to orient ourselves to the city as we wound under arched bridges; sailed past serene cobbled streets filled with bicycles and thin, spindly trees; and looked up at the five-story buildings sandwiched between one another, stemming from as early as the 1500s. We admired the architectural juxtaposition of medieval cathedrals against the NEMO Science Museum’s far-reaching copper exterior, and marveled at the sheer history of the city around us, which was established in 1306 but occupied much earlier still.
The rest of the day was spent wandering, which in all seriousness is my favorite way to travel. Each street is so closely bordered by a canal on one side and a series of towering homes on the other that it’s easy to get lost: there is no Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, or Sacré Cœur on the horizon to point you in the right direction.
And so when we emerged onto a large square bordered by the Royal Palace on one side and De Nieuwe Kerk (The New Church…because 1408 is, after all, quite new) on another, as well as a WWII national monument, two upscale shopping centers not unlike Galleries Lafayette, and -- just because it’s Amsterdam -- Madame Tussaud’s wax museum.
This was Dam Square, first mentioned in records in 1270, and as roll-your-eyes funny as the name might sound (indeed, the shops lining the square have played along, such as Dam Good Ice), its history is quite solemn. It has seen much destruction, fire, and murder in the past, the most recent of which occurred two days after the German surrender in 1945, when German soldiers began firing machine guns into the cheering crowds from a balcony above.
But although its history does include much solemnity from the German occupation during WWII, Amsterdam is rarely known for its history. So I’ll go ahead and answer two questions now that I’ve been getting from friends since I arrived:
Yes, certain substances are legal here, and yes, some streets reek of it. We learned very quickly which streets to avoid. All too often I’ve headed toward a coffeeshop before remembering that the last thing an Amsterdam coffeeshop would sell is coffee.
And second, yes, there is a Red Light District. It’s overrated, tourist-ridden, and filled with equal parts men and women, all of whom are quite nonplussed as they make their way through the streets. Would I want to bring a small child down those streets? Probably not, unless I was willing to answer a few questions that would probably deserve accurate answers.
Sure, these two factors draw unwanted tourists just as Vegas, N’awlins, and Colorado might. But the Amsterdam we’ve come to know over these past five days is so, so much more.
We had a first taste of this fact that evening, when we picked up two small pies with gravy and mash from a Bristol-based restaurant and carried our goods to the edge of an adjacent canal. We sat on the worn stones, legs dangling toward the water, and watched ducks circle hopefully beneath us as boats passed by. There were friendly waves and welcoming smiles, and with one turn of the head we could take in the view of the arched, bike-laden bridge to our left and the rows of slanted brick homes as far as we could see to our right. The sun was setting somewhere beyond the many rows of buildings, and we watched as the sliver of light trailed its way up the many floors of distant homes before vanishing into the evening sky.
Because Yan, our AirBnB host, wouldn’t arrive until midnight, we killed some time that evening by strolling down Prinsengracht, regarded as one of the most beautiful streets of Amsterdam. Not only does Prinsengracht house Anne Frank’s hiding place, but it’s also the dividing line between Amsterdam’s city centre (Centruum) and Jordaan, one of Amsterdam’s “most romantic” neighborhoods with its quaint streets, sunny corners, sidewalk cafés, and leafy trees. And luckily for us, our AirBnB was located right on Prinsengracht, overlooking a lovely stretch of canal three stories below.
Several blocks north, we found Café P 96 (Prinsengracht 96), which quickly became our favorite haunt: It boasted an almost Scottish pub feel, fun and laid-back people, unbelievably low prices, and the city’s only boatside terrace.
Our AirBnB is just astounding. A lovely, old building with a CD/record shop on the first floor and only one resident per floor above, it sits in a quaint, serene part of the city. Lazy guitar chords and airy runs on a flute drift out of the houseboat (one out of more than 2,500 in the city) that sits out front. And the apartment itself is large, with creaking hardwood floors, great interior decoration, large windows to let in the sunlight, and a great sense of character.
My next two posts will be about Amsterdam -- our shenanigans, our explorations, our love for this place, my adoration of traditional Dutch food (who would’ve known?), and our day trip to the medieval town of Haarlem. We've very much enjoyed our time in Mokum ("Safe Haven" and nickname of this city), our Venice of the North.