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April 21, 2011

Amsterdam in a Bigger Nutshell

Amsterdam is beautiful, hilarious, delicious, bike-friendly and seedy. And I stand by my original assessment that Amsterdam is weird. Good-weird.

Amsterdam is beautiful 

We got into the city at about 8 a.m. on Sunday after an outrageously uncomfortable seven-hour night bus from Paris, a one-hour layover in the Amstel station where everything was cold and closed, and a 30-minute unsuccessful bathroom search in the Centraal station (everything was locked). I was predisposed to be very unhappy on my first day there.

But I was immediately charmed by the city's beauty. We had the streets practically to ourselves as we made our way to the Anne Frank House, surrounded by the blooming trees, placid canals and houses with gabled roofs. I hadn't realized just how much water there is in Amsterdam. The canals run in concentric circles around the city, the Amstel River runs through it, and the North Sea Canal borders it.

Amsterdam is hilarious

Dutch is the funniest language I have ever encountered. As the Dude noted, it sounds like German spoken with a Scottish accent. I knew from having a couple of Dutch students in France that Netherlanders had a facility for picking up other languages virtually accent-free, but it was still alarming to eavesdrop on a conversation and hear a phrase like, "One million dollars" thrown in there as if speaker was an American. (A Frenchy might do the same, but they'd pronounce it "meel-yohn do-lairz.")

Nearly everyone we met spoke perfect English. I asked our host Lucas if they learn it in school here, and he said they might in college, but it wasn't required in high school. The reason everyone speaks it so perfectly, he said, was because the majority of their TV comes from America... and none of it is dubbed. I was surprised when I started teaching in France that the students had had such a hard time with my American accent; I'd figured that enough of our culture had been exported to make the way I speak the norm. But it's actually kind of rare in France to find a program in V.O. (version originale), which is a topic for a future post.

Amsterdam is delicious

My guidebook told me I had to get a herring sandwich with pickles and raw onions. So I did. I couldn't look at it while I ate it because the fish was so durn slimy, but I made it through the whole thing. Pas mal.

Amsterdam is bike-friendly

Everyone, and I mean everyone, rides a bike in Amsterdam.  And I didn't see a single person wearing a helmet. There were dedicated bike lanes next to the sidewalk that I kept wandering into, and then I would get dinged at by a biker. Sorry bikers!

I personally don't choose a two-wheeled vehicle as my steed, but I thought about how much my buddies back home (like you, Anna!) would geek out about this city's bikeliciousness. 

Fun fact: Approximately three milliseconds after I snapped this, the women in the center of this picture collided. If you zoom in on the pink shirt woman's face, it looks like she's having the time of her life. The woman in the white shirt was definitely not as pleased afterward.

Amsterdam is seedy

When we started wandering the streets of Amsterdam on Sunday we were immediately hit with the unmistakable stench of marijuana. The smell was ever-y-where. We also had to step over puddles of vomit and broken beer bottles. It's clear that tourists from all over the world, attracted by the marijuana and prostitution tolerance, come to take a big ol' dump on the city.

We went through the Red Light District a few different times to gawk at the ladies in the window. Most of them looked incredibly bored, smoking cigarettes and playing on their cell phones, nonplussed at all the tourists staring at them. I know that prostitutes in Amsterdam are a lot better off than in other places in the world-- because prostitution is legal, they can go to police without fear when shiz goes down, and the laws regulating them enforce strict hygiene standards-- but the whole thing just made me depressed. Then one of them made eyes at the Dude and I dragged him outta there immediately.

Final thoughts

I really liked Amsterdam. Unlike Paris and Rome, it had a more casual feel, so I wasn't embarrassed by how devastatingly uncool I am. The people were also incredibly friendly; everyone we approached for help responded kindly, and people even approached us to offer advice when it looked like we were struggling.

Of all the European cities I've visited thus far, Amsterdam is one of the few places I could see myself living long-term... though I'd want to stay far, far away from the touristy areas.

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