August 2, 2012

Eurotrip - Amsterdam, August 2

It's our last day in Europe! We leave for the airport pretty early tomorrow so this is essentially our last opportunity to eat European meals outside, check out famous artwork, etc etc. You know how people say that their vacations have just "flown by"? This vacation has felt pretty long. Of course I had an incredible time, but with all of our travels, in so many cities, over a pretty long period of time, it has felt exactly as long as we've been here.

We woke up to a very rainy, very stormy Amsterdam. Once the heavy rain stopped though it became quite peaceful outside. The crowds didn't really start to come out until around noon, and the streets were beautiful with a light watery sheen. I love how cities feel when they're light on activity, it's like the city has a chance to exhale and recover itself. Because Amsterdam is so frenetic with all the traffic, and the attitude of its residents and visitors, seeing the city take a break was a welcome relief.

This city is much more high energy than the last couple of places we've been. Even Paris didn't have the feeling of pent up, explosive energy. Dijon was sleepy, and Zurich, Munich, and Brussels all had a very laissez-faire attitude. Amsterdam on the other hand kind of punches you in the gut and then asks you to run a few laps. It's unrelenting. So to wake up, and see the rain washing off the roof and into the canals, was a real gulp of air.

We took a canal boat tour this morning with a gruff captain and a bunch of other tourists. We've tried to avoid these kinds of tourist things, but also haven't been on a boat yet. Nor have we been on a tour, so this was a fun thing to do. The boats are covered, so rain wasn't an issue, although it did obscure the views a little bit. It was fun to see some more of the city, and everything looks a bit different when seen from below.

We also got to see a lot of houseboats on the canals, which some people live on rather than finding apartments. Living in a houseboat in Amsterdam seems like it would be fun for about two days and then I'd be done.

We also saw a giant church, and the smallest house in Amsterdam, which is only one window wide, equating to maybe 7 feet across.

After the boat tour we just wandered around some more and ate lunch. It's going to be a pretty uneventful and lazy last day I think. And that's okay with me.

Just came back from a day out in Europe for the last time. It feels weird and strangely anticlimactic to be ending this trip, but short of some sort of ritualistic ceremony I don't see any other way it could end. We had our best meal of the trip at an Italian restaurant right on the edge of a strip of gay bars. Amsterdam pride festival runs all throughout this week ending tomorrow, so there have been flags and banners everywhere for it. Overall though, there hasn't been a lot in terms of events, at least out in the open.

We re-visited our "getting tired of the city" strategy from just about every place we've gone to this afternoon and went to a park to relax and do some reading. The park, called the "vondlpark" (I think that was the name....) was the antithesis of the park we visited in Munich, with its superbly preened and sculpted English gardens. By contrast, this park was layed out chaotically and naturally so as to make the visitor feel lost, and provide some real respite from the speed of the city. The paths are circuitous, the gardens sort of ugly, and the ponds are scattered. Basically it felt perfect.

This park apparently used to be an open sex park, meaning that people could have sex in the open, as long as it wasn't by the playground. Patrons engaging in this activity were encouraged to do so at night though. The police announced that they would still arrest people having sex in public though, effectively ending this practice. Thus, we didn't fall witness to any sex in the park, although we did see a lot of water fowl.

Did you know that in the old days hunting and birding (hunting birds) were considered euphamisms for sex, and that paintings with guys offering dead animals to women were actually sexually suggestive? Now you know, from the Rijkstadt to you, via me.

We ended up finding a big cafe in the park and read there for an hour or so. It was a somewhat chilly day after this morning's rains so we picked a nice sunny spot, ordered drinks, and took our time before dinner.

After crushing our way through the crowds outside a couple of bars, we found this Italian place, and like all but a few of our meals here, ate outside. I'm going to miss eating at tables on sidewalks when I go back home. Beside breakfast, we ate nearly every meal of this trip outside, from my first lunch in Paris nearly 2 weeks ago, all the way up to today. Eating this way keeps you feeling like you're interacting with the city while you eat. I'm fact I don't remember the names of any of the places we ate because the locations mattered so much more.

After dinner we took one more walk through the red light district. It still weirds me out that there are people you can pay to have sex with you standing four feet away, but the area really doesn't feel that seedy. I think part of the reason it's so popular, even with people who don't partake in its most notorious offerings is that it gives you the opportunity to be immersed in this world without actually participating. It's like a Disneyworld of the sex and drug industries. I like that the environment mingles the guilty participants, the curious bystanders, and the reluctant voyeurs all together and let's them sort out their own place in the mix. It also sports the greatest cross-section of people you can find here. I saw families, party boys, business people passing through, and couples of every type and every age. Although the red light district may be more tame than I expected, I found it fascinating and won't soon forget it. I'm just glad we didn't have to sleep there.

I'm looking forward to getting home tomorrow, seeing my parents and girlfriend, and settling into my own bed. Since I left for Europe right after E3 this year, I've been on the move basically non-stop since mid July. I wonder if it will be nice or difficult to settle back into my normal schedule again? I know it could be hard to go back to teaching, but I'll settle in again. This trip has actually been a really intense version of what my work life is like anyway. I know where I'm going and when, but never know exactly how it will be until I get there. So all I can do is take a deep breath and let it all wash over me one more time.

August 1, 2012

Eurotrip - Brussels to Amsterdam, August 1

We woke up pretty early today to the sound of garbage collection outside our hostel. I didn't mention yesterday a kind of gross thing about Brussels, and I suppose lots of big, older cities. The personal garbage pickup is just left on the sidewalks outside people's apartment buildings. Without alleys or dumpsters, the garbage just builds up all week until it's picked up. Evidently that day was today, because the sound this morning was loud enough to drive me into a sleepy rage. As a result of today being garbage day, the trash bags were piled high yesterday with stinking food and animal waste. It smelled awesome out there.

We decided to be done with Belgium a bit earlier than originally planned because Justin is really excited to go to Amsterdam. I feel like even though we only spent one day there we got to see a lot of it. The state of my sore feet and legs last night also supports this feeling. I liked Brussels, it was a more functional, less tourist-driven city than some of the others we went to. It had some real character underneath everything as well. Despite our first, somewhat intense, introduction to the city, it came out on top for me. Still, I'm looking forward to exploring the canals of Amsterdam.


Whoa Amsterdam whoa. This city is bonkers compared to the last couple of cities we've been in. I mean, France was busy too, but this is way different. I know that's not news to people who've been here before but it's news to ME!

The first thing that hits you is how difficult it is to navigate the streets. At the risk of sounding like a person who grew up in suburban Minnesota, it is hectic here. There are cars, pedestrians and a shitload of bikes everywhere. Bikes everywhere. And the bikes don't stop for anything. At least in Paris the traffic would stop for lights or pedestrians trying to cross the street, but here the bikes just blow through crowds of people while dinging on soft little bells. It's a miracle people aren't run over more often. And that is the small fish/big lake minute.

Amsterdam really is cool though. People always talk about the neat architecture in Amsterdam and they don't lie. The buildings are all very unique looking and it's nice to just walk the canals and check them out.

We visited the Rijksmuseum this early afternoon, which is a general collection of dutch artists, with big collections by Jan Steen, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. The collection was really nice and nicely presented too. It was a pretty expensive museum for it's size but I'll let it slide because of the quality of the collection.

We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering around, stopping into some shops and taking in the Amsterdam atmosphere. I had been commenting to Justin how this city doesn't feel like the bacchanal city of licentiousness that it's been built up as, and then we wandered through the red-light district. It does reek of weed, and there are prostitutes in windows. I mean, it's not like some horrible den of hedonism. There's a festive atmosphere and there are even families walking around (which I question the good taste of) so it doesn't feel dirty. The sex shops and bars playing music are usually pretty bright and inviting as well. The smell puts me off though, and the women in the windows makes me sad. I know they're unionized, and it's regulated to keep things safer and more humane, but it all feels wrong still. There's a trapped animal feeling looking at the women behind glass, and their sad expressions don't help much. There are prostitutes on dates with their Johns in bars and on the streets, which brought the reality that much closer to me. It really left me feeling uneasy.

To be totally honest, both of us are kind of getting a travel glaze over our minds. Despite the grandeur and larger-than-life qualities of this place, it's having a hard time cracking into me. Maybe when we have a better plan of what to do tomorrow it will start to make an impact, but right now I'm just tired. We've still got tonight though, and all day tomorrow.

As soon as we stepped back out to find some dinner tonight, it started to sprinkle so we quickly found a restaurant and ducked inside. Luckily we made it inside right when it started to downpour. Amsterdam is even more beautiful in a light rain than it is in the sun. The downside of course is that you get wet in the rain. Hmmm. Well, we were pretty tired, so rather than wander in the rain we came back to the hotel and made some plans for tomorrow. Canal cruise? Shopping? Erotic museum? Who knows!?!