Thursday, January 22, 2009

Amsterdam (Dec. 18-21)

The first country in my journey over winter break was The Netherlands. Leanna and I flew into Amsterdam on different flights but easily found each other at international arrivals. We caught a train from the airport to central station. Amsterdam Centraal is located so that the rest of the city extends in a semi-circle about the station. Looking at a map of the city, the main streets and conals form rough line of longitude and latitude, respectively. What the map doesn't show are the dozens of little streets no wider than footpaths that cut through the principle blocks. "Main streets" can also be very narrow. It definitely took us a good part of our time in Amsterdam to come close to mastering how to read the map and relate it to reality.

Leanna and I left the train station and stepped into a cloud of misty rain. For some unknown reason we decided that it would be a good idea to walk to our hostel than to try to figure out the trams. Eventhough we walked the same set of roads several times over the next few days, it never felt as long as it did that first time in the rain with our packs. We found the hostel, with only minor navigational frustrations, and were very relieved to be able to put our packs down.

Since our hostel had a kitchen and there was a grocery store very close by we decided to save some money in the long run and buy some food instead of going to restuarants for every meal. We decided on the gourmet choices of pasta and red sauce, and Dutch brand peanut butter and "nutella." All of the staples for two college students backpacking Europe. Of course we were so hungry by the time we got to eat most days that it all tasted great.

Our first night in Amsterdam was pretty low key. We walked around the blocks immediately around our hostel trying to get the lay of the land and to realize that we were really in Amsterdam. It always takes me a while to realize that I'm somewhere. In fact I can think of several trips when I was on the plane back to Sussex and suddenly thought "holy crud I was just in " We got back to the hostel about 8pm and people in our room were already asleep! There wasn't much we could do while people were sleeping so we decided to go to bed too.

It's a good thing we decided to go to bed early because the next day was crazy busy! We visited the Hienekien Experience, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Anne Frank Huis inbetween walking ALL OVER the city. The Hienekien Experience is in part of the old Heinekien factory. Everything we read said to get there early so we arrived just as it opened. We took our sweet time going through it and we were almost always the only ones in any given section. All of the staff were remarking at how slow it was that day. By some lucky combination of a slow day and our charming personalities we ended up getting extra free samples at the end of the tour and got to pour our own glasses which I don't think we were supposed to do. The Van Gogh museum was pretty cool. I was surprised by how many Van Goghs I was familiar with and the number of Van Goghs I didn't know. We saw the Sunflowers, Irises, and his self-protrait. The Anne Frank Huis was a completely different experience than the other museums we visited. Ever since I first learned of Anne Frank in the second grade I've wondered what it would be like to visit the Secret Annex. The answer is humbling. The rooms unfurnished. The Nazis took all the furtinture that was in there and Otto Frank requested that it be left unfurnished. There are black out curtains on several windows and exerpts from Anne's Diary posted throughout the Annex. There are also video interviews with Miep and Otto. It's hard to explain what it was like to have a book that I read ten years ago come to life before my eyes. In the very last room they have one of Anne's diaries on display in a glass box. I don't know why, but it shocked me that the diary didn't look very different from the journals I have. It's so easy to forget that Anne Frank was an ordianary girl who enjoyed ordinary things when her story is, literally, known around the world.

We added to an already full day by walking to each of our museums and then wandering around the city for several hour afterwards. While navigating was annoying, the real danger was getting run over by bikes. The residents of Amsterdam rely mainly on bicycles for transportation and they let you know if you're in their way. Leanna and I decided that it would probably be safer if we stuck to walking since we were having a hard enough time following the traffic patterns that way.

Our second full day in Amsterdam we decided to take a little easier. We went to the Rijksmueseum in the morning. There were many beautiful paintings but the one that really stuck out in my mind was Vermeer's "The Milkmaid." I was hoping that they would have "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" but that piece is on display in The Hague. That day we also went to the Waag, a rampart surrounded by a market, and the Oude Kerk (old church) which are remenents of Amsterdam some 500 years ago. For dinner that night we decided to treat ourselves and went to an Argentinian Steakhouse. I greeted our waiter in Spanish almost as a reflex and listened to the specials in Spanish. Then I switched to English because Leanna's Spanish isn't as good as mine. Immediately the waiter stopped making eye contact with me and was no longer as friendly. I was surprised. My Spanish is okay but my accent is not good and you'd be hard pressed to confuse me with a native speaker. The food was very good, especially after a couple days of pasta. On the way out Leanna and I were talking and decided that I definitely should have kept speaking Spanish. So the moral of the story is that if you're going to start a conversation in a language be prepared to continue in that language, unless asked to change.

On the way back to the hostel that night we stopped at a Christmas fair and got poffertjes (baby dutch pancakes). We each got a small order thinking we'd get about 6 of the 2-inch pancakes. We ended up getting about 15 each slathered in butter and powered sugar. I also had chocolate on mine but it was completely unnessecary. They were possibly the best thing we had to eat the entire time we were in Amsterdam. We decided then that one of our summer projects was going to be trying to make poffertjes so we could have them again and again.

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