Amsterdam means different things to different people. For children it conjures up images of clogs, windmills, cheese, tulips. For culture vultures it’s all about Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Anne Frank, architecture, and Dutch influence (of which there has been plenty, the Dutch have spread far and wide). The lust for life set care most about the atmosphere created by canals, bicycles, brick roads, outdoor cafes, and evidence of creativity all around them. For others it’s most lovingly revered as a legal haven for marijuana and prostitution. I must not forget the small sector for whom first and foremost Amsterdam is a destination for sports enthusiasts… it’s not a big demographic compared to the others, but there’s no denying the Dutch are a sporty lot, you don’t get many fat Netherlanders.
My fellow passengers on the lunch time train into Amsterdam consisted of vacationers with enormous suitcases destined for the stop before Amsterdam central, Schipol airport, and three majorly wasted boys – technically men but younger than me, so therefore obviously boys – who’d brought their two litre pop bottle filled with something pink, murky and vodka based, and a plentiful supply of pre-rolled entertainment. They alternated between casting furtive glances at me and apologizing profusely because apparently there are some things you’re not allowed to do on trains; explaining to me in detail the different types of weed they were sampling; playing a game where the objective was to hit your friend as hard as you can; and giggling cutely like kindergartners before toasting to me with their pop bottle and a jolly, “Welcome to Holland!” They seemed quite sweet in a totally-battered-by-2pm-on-a-Friday-but-I-help-my-Nan-with-her-shopping-every-Saturday-morning way.
For the second time this week I made the mistake of glancing at a station map, and assuming that I would remember what it looked like, and it would be a super quick trot down to where I was saying…but, and this is the crucial point, didn’t take a map with me. It should have been a 20 minute walk. Well …I don’t see a reason to go into to detail but I arrived at my destination after a little over an hour with a lack of grace and patience. Actually my travelling friend did say to me that out of the two of us he thought he had the better sense of direction. I was quite shocked by that: as long as I have a map I am rarely lost (LA doesn’t count, that place is the labyrinth of Minos) and I do end up at my destination even without a map, it just takes a bit longer than normal. I think he was remembering the one time I had us walking in the wrong direction for rather a long time because I was reading the map upside down. Hmmm.. he’s not done that to me so he might, just might, have a teensy point.
As always the advantage to getting turned around and upside down in a new place is that you get to see more of it, which is no bad thing. I mean shucks, I would never have realised that Brussels had a ghetto, had I not jauntily wandered into it, with my wheelie bag, looking like a lost tourist (looking like one, not being one of course).
My overall impression of Amsterdam was of a working city. It is wonderfully picturesque, and my travelling friend who is a talented photographer (that’s the shameful truth why I don’t have pictures on my blog by the way, I’m bloody crap at taking them, they look awful, and the postcard is much nicer… I used to tease one of my family members mercilessly about always cutting people’s heads off in photos, but everything I take is fuzzy, not quite centred, and patchy with shadows) captured shot after artistic shot of flower-framed canals, quirky houseboats, and sunset-illuminated wonky buildings. Not a hundred percent sure why the buildings are wonky. Though some of them look purposely designed to be slanted, I’ve got a nagging suspicion it might be subsidence. The city is built on water after all. Anyway, the point is that despite the inherent prettiness of Amsterdam, it also has a substantially gritty and industrial feel to it. This is a busy place, stuff happens here, and that means that buildings and roads might not get cleaned as much as they do in the other more chocolate box places in Europe.
My home for the long weekend was a sweet little basement apartment on Prinsengracht. The roads of central Amsterdam fan out in a semi circle from the central station, forming city blocks with canals intersecting at rights angles. If you look at it from above, the streets and canals fit together to form a spider web pattern, it’s a beautiful take on a traditional city grid system. Prinsengracht is a long road that curves around following one of the canals towards the outer edge of the ‘spider web’. The door to the apartment was a tiny wee thing, a hobbit hole, leading into a surprisingly light and bright interior with a great view over the canal. The owner had thoughtfully put folding chairs by the door for us so that we could sit on the pavement and watch the world go by, which is a common, and seriously taken, activity in Amsterdam. A lot of things happen on Amsterdam’s pavements (sidewalks for the USA folks), but walking is not one of them, there’s no room for pedestrians. Instead pavements are filled with bicycles; bistro tables and chairs; bits of artwork; motorcycles; phallic shaped bollards; bicycles; plants in pots; stairways; bicycles with carts; small cars; food stands and bicycles. To be fair on the actual road part, there’s not much room for cars, in part because the road is full of pedestrians, and cyclists.
Crossing the street in Amsterdam is an art form, the bikes seem to have right of way at all time, which is mega confusing when there are two bikes going in cross directions at the same time. The city’s residents would appear too have impeccable sense of timing by the way they blithely breeze through one another’s paths so close you can feel the delicate brush of a scarf tassel across your face. More tellingly, the bikes all look like they’ve taken a regular beating.
Within two hours of arriving, I got attacked by some wee, invisible, biting beastie, that left hard, red inflamed, itchy hives across anywhere it could find to chow down on me. In total I had just under 50 bites – I counted them on the train tonight when I was bored of the boys in the next compartment playing really bad 80s rap – spread over my arms, thighs (it bit me through my damn leggings), neck, and maddeningly my left buttock (you try sitting down with an itchy bite there) and my ribs. Over the course of the last few days the hives have calmed down and tuned into peculiar hard blisters. “Hi there Amsterdam, it’s lovely to be here, thanks for having me, and by the way I hope you don’t mind but I’ve brought the plague with me.”
It’s all good though, I mean really the last thing you want when you’re visiting a dynamic and cosmopolitan city is to be feeling too attractive.