amsterdammed

After a few months of ‘study’ in London, myself and a few friends decided to leave the UK behind and see what else Europe had in store. Due to time constraints, we had to keep our destination close, and we settled upon a city all of us had on our lists – the largest city in the Netherlands, Amsterdam. We booked a cheap flight out of London’s well-located City Airport, and after boarding our small plane on the tarmac with an old-school airstair, off we went on the hour-long flight to the Netherlands.

Later that night, the rain lashed the window in our hostel, smearing the lights of the city‘s Centrum district into an unrecognizable blur. Our night out had ended early, with a torrent of icy spray that intensified as the wind started to gust. So far the city had proven that, while arguably more sociable than London, it had lost none of the appalling February weather. Despite this, the four of us in the room decided to crack the window a smidge, rolled up a legally obtained joint, and ruminated on our first impressions of the city we had just met.

Amsterdam is a city built on canals, much like a drier version of Venice. The innermost and oldest of these canals, the Singel, served the city’s moat in the Middle Ages. As time went on, the city outgrew the moat, and the former siege defense began to serve a more commercial role. Over time, one canal became 11, providing the growing city with ready access to water transportation for everything from the bustling warehouses of the Dutch East India Company to the rows of picturesque houseboats that have made the city so famous. Today, the canals continue to serve not only as transport, but as an attraction in their own right, with tourists from all over the world stopping on the bridges to photograph the annoyingly photogenic waterways.

The next morning, we were nearly mowed down by three or four cyclists on our way to the hostel’s cafe for breakfast. Amsterdam has a well-earned reputation as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. The bicycles are everywhere, stuffing the three-deck bike parking garage outside Centraal Station and stealthily cruising down seemingly every street and alley in the city. The Dutch have a love affair with the bicycle, even going as far as to create their very own kind: part cruiser, part commuter bike, almost always black, and with a very European philosophy of riding. You won’t find any spandex-wearing Lance Armstrong types on carbon fibre speed machines tearing up and down the bike lanes here; the Dutch are much more relaxed about their cycling. Don’t let it catch you off guard however, since most of the time the last thing you’ll hear before getting plowed into by one of these bikes is the ding of a bell, maybe a few curses from the rider as you step out into the street unaware of the approaching metal steed.

One of the things that Amsterdam is most famous for is, of course, its tolerance. The Red Light District is the place in the city where this policy is most apparent. It’s hard to hide from it here; prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, and the ladies of the night are there for any interested parties to size up – at street level, through full-length windows. This is a strange part of town after dark; the towers of the Oude Kerk, the oldest church in the city, are quite literally across a square from several ‘storefronts’ full of red-light windows.

Just down the street, the sweet smell of cannabis floats through the air from one of the city’s famous ‘coffeeshops’. Their specialty is not coffee; for a cup of joe, one would go to a café. Amsterdam has a thriving business built around pot, one that brings in nearly £2 billion a year for the merchants in the city. Technically, marijuana is still illegal in the Netherlands (mostly to comply with international treaties), but since 1976, the Dutch government has had a policy of non-prosecution on the basis that it essentially has bigger fish to fry. Amsterdam once had a big heroin problem, big enough that the government could not fight it within its means. They decided that pot wasn’t nearly as big a problem as the hordes of junkies in the Red Light District, so in looking the other way, they freed up piles of cash for fighting the epidemic of hard drugs. The results have been more than encouraging: since the policy went into effect, there are now only around 600 addicts in Amsterdam, almost all in rehab programs. Not too shabby. Now, the 360 licensed coffeeshops in the city keep locals and tourists smiling while making huge sums of money (via taxes) for the government.

A coffeeshop experience, whether one partakes or not, is one thing that is uniquely Amsterdam. There are few other cities I have been to (Denver and perhaps San Francisco) where the sweet smell of ganja is not uncommon on the street. The Dutch style of toking is to roll fat, cone-shaped spliffs, almost always with tobacco as well as weed. The procedure is simple: first, walk up to the counter. There will be a menu of sorts, but no visible product; (advertising or overtly showing that you sell weed is against the law) simply choose what kind of bud/hash/edibles/etc. you’d like and tell the man behind the counter. He will weigh it out in front of you and hand you your prize. From there, find yourself some kind of smoking apparatus. No self-respecting coffeeshop would be without at least rolling papers for its patrons, some even have fancy water pipes and vaporizers for check-out use. After you’re sorted, find a comfy spot on the couch and smoke ’em if you got ’em.


It’s always 4:20 in the coffeeshops of Amsterdam.

As you walk out the door (possibly in a bit of a haze), make sure you watch for the bikes. They’re everywhere – this is Amsterdam, after all.

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leaps and bounds, part 2

It seemed like my backpack was getting heavier.

next stop:

This may have had something to do with the fact that it was slightly heavier with provisions for leg 2 of the run to Amsterdam (provisions being bread, cheese, and beer – it was Germany, after all).  It may have been the hundreds of kilometers I’d already covered that day.  Whatever the reason, train #2, IC 142 to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam squeaked to a stop at the platform in Berlin and I hopped aboard.  The tweet of the conductor’s whistle sounded the all clear, and the last of the train crew scurried back aboard.  With a hiss of air from the brakes, we pulled out of Berlin and made haste for the Dutch border.  This ride would be a 6 hour jaunt from Berlin, north to Hanover, across the Dutch frontier at Bad Bentheim, and on to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.  From Schiphol, I’d change to one last local train to Centraal Station, and from there I’d trudge to the hostel and pass out.

That’s 120 miles an hour, for those not metrically inclined.

Time passed quickly.  The ride through the north of Germany reminded me (for better or worse) of parts of Wisconsin.  I walked the train, dodging suitcases and bodies flung willy-nilly around the passageways.  It was a completely full train, carrying volcano refugees from all over Europe, people whose stress was palpable in any of the dozens of languages they were speaking.  We were all trying to get somewhere.  Today, I’d rack up around 1000 km (621 miles), crossing parts of three countries.  Based on some of the languages I heard shouted into mobile phones and tossed up and down the corridors, I’d say that some of the passengers beat my mileage handily.  The Dutch border came and went, with only a brief stop just barely on the German side to mark the occasion.  Bad Bentheim was a border control town back in the days before the EU, but with the coming of the Schengen Agreement, it became merely a crew change and a chance to stretch.  I welcomed the respite from the tight corridors of the train.  The sun would be going down soon.  Two hours to go.

The train pulled out for the last stretch to Amsterdam.  The passengers could feel the miles tick off; the chatter in the passageway turned less heated, the bags slowly left their homes in the aisles, and the shrieks of small children caged up in compartments for too long subsided.  Fields of giant wind turbines spun lazily in the distance, turned by the same winds that blew through the sails of the famous Dutch windmills decades ago. Picturesque farms dotted the landscape as we sped through the hills east of Amersfoort, blurring together into a sleepy haze as the sun finally fell below the horizon. No sooner had I begun to doze than the speaker shouted something in Dutch – I caught ‘Schiphol’ somewhere in there.

amsterdam, the netherlands

Schiphol Airport is one of the busiest airports in Europe.  Every year, 46.3 million passengers move through its halls, going anywhere from Moscow to Houston.  At this hour, Schiphol should be receiving late-night transatlantic flights, processing hundreds of passengers through customs, and sending off hundreds more for long-haul flights destined to awake in far-off lands.  Instead, there was nothing.  Not the chatter of the intercom paging in three different languages, not the shrill buzzer of the first bags coming off a late night flight, not even the ceaseless flow of passengers trying to get wherever they’re trying to get.  Iceland’s temper tantrum had not relented, and this night there were only a few holdouts left clustered around the information screens, hoping for some good news after being stranded for so long.

The KLM counter was the center of the universe at that moment. A handful of people, maybe 20 or so, clustered around one obviously exhausted airline agent. She kept repeating the same litany she had been telling desperate fliers all day: no, there were no flights out that night, airspace over Europe was still closed. No, she could not refund your ticket; by now all the ticket agents at the counter had left for the night. Yes, she could help you find a place to stay for the night, but with all the stranded people, space was filling up fast.

A couple from Chicago walked up to her. The woman was pregnant; obviously so, and the man had clearly had too little sleep and too much coffee. They had been stuck in Amsterdam for 27 hours (he had been keeping track), having come here from Frankfurt with the hope of catching a flight back to O’Hare. The gate agent told them the same thing she had told the exasperated passenger before, then paused and added a morsel of hope to the stew of emotions brewing in the terminal. She told the couple that a few hours ago, in the dark of night, KLM had flown a 747 full of passengers out of JFK Airport in New York. The flight landed safely in Amsterdam only twenty minutes before.

“So you mean they might be flying tomorrow? Really?”

“Yes, ma’am, but I cannot guarantee-”

“But they might be flying tomorrow, right?”

“Yes, ma’am, they might.”

The couples’ faces lit up. Both had been running for the door, just like me, and the end to their inadvertently extended holiday was now in sight.

I returned to the train station beneath the airport and hitched a ride on a train to Centraal Station in the heart of Amsterdam. Sleep came quickly, the booming bass from the nightclub beneath my hostel bed notwithstanding. Earplugs, mate. Big must-have for trying to sleep at the fringe of the Red Light District.

baguette!

I have a tumultuous relationship with my backpack. Let me be clear about this: I really do love my luggage. It never complains about being tossed around by savage baggage handlers, and it doesn’t make a scene at metro turnstiles. It is by almost all measures the best piece of traveling kit I own. But it makes my back hurt once in a while, and it always, without fail, is just barely large enough to need to be checked on airplanes. This last one wasn’t as important on the first stage of this trip, however – because bags are free on the Eurostar.

The time had finally come to take on mainland Europe. Term had been over no more than 10 hours before we awoke in the darkness of 5 A.M. to catch a bus to Wood Green tube station in the north of London in time to get the Tube to King’s Cross, or more properly St. Pancras International train station, the terminal for one end of the Eurostar service to Paris and Brussels (and sometimes Avignon). We’d be going to Paris.

Allow me at this time to introduce ‘we’. This is Kira.

Kira is one of the other students on my program, and one of my best friends. Over the last four months, we got to know each other (and our preferred methods of travelling, namely backpacking) quite well living in London. We’d be traveling together until Prague, where she’d head to Frankfurt for her flight back to the US, and I’d head for England via Amsterdam. Two and a half weeks and more than 2,000 miles (3,218 km) racked up on a combination of trains, buses, and ferries – no planes. Our route would look something like this:

We emerged from the first trickles of Tube commuters at King’s Cross and hurried across the street in the chill of early morning, the sun barely peeking over the top of the London skyline. Through the big glass doors, the station buzzed with the frenetic pace of wave after wave of commuters hustling through on their way to jobs in the city. Both domestic and international trains call at the new St. Pancras, which took over the Eurostar service from Waterloo in 2007 when the High Speed 1 rail link opened, connecting the new international station with the Channel Tunnel.

Thus far, it had seemed in a way as if this whole thing was a rehearsal, a practice run for some grand trip we’d someday take. It didn’t feel real until we were finally past the ticket barriers and into the inner sanctum of the station. A French customs agent looked me over, examining the still-expanding two page stamp collection in my passport.

“How long are you going to be in France?”

“Four days.”

“Anything to declare?”

“No.”

He looked me up and down once more, fired off a few more questions, and then, satisfied, he brought his stamp down on page 8 with a satisfying thwack – leaving fresh, sharp ink in its wake. The big “F” surrounded by the stars of the EU smiled back at me from the page. We were in, even before we had left English soil.

At the top of the lift was the platform and our sunrise train to France. We scooted aboard minutes before the conductor’s whistle blew and the train pulled silently out of the station.

Eurostar is a brilliant thing. It’s cheap (comparatively), fast, and drops you right into the middle of Paris. There had been a few airfares that were slightly cheaper for our given day, but since all the low-cost carriers in London fly out of Luton or Stansted, one must tack on an additional £10 or so to get to the airport, plus the same on the other side to get from de Gaulle or Orly to the city, and baggage fees…it makes so much more sense to take the train. It’s miles more comfortable, too.

By the time the train left the first tunnel, we were already doing 100 mph (160 kph), faster than any train I’ve ever been on in the States. We picked up the pace as the train snaked its way through Kent towards the Channel Tunnel terminal at Folkestone. The landscape of southeast England became nothing but a blur on the train as the passengers settled in for the two-hour ride to Paris. Well-timed snoozes came to many of the people on board.

Before I could fall asleep again, we were under the English Channel. We entered the Channel Tunnel without pomp or circumstance, soon staring out the window into nothing but dark and the occasional crossover between the bores. It’s an odd feeling; the Chunnel seems like any other railway tunnel (though a very very long one), and there’s nothing at all to indicate that one is two hundred feet below the bottom of the Channel, except the *pop* of your ears as you descend into the depths. We finally burst into the sunlight on the French side, after about 20 minutes of darkness. Time once again slowed down, the endless fields of northern France finally yielding to the banlieues of Paris as we approached Gare du Nord. Paris! One of the cities I’d only ever heard about, only ever dreamed about was minutes away. Time to see if mon Français was up to the task.

paris nord

After dodging the beggars who welcomed us to Paris (the Roma ladies with the cards that ask you if you speak English/French/German), the Metro took us to Châtelet, where, after escaping from the labyrinth of passages connected to the Metro station, we fell into the warm embrace of the Paris sun. We rested under a tree in a park and listened to the bells of St-Eustache ring into the quiet afternoon. This was the life for sure. We walked the streets of the 2nd arrondissement and soaked it up – the chatter from people at the innumerable cafés bouncing off the narrow alleys and cobbled streets, the occasional bicycle bell, the distant ring of church bells.

It’s not for everyone, I can admit. Paris cannot be called a super clean city, but of course if it was, it would not be Paris. There’s something terribly endearing about the grit of the Metro, the dark alleys between the mazelike streets of the old parts of the city, even the crazy looking panhandlers along the Seine. It’s Paris; you don’t think about things like that, you just feel.

sauf velo

jammin

That night, we met up with a friend of a friend who had a couch we could sleep on near Montparnasse. We arrived to find that our host had an apartment in one of the tallest buildings for miles, and Paris is a very flat city. As we turned the corner from the elevator, I snatched a glance out of a 32nd floor hallway window. The view pulled me in until my nose pressed against the glass. The entirety of Paris was laid out before me, complete with an illuminated Eiffel Tower in the distance, its beacon light broadcasting silently into the stillness of the night. Dashing out once more into the night, we found a Parisian off-license down the street and bought our first bottle of wine from a man with a beard who spoke only French. It was red, shockingly cheap, and absolutely delicious.

illuminated

more delicious frames from Paris right here for your hungry eyes.

operation patrick duffy

I’ve been a slacker lately. It might be the university thing (you know, the study part of ‘study abroad’), or the large quantities of Strongbow we’ve been through in the last 4 months, or the ever-present lack of sleep. Maybe all of the above.

Term is over. There will be articles coming detailing my many adventures in London, but for now, the focus lies ahead; to mainland Europe. In the coming two and a half weeks, I’ll be in six countries, six different cities. I’ll be documenting the whole thing, bringing it here for all of my three readers to squeal at.

This little diversion will henceforth be known as operation patrick duffy. That is all.

through the roof – underground

The Tube is, simultaneously, the thing that I most love and most loathe in London. It will get you anywhere in the city, but will, at various times do so at its own leisure, cramming you into a completely packed metal pipe full of sweaty people (sweaty drunk people at any time after, say, 9 p.m.), and leaving you to twiddle your thumbs (if, hypothetically, you can get both hands in front of you) as the powers-that-be sort out everything from more commonplace signal failures to what Transport for London frequently refers to as ‘track obstructions’ – jumpers. Published figures are hard to come by, but estimates range anywhere from 50 to 150 people a year.

roundel

gloucester road

One becomes quickly accustomed to the ever-present crowds, the teeming masses that clog the Tube seemingly at will, at the oddest times of the day. Think the train going into London will be empty at 3 in the afternoon? Think again. From the platform to the lifts to the surface, the crowds come early and stay late. However, by the same token, some trains will be eerily quiet and empty, and precious seats can still be had without having to resort to hockey-style checking antics. It’s about as unpredictable as the weather here: going from packed, hot, sweaty and terminally late to quick, clean, and efficient in a matter of less than an hour. It’s a grab bag.

chancery lane

The London Underground has the distinction of being the world’s first subway. Opened 10 January 1863, the Tube (as it is widely known) originally consisted of cut-and-cover style tunnels that now comprise parts of the Circle, Metropolitan, and Hammersmith and City lines. The system underwent a series of large expansions, helped by the development of the tunneling shield, which led to the boring of deep-level tunnels that could be built with a minimum of disruption on the surface. 3.4 million people use its trains every weekday, making it third in the world in ridership behind Paris and Moscow. Farringdon Road was one of the first stations built, and the original platform on the upper level lines (Circle, Metropolitan, and Hammersmith and City) feels like it’s just as old as the 18th century buildings surrounding it. The deep level stations, like those on the Northern and Piccadilly lines, have their own distinct smell…something like a combination of burnt clutch, damp concrete, and old coffee. It gets kind of endearing after a while.

no service

Once you’ve made it on the Tube (assuming you’re not being molested by the creepy guy pushed up next to you), there is an unwritten code of conduct to abide by. Don’t try to strike up conversation, as this comes off as quite odd. Pick up a copy of Metro (in the mornings) or the Evening Standard for free outside any Tube station. Read about footballers and their flings or the latest planned closures affecting the train you’re currently on. But as you’re enjoying some of London’s fine journalistic tradition, please, whatever you do, don’t hold the doors open. It will irk the locals (and indeed, even the non-locals) to no end, and will only make you look like a complete novice. On the way out of the station, kindly stand to the right on the escalators if you’re not walking up them. You will make everyone’s day six million times better (scientific fact).

intent

It’s been said that the Tube will get you anywhere in London…eventually. Even though it’s plagued by closures, delays, and strikes, the Tube gives London something incredibly valuable. Without it, London would be a clogged, gridlocked mess of cars and lorries all the time, with traffic so foul no congestion charge could help it. Thankfully, it’s here to stay…except on weekends and when there’s ‘planned engineering works’, or when it snows. Never really understood why the whole system shuts down when it snows…it being underground and all.

More tasty morsels of photography here.