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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setting sail

Allie and I left Amsterdam the next day, taking a local train through Rotterdam to Hoek van Holland. Despite the pull of the great city of Amsterdam, both of us had more pressing engagements; hers in the form of the rest of term at Swansea Uni, and mine in the form of a plane ticket back to the States from Heathrow. The end was near; my long journey home began, really, as soon as I left Prague. From that point on, I would push no farther into Europe, and each step I took westward was another closer to home. The only thing to do, then, would be to make the voyage in style.

We hopped a local train to Rotterdam Centraal station and from there boarded the ‘woo hoo!!!’ express to Hoek van Holland. The huge port complex near the station held container and passenger ships from all over the world. Back in Prague I had booked us passage on Stena Line’s Stena Hollandica, running from the Europoort at the Hook of Holland across the North Sea to Harwich on the coast of England. From Harwich, a late-night train would take me back to Liverpool Street. The tickets were going fast, and all I could manage was a sailing four days in the future, but we were hoping to get out much sooner.

The train was full of stranded passengers like us, and we had been told that the ferries had been operating at near capacity to move the sudden exodus of airline passengers. Though the queue at the ferry terminal stretched almost back to the doors, we walked calmly up to the desk and managed to exchange our tickets (and cabin) for a ride on the next ferry out. Excellent!

Through customs and up the gangway we went, into the bowels of the ship that would carry us across the sea. The Hollandica can carry more than 900 people, and it seemed today that the ship was filled to capacity. Travelers sprawled out through the seven decks, taking their rest anywhere they could find it. The onboard casino and restaurant looked more like a refugee camp, with luggage and small children strewn about the room. Up on deck, the ship’s horn sounded its departure, and we set sail.

The rumbles deep within the ship translated into movement, and the ship lumbered down the canal and out onto the open ocean. The wind turbines spinning lazily in the distance waved us a goodbye as the waterway lost its boundaries and breakwaters to the expanse of the North Sea.

Being a landlubber from a state surrounded on all sides by other states, I had never been on a ship or a body of water of this size before. The sensation of movement was only discernible when the ship pitched and rolled slightly on the sea. Up on the sun deck, the gulls circled for handouts, and a few brave souls pitched tents in the wind and curled up for a few hours’ nap. Allie and I settled down in a corner of the restaurant-turned-refugee deck and chatted up some of our fellow passengers.

Charlie, 22, was on his way back to the UK after his spring holiday, much like Allie and I were. His mates had caught an earlier ferry, and now Charlie was playing catch-up. The prognosis now looked rosy; he (and we) were on our way, now nearly fifty miles out to sea, headed for jolly ole England. Suddenly, we noticed something odd: smoke rising from a trash can nearby. We investigated, and found what we suspected to be a smoldering fire caused by a discarded cigarette. Charlie and I leapt into action, sacrificing our beers for the sake of saving the Hollandica from a certain, fiery doom. Well, okay, maybe not fiery doom…but at least a shrieking fire alarm.

The sun began to set on the sea, and I took a moment to find a quiet corner of the deck near the lorry drivers’ lounge to get some photos. I can see now why travel by sea has tugged at people since time immemorial; there is a certain serenity that comes with the expanse of water, the quiet, faraway whoosh of the bow of the ship slicing through the waves. Once in a while, a group of gulls would make a pass on the ship, trying to find some handouts from generous travelers. My mind was on the hours ahead, on getting back to England and, all too soon, returning to the States. Commence reflection/contemplation/etc.

Soon enough, the sun was setting as the ship came into Harwich. Back on the sun deck, we watched as the ferry swung itself around and pulled alongside its berth. The sunset that greeted us to the UK was orange-red with the volcanic ash still being spewed by Iceland, but now and again we could see the contrails of the first planes to dip their toes into the cloud. The ban would soon be lifted, but we were still glad to have been able to make it back across Europe during the shutdown. Our plan had been an unqualified success.

Allie and I bid Charlie goodbye and headed through customs to the Harwich International rail station. Our last journey of the night would take us from here to Liverpool Street in London, and from there it was only another tube ride to the hostel. The train pulled away from Harwich, and almost as soon as it had, Allie and I were asleep in our backpacks. The hostel in Borough couldn’t come soon enough.

leaps and bounds, part 1

«originally posted 21 April 2010»

The mood at Hlavní Nádraží, the largest train station in the Czech Republic, was foul to say the least. I felt sorry for all the people who were still queued up in that godforsaken line, probably still standing there cursing in twenty different languages, still aching for a cup of coffee or a cigarette after 3 hours of waiting and not a lot of moving. The ticket agents had their work cut out for them. Today was not the best day to work for an airline/rail service/bus service in the EU. Seventy-two hours prior, Iceland had begun spewing abrasive dust out of a hole in the Earth that nobody can pronounce (except maybe for the one ballsy CNN reporter I saw who gave it a shot), and all of Europe flew into chaos. Or didn’t fly, to be more precise.

The cloud spread like a plague, crippling Britain’s airspace first, then France, Spain, Benelux, and the rest of western Europe. By the time I realized the inevitable, Prague’s Ruzyně airport had been shut down, my flight to Amsterdam (on flight #666 – no joke) cancelled. Now I was left with a puzzle: figuring out how to get back to England for my rapidly approaching flight back to the States – without using planes. The train and coach networks of Europe could absorb some of the traffic, but how much and how fast? Would there even be tickets out of the Czech capital?

Leaving Prague was easier than I’d thought. From the monumental queue (near 3 hours for myself) came victory in the form of train tickets. The agent I saw at the station spoke English (thankfully, as my Czech is limited to about four words), and all I had to do was tell her where I needed to go.

“Amsterdam. Can I do that tomorrow?”

She typed for a few frenzied seconds, finally coming up with a solution.

“Yes, we get you there tomorrow. Change once in Berlin. This is OK?”

Taken aback, I stammered a “Yes!” and took the gift I had just been given. Despite all the intimidating queues, all the reports of overcrowded stations and packed, standing-room-only trains, despite all of the chaos caused by the Icelandic menace, I was able to get out of Prague when I wanted, go where I wanted, and for less than I paid for my ill-fated airline flight. I left the station beaming, freshly printed tickets in my hand; volcano be damned, I was going right where I needed to be.

The next morning, I showed up at Hlavni Nadrazi bleary-eyed and not quite caffienated enough for the impending 14 hour trip to the Netherlands. The station was packed again, and as the dark red-and-cream coloured Czech train arrived at the platform, the scene resembled something more reminiscent of rush hour on the Tube.

rush

We were away. I was in a compartment with a couple from Oslo, trying to get home after their flight was grounded two days before. The stories from the travelers who joined us were the same: long lines at airport counters, frustration, finally getting out on a train, more frustration. This volcano business is enough to make anyone completely mental. Bits of the Eastern Bloc flew past us as we bantered, mapping out hypothetical routes home, long train rides and last-ditch night coaches. Every now and again, out of the quiet hills of Bohemia, a crane or smokestack would pop out, reminding the passengers of train 179 what this country had been only 20 or so years ago. The hammer and sickle left their mark on then-Czechoslovakia, and while this influence is still readily felt in the now decidedly westernized Czech Republic, it is by no means overpowering. Just sort of there, hiding around the next 13th-century alleyway corner like a stray cat. The contrast is almost goofy in a lot of ways.

At last we had scenery to contemplate as the train sped up the incredibly picturesque Elbe valley towards Germany. Ancient castles dotted the landscape, every so often popping up on a bend in the river or a hilltop. The train was comfortable; a much more civilized way of traveling, certainly, than on an airliner. The hiss of the rails was the only noise, other than the sound of the people on the train. I found a seat in the dining car and ordered up a coffee. My seat provided a fantastic view out the window – which soon proved to be quite distracting.

Eventually the signs at the stations we passed changed from Czech to German. At our midway stop, Dresden, half the train deboarded and collectively blew off some stress as the passengers of Train 179 prepared themselves for the next leg of whatever journey they were on.

Back on the train, it was business as usual. Kids ran about, clogging the narrow passageway with giggles and the occasional shriek. First class was quiet, the businessmen who had been bumped from flights now calmer, burying their noses in laptops and Blackberries trying to coordinate meetings with people who were likely still trapped hundreds of kilometers apart. The train was never full, which was surprising given the huge queue at the station in Prague the day before, but it was packed enough that ‘Excuse me’ in every language I knew constantly flowed from my mouth as I fought through the people and baggage strewn about the corridor on my way through the train.

reserve

After four hours, my train pulled into Berlin’s Spandau station to drop off passengers such as myself headed for points north…my train to Amsterdam wouldn’t be here for an hour and a half. I bade my farewells to my compartment friends and jumped off the train and on to German soil. A sleek looking German ICE train hummed into the station, and proceeded to spew forth passengers, refugees from the Great Volcano Crisis of 2010.  As the doors closed, a girl moved down the platform with her bike, preparing for a journey of her own, free from the trappings of even rails.  I envied her freedom, but knew that soon I would be free – free from the grip of the Icelandic menace and back in jolly ole England.

breaking free

Next station: Amsterdam.

prague after dark

How do you get to know a city? A tricky question.

A city is more than the sum of its numbers; population, crime rate, area, and so on. It is more than what merely lays on the surface, apparent in the light of day to the casual observer. The onset of night, in particular, brings a different character; a change simple and routine, yet profound. The shadows that crept across the narrow alleyways of Prague turned the city into a moon- and neon-lit playground, one echoing not only with the half-hourly bells from the Týn church but with a sense of movement and electricity, even during the hours of the night.

night trams

kino svetozor

Margaret and I headed for U Sudu, a legendary Prague watering hole. I’d been told that it’s a hidden bar built out of old beer caves, tunnels and the like. Sounds right up my alley. We headed out among the denizens of the night, the sounds of tram cars clinking down the tracks and voices bouncing off the buildings acting as our soundtrack as we ventured through the medieval streets. Gone were the swarming hordes in Wenceslas Square, the tourists from all over the world who now slumbered in in their hotel rooms. The city at night seems to belong more to its residents, coming out from behind desks and out of apartments to enjoy the Bohemian night.

bohemian nights

night falls

U Sudu was indeed a cave, a concealed bar made up of dozens of interconnected underground rooms, mostly made from rough-hewn brick arches that once may have been used to store beer and wine, sausages, maybe even secret prisoners during the Soviet régime. The dark chambers narrowed farther back, much like the medieval sewers farther beneath the city. We found our way into the last chamber for a well-earned pint, the smoke from cigarettes and spliffs wafting through the air, the patrons speaking in hushed tones as if it were the Czech version of a Prohibition-era Chicago speakeasy. Classy.

self-portrait, u sudu

Three A.M. came all too swiftly. After another ‘hidden’ bar: an art loft on the second floor of a nondescript office block, and yet another in the north of the city known for both its artwork (done completely in feverish twists of wire) as its drinks (ice cold shots of a local liquor called Becherovka), we found ourselves hopping off a night tram after crisscrossing the city. Before long, the sun would be rising over Žižkov hill to the east of the city, but we would be soon be sound asleep, exhausted after the hours of darkness.

parting the iron curtain

next stop:

Life on the road is all about beginnings and endings. Many of these transitions are never really concrete; the ambiguous dividing lines between legs of a journey, for instance. A lot of times these are only acknowledged (or noticed) after their passing. Sometimes it’s easier to tell when these lines we’ve made for ourselves have been crossed. You can feel it that split second after you step off a train to somewhere new and strange, it’s late, and you’ve still a ways to go before you sleep. Or the first time you use a foreign language with success, when you realize the strange sounds coming out of your mouth are being interpreted and responded to by native speakers in a predictable fashion. Traveling is all about these sorts of moments – moments that change your perception of the world around you.

Our time in Berlin had finally run out. The road called, in this case one made of steel, and we headed to Berlin Hauptbahnhof for a ride to our next destination. We were bound for Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. The city of Vaclav Havel, the Velvet Revolution, and…goulash and beer? Something like that. Off the S-Bahn, down the escalators, and onto the platform we went. What would it be like in Prague? Would we find a holdover from the cold war, a Kafka-esque caricature on the Vltava? Or would it be westernized, more like the cities that we’d been wandering around in for a week and a half already? Before long, we’d find out. A string of scarlet-and-white Czech Railways carriages silently hissed onto our track. Time to boogie. We hopped aboard.

The train snuck out from underneath the station and onto the tracks headed for Prague. We were joined in our compartment by Colin, an American businessman from Portland sent by his company to help develop ties with renewable energy companies in Europe. The miles sped by as we chatted in our compartment, interrupted only by the ticket inspector who showed up soon after we left Berlin’s city limits. Kira and I settled in with lunch and a bottle of Bordeaux and watched the world speed by at 130 km/h, through the forests of northern Bohemia until we came upon the city of Dresden.

Dresden is a city which I fully intend to spend time in on my next trip to Germany, a city that rose from the horrific cinders of the Allied firebombing of February 1945 to become a modern, green city of three quarters of a million people. The scars are still evident; what buildings still remain from the prewar era are stained with soot from the firestorm. Today the only thing smoking were the handfuls of passengers clustered around the doors of the train, puffing down a cigarette before the conductor’s whistle caused them to leap back on board. This was Colin’s stop, so he left Kira and I the compartment to ourselves and with a handshake, our friendly train mate was off and on his way. For us: on to the border.

The forests and lowlands eventually gave way to the gorge that the Elbe River carves through the sandstone mountains which for thousands of years have been the traditional border between Saxony and Bohemia – and the gateway to the Czech Republic. Clouds began to roll in, and from the train’s route at the bottom of the valley we could see fingers of fog reaching among the trees. This part of Europe is staggeringly beautiful; it’s no wonder small spa towns like Bad Bentheim sprang up on both sides of the border over the centuries; it seems like a place as far removed from the urban conglomerations like Berlin as there can be. The train was quiet, families and businessmen alike settling in for a few hours’ nap before we reached Prague just past 9.30 P.M. On we went, the train slinking up the gorge and into Bohemia.

Eventually the signs on the station platforms flying past turned from German to Czech. Somewhere, miles distant now, we’d crossed over another one of those invisible boundaries, in this case the border between two now-Schengen states. Since 2007, there have been no border checkpoints between Germany and the Czech Republic, a sign of the former east’s western ambitions. The end of communism and the ‘Velvet Divorce’ between the Czech and Slovak republics meant the wave of western influence sweeping eastward would soon hit the banks of mighty Vtlava. Outside the train, the sun sunk down behind the hills, and we finally pulled into Prague under cover of darkness.

The doors open with a hiss, and I stepped out onto the platform and into the most alien place I’ve been yet. Culture shock is one of my favorite things, best when sudden and drastic. In this case, it came in several forms: the people on the platform speaking in strange, foreign tongues, the harsh greenish-blue station lighting, the darkness that hid the city streets around the train station from my prying eyes. At the station, we met up with a friend of mine from back home named Margaret. Margaret moved to Prague at the end of the previous summer, and had been teaching English and doing English-language tours around the city’s Old Town ever since. Her enthusiasm and ambition for traveling is matched only by her actions – when she tells me her goal is to live on every continent including Antarctica, I believe her. She may not exactly look like a seasoned hardcore traveler, but as with so many things, appearances can be deceiving.

Her apartment is down an old cobblestone street in the Nové Město (New Town) district and up an old, clunky Soviet-era lift in a remodeled block of flats. Though it may not look it on the outside, the apartment she and her flatmates share is as big, modern and comfortable as any I’d seen in the UK. The real attraction, though, is the view. From her roof, one can see Prague Castle standing sentinel over the sleepy city below, like a slumbering ancestral giant. From its perch it has witnessed war, revolution, renaissance, and everything in between in its more than one thousand years of existence. If these walls could talk indeed.

The next day, the castle got a little closer. I headed up the hill half expecting it to be empty; it was a Tuesday, after all. Upon arriving, it finally dawned on me that Prague is not unknown to the rest of the world; in fact, the masses of tourists now scurrying about in front of my eyes are among millions who now flock to this ancient city to see its winding streets and spectacular architecture. During World War II, Prague, though occupied by the Germans for the duration of the war, escaped the bombing that so many other cities of Europe endured. Because of this, there exists in Prague the feeling that you are in a very, very old place; one untouched by the passage of hundreds of years, tens of thousands of residents, and whatever régime you wish. The streets are narrow and nearly always cobbled rather than paved; the buildings crafted with a character that seems absent in anything less than two hundred years old.

Back at the castle, I managed to meet up with Kira and we descended the side of the hill above the roofs of the Malá strana (lesser town). From somewhere below, we heard the faint strains of a violin. Slow at first, then quickening, the music pulled us down the hill towards the alleys below. Its source was masked by the myraid passages between buildings, echoing off the time-worn brick until it reached us. Farther down the hill we found our musician.