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 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.