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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paris part deux

At the bottom of a stairway next to the River Seine, there’s a chair with a man wrapped a shiny gold sheet sitting on it. People of Paris, meet King Tut.

King Tut Guy was just sort of sitting there in his sheet, wriggling a thank you at the passersby who dropped change into his cup. This is Paris; sometimes…well, a lot of the time, things don’t make a lot of sense. But that’s okay, just chalk it up to the French being French, with their wine and their cheese and their Gauloises. They’re a bit different, right?

Paris, being an ancient city, has its fair share of famous monuments and architecture. I won’t go into depth about all these, since you likely have at least heard of them (and I loathe coming off as a tourist), but I’ll give a few of them a nod as it’s my first time seeing any of them outside of a book or TV show. Consider yourself warned.

Near the Eiffel Tower, little gangs of souvenir peddlers ply their craft, selling the same cheap Eiffel Tower knickknacks from big rings in their hands or the occasional blanket on the ground, ready to swoop everything up and relocate at the first sign of the flics. They have two separate tones of voice reserved; one, quieter and more hurried, is spoken only amongst themselves. The other, shouty and usually in broken English or German, is used to hawk at the masses of tourists under the vaulting, graceful arcs of the Tower. Either way, if it’s a souvenir of your time in Paris you’re looking for, these gents will be more than happy to hook you up.

setting up shop

The Champ de Mars just across the street, however, is (like a lot of the rest of Paris) a completely different story. Here in the park, even in the shadow of one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, life returns to a more Parisian pace. People dawdle, stroll around, couples stake out their benches and chat. It’s all a wonderful juxtaposition, and it’s not just in the Champ de Mars – it’s all over the increasingly globalized and frenzied city.

Paris is a city best explored on foot or by Métro. The Paris Metro is as much an attraction as anything else in Paris, a perfect example of how public transport becomes deeply intwined with the soul of a city. The Metro is a mirror upon which the image of Paris is projected. It’s not super clean. It’s not fast (the average service speed in the Metro is only 20 km/h (12.4 mph) due to the close proximity of the stations and tight curves in the tunnels). To get on or off the trains, you have to flip a lever or push a button on the doors to release them. Unlike the Underground, there’s no escalators, just miles and miles of stairs. Perhaps this speaks of the French attitude of self-dependence, maybe it’s France’s way of simply sticking up their collective middle finger at the droves of tourists who flock to the city. Regardless, it’s the Metro. It’s a beautiful, sweaty, dirty mess. And it can be, at times, a high-voltage, clandestine playground (if one has the time and the cojones as messieur dsankt does).

As for us, we retired that night to a hostel in the northeast of the city, just outside the Boulevard Périphérique near Metro Hoche. We exited the Metro around midnight, meaning that the neighbourhood we suddenly found ourselves in was, shall we say, less than savory. The nearest cash machine had a lurker prowling near it, never straying far for fear of missing a victim. We booked across the street, sticking out like sore traveling thumbs with our packs. Haste was a good idea. This was a different Paris, a Paris that was not so casual, not so bright. I could feel the pointed stares from the people around us in the shadows, sizing us up, wondering what the bloody hell two obvious foreigners were doing in this part of Paris at this time of night. Finally, a few blocks away lay the hostel, a place that was mercifully less dodgy than the surrounding neighbourhood. Up the unlit stairs were our bunks, spartan and creaky. This was a real backpacker’s hostel, no frills, all business. My kind of place. I was exhausted, and passed out as soon as I hit the pillow.

The next morning, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais had morphed back into Dr. Jekyll. Once again, Paris was Paris, the cafés already drawing their early morning crowds, the street merchants setting up shop near the Metro station. My roommate that morning was a 25-year-old grad student from Los Angeles; I said hello in French and he answered in dude-tinged English. Thousands of miles away from home (and two days out), I had encountered my first American on the road. He’d been out much longer than me; two weeks prior in Italy (where he’d been studying) and Spain, now Paris for the next week. We traded war stories while I loaded my pack, my tales of living in London, his of the last few months spent studying in Siena. Before long my pack was ready to go, I bade my new friend goodbye, and we were off across town to hostel #2, the new St. Christopher’s on the Canal d’Ourcq. We checked in, dropped our gear, and proceeded to do exactly what we’d done so well the last few days: wander aimlessly around the capital of France.

We had lunch that day at a café near the Sorbonne, in the Quartier Latin, so named for the extensive use of Latin in the world of early French higher academia. Cafés are still very important to the French, still very much the centre of social circles, much like the pub is to the British. The tables outside are the best, always facing the street, the world around you, never letting go of the pulse of daily life in the city. Today this pulse was especially strong, as we had only been sitting at our table 15 minutes or so before all of Paris rode past on rollerblades.

Also, if I may, a word of advice. If you go to the Louvre, be warned that the world’s biggest art mosh pit surrounds the most famous painting on the planet:

The banks of the Seine have always defined the city, from the physical separation of the two halves of the city to the more philosophical distinctions between the rives gauche et droite. The river must have a lot of stories; men like Voltaire and Victor Hugo strolled its banks much as we did. It’s all terribly charming, for reasons that I’m sure have been laid out in innumerable forms of media. Every single reason is valid. From the banks, the sound of the traffic on the streets above becomes only a muted whoosh and the world takes on a sort of tunnel vision. Everything takes on a different perspective from here, the colors seem to warm, the sounds of the people near the river seems to amplify. It’s also annoyingly picturesque:

Our last day in the capital of France passed us by, but by no means did we have an easy night ahead. Back to the hostel we went, packing our gear and making a last minute run to the marché for the essentials: wine, potent beer called Beélzebuth (11.8%!), brie, butter, and from a small boulangerie on the Avenue de Flandre, baguette. Perfect baguette, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. These small wonders would get us through the night ahead: 16 hours on a bus crossing parts of four countries, destination Berlin.

smell the fresh bread right here (in photographic form)

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.

transatlanticism

Transatlantic.

The word conjures up images of great steamships like the Queen Mary, men like Lindbergh, Alcock and Brown, and of famous aircraft like the Concorde, taking off from JFK in New York and landing gracefully at Heathrow two and a half hours later. While they may not possess the pomp and circumstance of the olden days, transatlantic flights are a special thing. No baggage fees, a hot meal (try getting that on US domestic service), and a glass of wine (or two) with dinner. And of course, we mustn’t forget what lay in wait for me on the other side of the ocean: London.

I started my journey in Chicago, Illinois, at the cathedral of transport that is O’Hare International Airport. I took an early morning Blue Line and dozed while the train made its way to O’Hare. My first leg was from Chicago to Montréal’s Dorval Airport, where I would spend a few hours sitting around and then, finally, board a plane that would carry me over the pond to England. I sat nervously watching the planes scurry around the ramp, baggage men flinging their charges into innumerable cargo bays. Finally, my flight was announced, and I joined the line at the gate, passport in hand. This was the dividing line: after I left the soil of Illinois, I wouldn’t see the US again until April. Adventure awaited just across the threshold to the jetway.

The clouds below formed an impenetrable wall of fuzz once we ascended above the Windy City, prohibiting me from seeing the country we flew over. I snoozed on and off, finally looking out the window through a break in the clouds 45 minutes later at the neatly squared off rural parts of Ontario. We came into Montréal, cold and nearly cloudless, and a man who (surprisingly) knew my name marshaled me through customs. Transit visa time. Another *thwack* of the rubber stamp, and I was legal for the time being.

My visa didn’t allow me to leave a certain part of the terminal (unfortunately the part lacking poutine), so I bummed around and tried to nap until finally they called my flight. Air Canada 864, with nonstop service to London Heathrow airport, was now boarding at gate 56.

Time to take that step, then. I walked once again onto hallowed ground, onto the jetway, the only thing separating me from adventure.

As we turned onto the runway, I looked out at the airport grounds and realized that this really was it – I was past the point of no return. Winter was already here in Montreal, and the snow flew down in the beams of the huge lights illuminating the tarmac as we taxied to the end of the runway. The pilot then pushed the throttles to the stops and I felt the acceleration of the half-empty Airbus push me back into my seat. We lifted off, and I managed to catch a final glimpse of Montréal before we punched into the cloud layer blanketing the continent. I was on my way.

As the plane turned out over the Atlantic, I eased into what was (so far) the longest flight of my life. Six and a half hours in a graciously empty plane. A woman sitting behind me offered advice; this was getting to be routine for her, based by family in Toronto but by trade in London. I was restless. A flight attendant picked up on this, and with a well practiced sleight-of-hand, slipped two little bottles of wine into my hoodie with a wink. Back in row 42, I stretched out into the empty seat next to me, finished my present, and headed off to an uneasy sleep.

I was roused by the same kindly flight attendant offering me coffee, which I gladly accepted. The sun began to rise, first lighting the sky enough that I could see the outline of the wing, then coming up above the horizon, above the cloud deck that had followed me to Britain. We descended through the clouds, the plane making all manner of noises as the flaps and landing gear did their thing, myself still unable to see beyond the window in the pea soup of the clouds. Finally, around 1000 feet, the ground came into view.

The cars on the streets below were going the wrong way. I had arrived.

onward and upward

I know I’ve been slacking quite badly lately with the update of this blog, but that’s about to change. I’m currently on the first leg of my biggest trip yet: four months, mostly in London. Also on the list: Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, and wherever else we think we can get to.

This idea was a long time coming. I’d always wanted to do some study abroad before I left university, but hadn’t looked seriously at it until the beginning of this semester. After a good deal of research and many hours of wonderful number crunching, I made the decision to apply for a 3-and-a-half month long semester in London. Chosen for its proximity to the rest of Europe and my general want to experience the city, London seems like a good plan. After my program ends in mid April (it seems so long from now), I’ll be traipsing about the rest of Europe for a few weeks until either:

a) I run out of money
b) I fly home on the day my tickets are for in late April

I give it split odds.

Anyway, there will be updates with stories and photos from the US and Canada, since I’ve still got a large backlog to clear, but watch this space for tales of lunacy in Europe.

Stay classy!