Amsterdam: Park and Gay Pride

Today was rather draining, and occasionally disappointing, but I'm glad to have lived it. The day started off with me trying to find a grocery store so I could get some food for the day that wouldn't empty my pockets as much as the food yesterday did. I knew there was a Lidl somewhere in the city center, but I didn't recall where, so I asked the front desk of the hotel for advice. The advice I received took me away from the city proper to a super market that I was unable to find. I did, however, find some other super market where I got half a loaf of bread and a 500 gram pack of potato-egg salad, perfect for spreading. Due to not actually having a knife (that wasn't packed up deep in my luggage), I made due with washing my RWTH library card and using that instead.

With my food for the day sorted, I headed into the city to visit the flower market. (This took longer than expected due to underestimating the scale on Google Maps. Given an ankle still recovering from a sprain, the high amount of walking from yesterday and today have made it rather sore). Now, I don't particularly care for roses and lily's and the like. However, you can't visit Amsterdam and not look at some flowers. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the plants I saw there. My favorites are shown below. I also came across several types of cactus that reminded me of alien worlds and bad sci-fi. If a guy tried to woo me with roses, I'd be unimpressed, but I would totally accept a cactus.

Left to Right: Anthurium, Medinilla, and Bromeliad.
After the flower market, which was considerably smaller than I'd expected, I walked through the Spiegelkwatier (Mirror Quarter), a section of the city full of antiques stores and tiny art galleries. I always feel awkward going into a shop knowing that I have no intention of buying anything, especially when I'm the only person in there. I feel as though I'm giving the owner false hope or something. Thus, I stuck to window shopping. The art I saw wasn't quite to my tastes, but some of the antique stores looked fairly interesting. One specialized in clocks. I had never realized how creative one can get with a pendulum. Another shop had model ships, sextants, clocks, and most likely telescopes and barometers further inside. One window I passed seemed filled with typical enough knick knacks until I realized that the life-size cat sculpture at the front was an actual living cat. It brushed up against the glass, and I bemoaned the barrier between us. A sign on the shop door had the feline's photo and the caption "This store protected by attack cat."

I eventually emerged from the Spiegelkwartier and hit the shopping hotspot of Leidseplein. Most of the shops were clothes or food, neither of which I wanted to torture myself with by looking at and not purchasing. However, the Eichholtz Delicatessen stood out to me. It advertised as a US and British foods shop. I expected to see quasi-american products that I could laugh at. When I opened the door though, I was confronted with a row of brand-name Cereals I haven't seen in months. The sight hit me like a ton of bricks. It was like remembering something you'd forgotten that you had forgotten. I continued looking. Some things like Twix were nothing special, as the Mars company is pretty big in Germany. However, pop-tarts, Aunt Jemima's, Betty Crocker cake mixes, frosting tubs, pie tins, and A&W root-beer all evoked similar feelings of "oh yeah! Those things!" in me. I caved and purchased a can of A&W to hydrate like a proper yank. With that taste of reverse-culture shock, I'm not sure if I'm looking forward to being home more or less now. We'll find out what happens tomorrow.

The only things I had left in my itinerary for the day were going to a free concert at 1pm in the Vondelpark and following that up with the Gay Pride canal parade. I had a bit over an hour to kill by the time I'd reached the park, half limping due to walking too far without break. The park is a long, skinny stretch of grass and trees dotted with ponds and sculptures. If I'm honest, many of the sculptures look to me like scaled up papier-mâché. However, Pablo Picasso apparently loved the park so much that he donated a sculpture of his own creation to it. It resides on the far south end, which I did not feel like walking to. Instead, I located the open air theater where the free concert was supposed to occur and climbed the tree just outside it. Its branches were so wonderfully thick and horizontal that they made for rather comfortable seating once I'd figured out how to climb with a purse and a bag full of potato salad. While waiting for it to be 1, a bike tour came along and stopped right under the branches. The tour guide explained that the spot on which they stood was actually the lowest point in all of Amsterdam, a full 6 meters below sea level. She commented that if the dikes ever broke-down, "I hope you can swim or climb trees like this girl who is setting a good example." It's always nice to be included.

When the "concert" finally started, I realized I had understood less of the dutch description than I'd thought. It turned out that the "Jazz Barones" were a group that put on kid shows with some jazz thrown in. This was not one of those kids shows that the parents can enjoy too, so I packed up and headed to the parade early.

The parade was PACKED. People lined the sides of every side of the canals 3-rows deep. Some lucky few looked out from overlooking windows while others climbed up to stand on the first floor window ledges. The clothes ranged from normal to studded leather to go-go-geisha, and that was just the observers. The barges themselves were just as varied, but way more dramatic. I'm talking full silver body-paint, a boat full of shirtless centurions, two guys on water-jets wearing business suits, and way more. In order to get a view at all, I first tried standing atop a tiny bollard with one hand on a lamppost to support myself. However, having all my weight on the middle of one foot and the side of one hand got uncomfortable fast. I switched to standing on one of the countless bike racks trying not to accidentally step on a stranger's bicycle. This worked far, far better.

Now, seeing all these people loud and proud was really cool and uplifting. Enjoying their costumes, dancing, and party music was fun. So very fun. So much. intensely noisy fun. Fun with so many other people. Yep. These crowds sure are having fun. It's...fuuuuuuu - okay I ditched. I had had as much as I could take of it all. I could either be somewhere comfortably distant from the crowds but necessitating a rather uncomfortable viewing perch, or I could be kind to my feet, but be surrounded by presses of people. I do not like presses of people, in particular people I don't know. Had I been with friends, the story would have been different. As it was, I could not handle being alone in a giant, rambunctious crowd. By the time I'd gotten away from it all and located a tram to take me home, it was just shy of 4pm. A party animal I most definitely am not.

Honestly, Amsterdam is a place I think I'd hate to live. My experience may have been different had I gone to one of the museums instead of to a shopping area (blame my aversion to paying entrance fees.) However, the constant piles of people and bikes and people on bikes making crossing streets an even more confusing exercise in nonverbal communication just leads me to suspect that I would fry my circuits if I had to stay a few days longer. It's been an experience, but if I had to choose a major City to live in, I'd prefer Berlin and its subways and wide streets or Cologne and its reasonably predictable traffic patterns.

Tomorrow: The flight.

Amsterdam: Food and Tour

Today began around 7am with getting the multi-day ticket for all trams, busses, and metros in Amsterdam. It costs just 12 Euros for 2 days, and my travels today alone would have cost around 7. I expect to break even tomorrow, and just having the comfort of knowing that I'm covered is worth the extra cost if I don't.

All the tickets have little electronic chips in them. You hold them up to the scanners at the tram/bus entrance and then scan out again when you leave. This system strikes me as even more susceptible to fraud than the German system, since one of the more common ticket options involves loading credit onto a plastic card and having that credit taken down with each scan in/scan out. You could easily get on at the back, maybe pretend to scan, and get a free ride out of it. No one goes around checking that the ticket actually swiped so far as I know. Some of the trams have a little booth near the back with an employee who sells tickets on-board, which would thwart this trick, but that's the exception more than the rule. Loopholes that would make such systems unimplementable in the United States aside, I enjoyed my stints on the trams. I especially appreciated hearing the stops announced and comparing them to their written names to get a feel for Dutch pronunciation. Apparently J is sometimes a vowel...

My first stop was to get some breakfast at a place called Multivlaai. Vlaai, or limburgse vlaai, is a genre of pastry very similar to pie. I personally can't really tell the difference between the two. I do know that I usually don't care much for fruit pies but rather enjoyed the slice of apple-lemon vlaai I tried. I consumed my slice while sitting on a bench beside a placid stretch of water and watching the strings of floating planters lining the canal drift in the flow. This may not have been the healthiest meal with which to start my day, but boy was it pleasant. (My whole approach to food today was pretty hedonistic.)

Once finished, I hopped back on the tram to get to the Albert Cuyp Market, the largest and most well known daily market in Amsterdam. It goes (roughly) from 9 to 5. Unfortunately, I took those times a bit too literally. When I arrived at 9:00, over half of the stalls were still in the process of setting up. I decided to pace up and down the length of the market. Each time, I encountered a new booth. Many of the products sold were clothes, jewelry, produce and baked goods, watches (insane amounts of watches), the usual. One extremely touristy but oh so tempting product was fuzzy slippers in the shape of wooden clogs. What I did ultimately get amounted to 1 package of Stroopwafeln (tiny waffle cookies with caramel filling), and a loose-leaf tea mix supposedly specific to the market. I also tried out a pseudo cookie that consisted of little other than coconut shavings, sugar, and vanilla flavoring. It was delicious and I have no regrets.

After I tired of the market, I headed to Dam Square to catch one of the free Sandeman tours that started there at 11:15. I had arrived fairly early and decided to walk around the city hall. I passed two street performers, one of whom had dressed as death, another as a guilded and bedazzled centurion with quite the codpiece. Coming back around the building, I saw someone holding a sign saying FREE TOUR: 11AM. Apparently a completely separate tour agency offered a similar tour at a similar time in the same exact place. I considered just sticking with the Sandeman since I knew it to be quality from the reviews, but that would have run for 3 hours instead of 2 and started a little later, so I jumped ship. Before the tour got underway, I made the acquaintance of another student from the US, who became a sort of tour buddy. She also lent me sunscreen when I realized I'd forgotten to bring any. Hooray for nice people!

The tour started off by explaining that, to avoid death in Amsterdam, you need to be on constant alert for cyclists and not walk on the bike paths. That much I had gotten fairly used to from Aachen. He also informed us that, unlike in the States where a red light with a countdown beneath it tells you how long you still have to cross, the count-downs in Amsterdam tell you how much time you have until the light turns green again. In other words, red always means stop.

After giving that safety tip, he led us to Amsterdam's widest bridge. It was so wide in fact that it could fit two lanes, several rows of patio chairs on one side, and our full tour group on the other with plenty of space to spare. On the other side, he pointed out the narrowest house. It was literally only 1 meter across (3ft, 3 inches) and had a perfectly normal family residing in it. Due to the lack of space and the high taxes for floor area, narrow houses packed close together are fairly common, though 1 meter is pretty extreme. Another trick for space is that the buildings lean in towards the street slightly to give them more floor space on upper floors where goods were stored in case of floods. To get those goods up there, rather than lugging them up the extremely steep steps, people used a rope and pully attached to a hook on the building's front. Now I cannot not notice how nearly every older building has such a hook.

The next stop took us by a little cheese shop where we got free samples of an extremely delectable cow cheese. Alas, I do not recall the name of the shop. If I'm perfectly honest, the middle part of the journey is a bit vague in my memory. One stop I do recall is that of the entrance to the old prison, which now serves as a shopping center. The gate featured a vaguely romanesque sculpture of a woman with a whip and two men cowering and in chains to either side of her. Below there was a carving of someone with a cart full of wood and the inscription "Virtutis est domare quae cuncti pavent," which translates as "it is the characteristic of the virtuous to dominate all those that they fear" according to a Latin reading friend of mine. That is certainly an interesting and in no way oppressive interpretation of virtue...

Further along, we stopped at Nieuwmarkt (New Market) where a large squat building stood in the center of the Square. It had four towers that had previously been used for four guilds. Only two were named, the surgeons' guild, which claimed the bodies of those hanged daily in the square for their studies, and the masons' guild, whose tower was full of windows, since would-be members had to prove their skill by installing one.

We then passed through a mini China-town to enter the red light district. The tour guide made it quite clear that we could not take pictures of the women working there. Photos of them could reveal their profession to family members they might have kept it from, interfere with future job opportunities, etcetera. It seems like destigmatizing consensual and safe participation in the sex industry would make these women's lives a heck of a lot easier. Speaking of safety, the women always have the right to deny to service a customer for any reason. Their rooms are fitted with a panic button that alerts the police that patrol the area and a private security service in the building. Unlike street prostitution, which is illegal, the women are always in control of the situation. Honestly, it sounds like it's safer to work the Red Light district than to go to a club.

Walking past windows with women in their underwear in them was a fairly surreal experience. I knew that the women chose to work there, but I still felt really awkward actually looking at them. I mean, their bodies are literally on display as products. I felt like I was objectifying them. Then again, I wouldn't think twice about sizing up personal trainer by how healthy they look or  an actor/actress by how much they look like a character.

Once the tour concluded, I made my way back to a little French Fry stand the guide had pointed out (with the help of Sunscreen girl, whose sense of direction far exceeded my own), and got some of the most delectable, perfectly crispy yet fluffy fries I've ever had the pleasure of tasting. I did not go the traditional route and drown them in mayonnaise. That is a crime against nature, and my arteries probably wouldn't take it anyway given the rest of the day's fare.

By this time, I was pooped, so I trammed back to the hotel to take a nap. Tomorrow I intend to investigate some more of downtown Amsterdam on foot before the beginning of the Gay Pride canal parade.