Choose My Side

Trip Start Nov 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 21, 2006

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Flag of Netherlands  ,
Sunday, September 24, 2006

After I stayed with Roland in Geneva I thought the bar had been set fairly high for quality of hosts. Then I spent a few nights in Rotterdam with the lovely Mandy Los and that bar was blown into the stratosphere. A little background on Mandy before we move along with the narrative. I first met Mandy back at the Jolly Swagman in Sydney way back in December. She was only there for a few days that I was there and we didn't talk all that much -- the only reason we talked at all was one of her best friends at the Swagman was one of my best friends as well. Fast forward to Hobart Airport in mid-February. I'm being lazy and not bothering to get on line to board the plane when I see a girl that looks really familiar. Sure enough, it's Mandy. It's amazing how seeing a familiar face in an unfamiliar situation can spark a friendship. We spent the flight catching up on what the other had been up to and when we got into Adelaide she decided to come stay at the hostel I had booked in to because she didn't have any bookings. This turned out to be a very fortunate development because that hostel was awful, one of the most unsocial places I've been, so without someone like Mandy to hang out with for five days I would've been miserable. We swapped a few emails shortly thereafter but after a few weeks fell silent. There's only been one fellow traveler that I've kept up any sort of real correspondence with, it's just too difficult when you're traveling, when internet visits can be few and far between and normally always on a time limit. But once I knew Holland was only a few days away I got in touch with Mandy and she was excited to be able to show off her home.

Rotterdam is a fairly unique city in Europe, in a sense the most unique. It's towering skyline and shimmering buildings are more like an American or Australian city than a European city. This is because the city was utterly destroyed by the Germans in World War II. Many cities were devastated during the war -- Rotterdam was destroyed (it's interesting, many Europeans consider Rotterdam 'ugly' because of all the modern architecture. Many of these Europeans are from Amsterdam and Amsterdam has a bit of a rivalry going with Rotterdam. It's fun to wind the Dutch up, tell someone from Rotterdam that you loved Amsterdam or someone from Amsterdam that their city is crap compared to Rotterdam and you get quite a performance). At the heart of the city now is an expansive pedestrian zone lined with all sorts of shops and boutiques. This turned out to be handy for me because my first order of business in Rotterdam was to buy a new pair of sneakers. My old sneakers, which had been going to war for me for the better part of nine months had become a bit rooted when some Germans at Oktoberfest suggested a shortcut to my camping ground through the dried out river. The river might have been empty but it wasn't dried out. And even if they weren't irreversibly fucked from Oktoberfest, they were irreversibly stolen (or thrown out) from my hostel in Brussels. And I wasn't exactly prepared to do the rest of the trip in flipflops. I've already mentioned how they perform in the rain and I'm spending a month and a half in Ireland and the UK.

My first day in Rotterdam I actually didn't really spend in Rotterdam. Once the new sneakers were purchased we hopped a train to Hellevoetslois, Mandy's hometown (and if you just read out the name of that town, you pronounced it wrong, I know this). One of the great things about staying with friends when you travel (aside from the free accommodation, of course) is that you not only get to hang out almost strictly with locals but you also get to see some places most tourists never venture. Hellevoetslois is out on the coast so for two days I got to be a beach bum. When I knew it wouldn't be mid-September until I arrived in Holland I assumed I'd be getting wet. I just figured it would be from all the rain, not from jumping in the sea (every Dutch person I met in Europe would immediately say 'Bring a raincoat' after I told them I'd be going in September). I actually got exceptionally lucky with the weather, instead of rain, it was beautiful, days you'd want to be out on the beach. Since Mandy has turned into a bit of a windsurfing addict she tried to teach me as well. Now, I haven't been on a windsurf board since I was 11 or 12 and my experience on the board was getting maybe a knee or two on. I don't think I was ever even able to stand up. Things that involve balance just don't agree with me. I don't ride bikes, motorcycles, so on. So when I was able to stand up and grip the rope to pull up the sail on the first crack I considered this a small victory. Of course getting the sail up and then catching wind is a whole other story. I tried my best and tried for a long time, but never really got all that far. At least I gave it the old college try.

That night, her parents, Ina and Chiel, took Mandy, her brother and myself out for dinner in the old town. Now, when I go stay with a friend I really don't expect anything more than a bed and maybe a free tour guide. That's more than enough for me, but when people start treating me to nice dinners it can almost feel awkward at first. But this is the thing I had to realize -- traveling and meeting locals is a two way street. I want to meet the locals, let their experiences and world view enrich my own experience. But at the same time, they want to get the same thing out of me -- her parents, for example, meet nothing but Dutch people, so having an American at their dinner table is just as unique for them as it is for me to have a Dutch family at mine. The truly incredible thing was the whole dinner conversation was conducted in English, even the mundane family business that didn't concern me at all -- they wanted me included in everything. I knew the Dutch spoke English very well, every Dutch person I've met had an excellent command of the language, sometimes even speaking without an accent and often using the language better than most native speakers. But what sets Holland apart is EVERYBODY speaks English, not just my generation. Try finding a German over 40 who speaks English. It's like finding someone who isn't Australian at Oktoberfest.

After we left Hellevoetslois I had a day on my own to roam Rotterdam while Mandy was in class. The weather was too nice to waste it on a museum so I just strolled around. There isn't an incredible amount to see in Rotterdam, it's a brand new city after all, with just about every non-residential building being constructed in the 1970s or later. The whole time I was walking around this brand spanking new town I was reminded of an experience at Sziget. I had spent the day with a group of Irish girls I had met in Prague and at some point while we were sitting around eating a Dutch guy came up and joined us. He was nice enough at first, we were just discussing music (as you do at a music festival) when he offhandedly said English and Irish is more or less the same thing, not realizing how ignorant and borderline offensive he was being. So of course the Irish girls fire back about how Dutch and German is more or less the same. Naturally, he got offended (the Dutch HATE the Germans, that's something even Rotterdamers and Amsterdamers can agree on) but still couldn't see why he was being offensive. It was a genuinely uncomfortable situation. It made confusing an American for Canadian like calling a Coke Pepsi. And that was the overwhelming memory I had while I was in Rotterdam -- when you're walking among the shimmering, modern buildings the history of what the Germans did to this city is palpable.

One of the touristy things to see (aside from the bridges, the Dutch are very proud of their bridges. Bridges and dams. And windmills) are these really bizarre apartments that are cubeshaped and put on stilts at a 45 degree angle. You can even pay to go in and see one. So there I was, standing out on the street snapping pictures of a place where people live. In that way they were sort of like the Vatican.

I was supposed to spend the whole rest of the weekend with Mandy, splitting the time between Rotterdam and Hellevoetslois but the more we looked at it, with her schedule (some people still have real world issues) it just didn't make sense to hang around. So in a snap decision I was on a train and up to Amsterdam. To stay with more Dutch girls.

(You might be wondering, by the way, why I entitled this entry 'Choose My Side.' Before I proceed, let me say this, if you are a parent -- parent of me mostly -- easily offended or judgmental you can skip this and carry on with your Web browsing. Now that I've made this disclaimer I'll continue. There was a dirty old man, Eddy, who was staying at the Jolly Swagman at the same time as well. He was a 40 year old English divorcee and a bit full on. He wasn't my favorite but I didn't mind him all that much, he was decently funny and was Jewish and had lived in Phoenix so we had things to talk about. Plus I'm not a girl so I wouldn't have any reason to be freaked out by him. Eddy, though, had stumbled upon a little gag that's guaranteed to always produce some immature giggling. What you do is you go up to a Dutch person, preferably a girl and say, 'I'm going to say something in English, you say the same thing in Dutch.' Then you say 'choose my side.' Then they say the Dutch version of 'choose my side.' Hilarity ensues. Then said Dutch person realizes what they've just said and starts laughing and turning red-faced at the same time. It's a lot of fun. And I won't spoil it for you by typing out what happens. You'll just have to find yourself a Dutch person or do some research. I can't hold your hand all the way.)
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