City of Canals

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

After about a six and a half hour flight, we made it from Toronto to Amsterdam - not nearly the test of endurance of travelling to Asia! We flew during the night, though neither of us slept well; in fact, I didn't sleep at all - maybe because we hadn't climbed the hills of San Francisco all day like we did on our last excursion! The flight attendant kept talking to Martin in Dutch, thinking he was bound for the homeland. His stature (tall and lean) and his blue, blue eyes certainly look Northern European. He will fit right in in the Netherlands and Germany.

We hadn't booked a hotel before leaving home, but managed to find one quite easily once we arrived. A short train ride and an even shorter tram trip and we were at our accommodations, a small hotel located in the south canal belt of Amsterdam, near the city centre and not far from some of the most popular tourist sites, the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. Once we found our beds and assumed a horizontal position, it was "lights out" for the next few hours! (We did take jetlag pills again - at least I think they helped adjust our time clocks so we could sleep as jetlag, for reasons unknown to me, is much worse going east than travelling west.) The first night, however, I woke up at 5 am and couldn't shut my brain off - I kept thinking of what I was going to write in my travelogue and who I needed to email! (Note: The staff at our hotel were very helpful in providing directions, offering umbrellas, etc. - they even let me use their lap top to update my travelogue!)

Travelling in Europe is pricey, especially compared to 1981 when I first travelled here. Our "budget" hotel room was 75 Euros a night (about 110 CDN), including a continental breakfast. It was a stuffy, narrow room at the end of a long, meandering corridor that included two short flights of stairs. Rooms were located hither and thither along the hallway, reminding me of a rabbit warren or something out of Alice in Wonderland. Although we had our own sink, we had to share the "WC" (short for "water closet", i.e., toilet) facilities and the shower which, of course, were located at the other end of the hall. Needless to say, since I always have to get up in the middle of the night, I was tempted more than once to pee in the sink, though that would have been quite a feat, being female and all! (I guess our room was "canal-view" since it looked out that direction, but we could see people's feet better than we could see the canal!)

Amsterdam, a relatively small city of 800,000 (similar to the size of Winnipeg) is one of my favourite cities. As cities go, it's slow-paced - and so picturesque with all the canals (160 of them to be exact) lined with tall, narrow buildings. (When most houses were built, they were taxed on width - thus their current appearance.) In my estimation, Amsterdam, ranks right up there with cities like Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Kathmandu in Nepal, New Orleans in the US, Venice and Paris in Europe, York in the British Isles and Vancouver and Quebec City in Canada. (Note: My "ranking" system - although not at all based on any formula - is based on natural setting, ambiance and culture. I include very few cities in Asia because, as a Westerner, I find them just too noisy and chaotic to be very appealing.) Amsterdam would fulfill all three criteria I have mentioned - there's nothing like sitting at an outdoor restaurant along a canal watching the boats on a calm, warm evening, the moon overhead shining like a polished, white stone.

Believe it or not, the Netherlands (or Holland as the locals call it) is one of the most densely populated countries in the world (after Bangladesh and South Korea). Amsterdam is the capital, though the Hague is the seat of parliament. Concerted efforts have been made to restrict the number of motor vehicles in the centre of the city; as a result you see lots of people riding old, black bicycles with headlights and bells - to scare the tourists I think. (We were told that there's no use having a new bicycle or it will get stolen, regardless of whether or not you lock it.) There are designated bicycle lanes - and special traffic lights for bicycles - everywhere. Safety does not seem to be an issue as we saw no one with helmets, children rode on the handlebars of their parents' bikes and several cyclists clipped along without bothering to use their hands. And because so many people are physically active here you see very few who are overweight. The green movement has made great inroads here and great emphasis is placed on keeping the city clean - our guidebook indicated that the canals are flushed daily. (Skating on the canals is a popular pastime in the winter, but because winters here are not very cold several people fall though the ice each year and drown.)

The Dutch are a very tolerant people and are renowned for their flexibility and their willingness to accept all people as they are (a trait known as "gezellig"). They are also considered to be very progressive as far as social issues are concerned. The Netherlands was the first country in the world to recognize homosexual marriage and have a very liberal education system. They have also legalized euthanasia and abortion. Believing that you cannot eradicate prostitution and drug use, prostitution is legal and the drug laws here are the most lenient on the planet. (Though cannabis is still illegal, the police turn a "blind eye" on personal use of "soft" drugs.) They also seem to be very tolerant of smokers, jaywalkers, cats in restaurants, cyclists who ride their bicycles on the sidewalk and people who bathe in perfume/aftershave!

Amsterdam is an easy-going and casual place. People are generally very friendly and speak good English which makes it a very comfortable place to travel for us Anglos. And for us "Foodies" there are loads of wonderful restaurants, particularly Indonesian which would date back to the Dutch occupation of Indonesia when Indonesia was known as the "Dutch Indies". (Cities like Jakarta, Indonesia, are built on a system of canals like Amsterdam, but are fetid cesspools in the Asian heat.) There are also lots of sushi places, Thai eateries, Argentinian restaurants (a surprise - don't ask me why!), pizzerias and restaurants that serve local fare. Dutch delicacies include pancakes, french fries and mayonnaise (yummy!), salty licorice (yucky), Gouda (pronounced "Howda") cheese and, of course, Heineken beer! (Eating out seems to be similar in cost to home - maybe a bit more expensive, though they certainly discourage you from using your credit card - probably because of the extra charges they incur.) Other products the Dutch are renowned for include Delft (blue and white) pottery and tiles, and flowers, particularly tulips. The huge flower auctions are something to see! The flowers here are beautiful and there's a flowershop on every corner. Three Euro ($4.50 CDN) will buy you a stunning bouquet.

The heydays of the Dutch was the 17th Century, a period during which they explored and plundered the world ( Indonesia, for instance). The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is dedicated to the masters of that period - painters like Rembrandt Van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Franz Hals and Jan Steen.

We ventured out in the rain one evening, bound for the Red Light District, about 15 minutes walk from our hotel. The Netherlands has a coastal climate similar to Vancouver and it rains a great deal, so it's either go out in the rain or don't go out at all! The fellow who works at the hostel told us that they seldom have snow for any length of time, but last year the white stuff stuck around for five days straight! Imagine! (Little bit of sarcasm here.) He also said that for five years prior it didn't snow at all.

With rain come umbrellas - and a sea of them. It felt like umbrella wars out there and you're continually on the offensive/defensive, making your moves down the street. As a prairie person, I am not well-versed in umbrella etiquette, since we rarely use them because 1) it rains too hard, and 2) the wind can easily turn you in to Mary Poppins in no time! Manipulating my brolly without offending the locals (and not poking Martin in the eye) was a challenge! (Martin never uses an umbrella - he seems to have an aversion to them.) Regardless, we both returned to our hotel soaked to the skin! I have a feeling that this trip is going to be wetter than the last one . . . !)

Martin is the navigator of our duo, as well as the "money man" since he's much better with calculating exchange rates, etc. than I am. He managed to steer us around Amsterdam without any problems. I can't even navigate with a map! My role is that of organizer, itinerary planner and talker - and, of course, haggler in places where you bargain. How's that for division of labour???

The Red Light District is truly a unique and interesting place with a relaxed and casual atmosphere. You see all sorts of people here - tourists as well as the locals. Prostitution is regulated by the government here; they have their own union and health coverage. The women (we didn't see any boys or men) sit or stand scantily clad in picture windows surrounded by red lights. (Our travel guide indicates that actuallz only 10% of protitutes are Dutch - most come from Eastern Europe.) A conglomeration of sex shops, peep shows, drug paraphernalia stores, bars, restaurants, confectioneries and "coffee shops" selling marijuana/hashish/magic mushrooms intermingle with the windows of women for sale. Not once did we feel unsafe there.

Even after a few days in Amsterdam, Martin still has his days and nights mixed up. I am hoping he will have them straightened out soon - so I can sleep, too!
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