Land of the wooden shoes
(Originally written in January, 2014, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.)
I arrived in Amsterdam around 6 this morning and I'm falling more in love with this city every minute.
After spending 13 hours in row 55 (the last row) of the plane from China, I was the last passenger off. I pushed my carry-on bag into a storage locker near immigration, collected my receipt, flashed my passport to the officer, and headed to the train ticket counter where I purchased a round-trip ticket to Amsterdam Centraal station. The saleslady told me to go to Platform 3 where the next train would be departing at 6:46, 5 minutes from now.
Down the escalator and on the platform, I stood in front of a map of the city, which was only a 20-minute train ride away, and tried to get my bearings. A train pulled up about a minute later which seemed too early to be the 6:46 train. A 20-something guy (and fellow English speaker) approached me and asked if I thought it was the train to Centraal. I guessed no. We decided to let the train pass and wait for another, and in the meantime we got to talking. I learned that his name was Tym, he was originally from Wisconsin, and he was also just passing through Amsterdam between flights from Doha to the States. He would be returning to Doha eventually to teach at a university there. We sat across from each other on the train and shared our stories (mainly about travel). Once we arrived at Centraal, we headed out into the still-dark city and realized that the only thing to do at this early hour was walk around. We snapped photos with our iPhones, talked more about our lives, and wandered down street after street and along the canals, wondering when the sun would rise.
After about an hour of waiting for the sun to rise and for businesses to open, we finally found an open establishment labeled "coffee shop" which immediately led me to believe that we might find more than just coffee inside. As the door opened and the waft of smoke hit us, we realized what kind of shop this was. We decided to look elsewhere and hoped that the slowly rising sun would mean more open cafes...that were actual cafes.
Just around the corner we spotted the ever recognizable red "Illy" sign and we knew we had struck gold! We got lattes, split a chocolate croissant, and enjoyed the pleasantries of the tiny European cafe, while I enjoyed the warmth of being indoors. The chilly Holland air was quite the test for my Cambodian pea coat from Phnom Penh's Central Market.
Tym had to return to Schiphol to catch his flight, so for the next 9 hours until my own flight, it was just me and the streets of Amsterdam. I decided to investigate a canal cruise that I had previously read about online. It left the dock right across from Centraal station every 30 minutes and cost 15 euros for a one-hour tour through the canals. I caught a boat about 5 minutes before its departure and found the last available seat, across a table from a middle-aged Dutch couple.
The compact, glass-window--covered boat pulled away from the dock and the automated recorded tour guide's voice came over the speakers, first in Dutch, then English, followed by French, and finally Italian. This continued throughout the tour and I started to feel sorry for any Italians on board. By the time their language came on at each point of interest, we had pretty much passed the landmark.
During the tour I learned a great deal about Amsterdam's history and saw the city from a unique perspective, including the Anne Frank house, some of the 2,500 house boats that live on the canal, and a select few of the city's 1,200 bridges.
An hour later we docked and I resumed marching through the brick and cobblestone streets and alleys in search of a warm bowl of authentic Amsterdam pea soup. I came upon a tiny tavern called De Vergulde Lantaarn that advertised a bowl of pea soup with garlic bread for 4,90 euros. Sold. I made myself comfortable at a table against the window that looked out onto the retail-heavy alley.
"You are a writer?" the young waitress asked me as she handed me the bill. I had spent the majority of the meal writing this post while sipping on the pea soup.
"I really admire writers," she replied. "Your ability to put your feelings out there. I'm not very good at expressing myself."
It was then I realized how much I turn to writing to do just that: express myself in a way that verbally I cannot.
A few more hours of wandering lie ahead of me before I venture back to Schiphol and onward to Barcelona, where I would also be unprepared for the frigid winter temps with my Southeast Asia wardrobe. I made a point to stock up on sweaters, pants, and boots at a few of the many H&M stores, including one in the airport.