Friday, October 8, 2010


Blue skies, fluffy clouds, the pleasant ringing of bicycle bells, crossing bridges over canals with swans floating by…Amsterdam is very different than any place I’ve ever been. The weather has been unseasonably warm, and I had nearly 3 days of summerish weather to do my main sightseeing of the city proper. With an I AMsterdam pass, in 48 hours I was able to run around and see all the main museums and take a canal tour. The unlimited public transport included in the pass was a huge plus, too.

The call of “Frou! Frou!” wakes me out of my pleasant day-dreaming as I wander. I have mistaken once again the bike street for a pedestrian sidewalk. I should just paste a sign (like they do for student drivers) on my back that says, “Warning—American.” Almost every street has a lane for cars, with a separate parallel bike lane, and then a sidewalk for pedestrians. Bikes have more rights than pedestrians. I look both ways several times before crossing any lane or street because the bikes come from thin air, warning bells dinging. There are multi-story parking garages filled to the brim with bicycles. There are bikes for cargo, bikes with shelves or seats for kids or adult friends. Bikes with big bucket-like boxes built into the frame. Tiny folding bikes can go on the public transport. It is amazing to see a city so entirely built around bikes.

I learned that marijuana is actually illegal here. I went on a walking tour where the guide said if as long as something follows three rules, laws against it are not enforced. If it is good for business, isn’t hurting anyone, and the person doing it is discreet, police turn a blind eye. The shops that sell weed are called “Coffeeshops.” If you actually want coffee, you go to a caf√©. I haven’t gone in, but occasionally have swooned walking through clouds of coffee smoke coming from the open windows. In the evenings, the streets fill with people in their early 20s out doing pub crawls. Several times I saw very stoned young men confounded by the task of scanning their metro card on a moving tram. When I talked to younger people on my tour, they said with some surprise that Amsterdam had so much more to offer than the red light district and weed. Really? It’s true.

As I am not a partying type, I have enjoyed learning the history of this place, seeing van Gogh’s and Rembrandt’s paintings, and learning more about the Dutch. When I came through customs, the agent asked if I spoke Dutch. When I said no, he said, “So what’s the deal with the Dutch last name?” My great-great grandfather came from here. “Ah! You have Dutch roots. You may enter.”

Now I am south of Amsterdam, being hosted by a kind Dutch woman I met in Ulaanbaatar. We had a good hour-long talk in the coffee shop in UB, and I have taken her up on her offer to stay a couple of days. She has a nice room in a student housing development. We talked until late over a nice dinner, and found we have a lot in common. I was asking her if things we attribute to being Dutch in our family are characteristics she would think of as Dutch. “We take pride in finding good quality second-hand items. Refurbishing discarded furniture (found in the trash) and using or reselling it would be something to brag about.” She paused before responding. She thought the drive to make things and fix older things for reuse was more of a farmer/countryside impulse than being particularly Dutch, but that it is true the Dutch prefer making money to spending it. (I guess this proves I am only partly Dutch, as I have been doing too good a job at spending my money.)

Tomorrow I will visit another woman that I met in Nepal during my trek. She and her partner have offered to take me to see the little villages where the Van Den Bergs hail from. What a treat to have local hosts. I got the historical overview and experienced the capital, and now will sink into daily life and culture. The best of both worlds.

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