AMSTERDAM, February 2003


A few weeks into January, Dave telephoned me from work and said he had something for me to do. He wanted me to book the dog into a kennel from 6 February until 10 February. He said he'd made arrangements for us to go to a European city, but that he wouldn't tell me where. He said it was a place neither of us had been, that we'd need passports, euros, and that the weather was about the same as it is here. In the weeks that followed, he also let me know that it was not Gibraltar of anywhere in France. I had chances to learn the destination, but I was into the surprise of it, so I ignored them. A letter arrived in an unmarked envelope that Dave asked me to open for him. When I saw that it was on travel agency letterhead, I refused to look any further. I asked him to find out a few things about our destination in a European guidebook I have, but not to leave it where I could see which pages it might want to fall open to. Good Susan.

I was excited during the weeks before the trip, and also trying to think of everything I could need to pack or arrange for myself and the baby for the mystery trip. That didn't stop just because it was the night before, we had to be up at 4AM, and I needed sleep. So I got two hours of sleep before Dave woke me up to get dressed and pack the car. I found out our destination at check-in at the airport when Dave led me to a desk with the word Amsterdam over it.

We made good time to Stansted, and I had time to look through the guide book while we waited for our gate to be announced. It all seemed so unreal. I haven't traveled much, and wasn't sure how to approach all of this.

Day One

We arrived at Schipol airport, where everything looked strange. For one thing, international arrivals and departures are all in the same area. That's unlike other airports I've been to. The people on the secure side with us had little luggage trolleys with platforms about 18 inches long. No good for big suitcases, perfect for a couple of carry-on bags. I hadn't seen those before. Through passport control, I used my British passport for the first time. Dave asked the passport guy if he would stamp the baby's passport, even though it wasn't required, just so we could have a record for him of where he'd been. He stamped all three passports for us and smiled about it. It was a nice contrast from Spain, where we were told "this is not possible." On to collect our checked bag, and the familiar big luggage trolleys were available for us. Nice!

We found our way down to the trains without even having to go outside. I know a lot of airports have train service, but none of my US airports have had it, so I still appreciate it when I get it. The trains were double-decker. The baby was in a push-chair so we stayed on the platform between levels.

Once in downtown Amsterdam, we went to find our hotel, which was conveniently located very close to the station. No accident, Dave had been offered a room further out, but asked for something in close so we could walk everywhere with ease. We ended up on the Amstel Botel. I say on rather than in because it was a hotel on a boat. I don't think it had any engines, just a building constructed on a very large barge, but it was constructed to look boat-like. I never felt it move, but there also wasn't a lot of water in the river, nor was there a lot of floating traffic to make it move.

We unpacked and set ourselves up to go out on the town. The historic parts of Amsterdam are constructed in concentric horseshoes with rivers or canals every few blocks. We decided to start by walking down Valkenburgerstraat, for obvious reasons. We missed finding it to start with, but then figured out the error we'd made, and found it much easier to navigate after that.

We walked and looked and took it all in for a while, then decided that we needed to eat. Like now. We'd reached the point in hunger where nothing sounds good, and were unsure what we should expect to pay for a meal. We ended up in a side street Chinese restaurant, which met the immediate physical needs, but wasn't as good as the stuff we make at home. At least we got to see a real dumbwaiter in action, as the food was prepared on a different level than it was served on.

We set off on foot again, and ended up back at Central Station. Pretty much any road you get on will do its best to spit you out there again, so it happened a lot. A bit cold, we decided to take a tour on a covered canal boat. It drove us up and down the various canals and explained to us what we were seeing in three languages.

2500 houseboats are approved for docking in Amsterdam. They say the number will not increase. They're fitted with electricity and gas and running water. Some of them have front doors with doorbells, while others have hatches to open. Some look like real ocean-going vessels, some like canal boats, and some look like regular suburban houses built on barges.

Next we went to the Historical Museum and learned all about the history of Amsterdam.

We were pretty tired, and it was turning into Friday rush hour, so we went back to the Botel and slept for two hours. Good stuff.

Dave found a few likely places to have dinner listed in our guide book. We'd looked at a lot of menus over the course of the day, but decided to try one we hadn't seen yet. It was called Green Planet, an organic, eco-friendly vegetarian place. We walked down there and couldn't get in. All the tables were full, and he said they were out of eco-friendly take away boxes, and were waiting on the supplies from Germany. We made reservations for the next night, and wandered off to find something else.

We ended up having Mexican food, which was a treat because England doesn't do that -- or rather the Mexican food available in England is completely unrelated to any food found in Mexico. It was pretty good, the Amsterdam stuff.

Off for another walk, we skirted the red light district, which is clearly marked on the maps. It's legal, and they do want you to be able to find it if you want it. I wanted to see the women in the windows, but we didn't find that street on Friday.

Eventually we wandered back to the room, where the baby refused to sleep in his own bed. He really likes to be in with the big people when we travel. He positioned himself as the crossbar of a giant letter H, a trick he must have learned from the cats.

Day Two

We got up, had showers, and went to have free breakfast at our Botel. Christopher discovered that he loves orange juice. He also loves spitting yogurt down his shirt. Back to the room for a quick shirt change, and we went off to look at Amsterdam again.

We started by heading east to the Nemo, which is a science and technology museum in a building shaped like a giant sinking ship. Interesting choice. We stopped in to see if it was anything we wanted to do, and decided it wasn't. A lot of the things were for kids older than Kit. Maybe if we do another trip someday.

We walked down Valkenburgerstraat again because there was a convenience store there, and I wanted some diet cola. There is no place in central Amsterdam that sells the stuff for less that 2 euros, which just seemed silly to me. I bought a 500ml bottle and a six pack of cans, and refilled the bottle through the next few days. I also had water, which also goes for 2 euros or more per serving, even in the little shops. We had litre bottles we filled up with tap water, which was very good tap water.

Bicycles are everywhere. There are more bicycles than cars or pedestrians. Many of the bikes have luggage platforms on the back, but the most common thing I saw transported on them was another person sitting side-saddle.

When I was a kid in the US, girly girls rode girl bikes and everyone else rode boy bikes, the one with the cross bar between your legs. In Amsterdam everyone just rides whatever bike they have. At least half of the ones we saw parked (and they are parked absolutely everywhere) were the dropped-bar girl type, but I saw as many men riding that kind as women.

Bikes have their own traffic lanes, which they share with scooters and inline skaters. They have their own traffic lights, but it seems as if all colors mean "GO" to them. Dave says that there is a law that if a car and a bicycle get into an accident, no matter what led up to it, it's the car's fault. This makes for some very interesting bicycle maneuvers.

Virtually all toilets seem to be pay as you go. Men, however, are provided with places to pee on the street. They're metal structures which show men's legs up to the knee, and metal mesh to show their heads and shoulders. There is a wall inside to pee against, and a small drain hole on the ground.

We decided to make our way over to Anne Frank House on a southern loop, getting a better feel for the place. It turns out that they had a Saturday market with craft stalls of various descriptions. I bought a hat from Nepal made of yak wool, a tiny drum, and an African thumb piano made out of a gourd.

We arrived at Anne Frank House, which is actually several houses now, and realized we needed to rethink our plans. There was a line of people around the corner waiting to get in, and they were not getting closer very quickly. The house itself is six stories high, and with those narrow, steep dutch stairs, we did not relish the idea of hauling a baby and a stroller around the whole thing. We decided that we would go back in a few years when the kid can walk it himself, and might even get something out of the experience. Maybe he can even read the book first.

We saw the Homomonument, which is a large triangle of pink marble out over the water. The shape and color symbolize the pink triangle the Nazis made homosexuals wear. There were many flowers left on it. Very touching.

We stopped off for a bagel at Gary's Muffins because it's hard to get a good bagel in the UK (although one supermarket now does good ones, you still can't get them with toppings and stuff served on a plate. So we did the bagel thing and headed back towards the National Monument. We seemed to end up there a lot. Like several times each day. We walked and walked, looking at everyone and everything.

We finally made it to the street that had the women in the windows. Some of them were in bikinis, and I sincerely hope they had heaters because it was really cold outside. Some of them had a bit more to wear, but it was clear that it was all meant to come off again. Some had chairs while others had to stand. Some of them smiled and waved. Several venues offered us the chance to see live sex acts or talk to naked women. Nah, not this time. It was nice to know it's all really there though, not an invention of the media or drugged out writers.

Back to the room for a breather and to let our feet recover just a bit, then off to dinner at Green Planet. Completely worth the effort. Highly recommended. Best meal in restaurant in ages. They had a cat wandering around, and he was completely fascinated with Christopher. He sat on a nearby chair and craned his neck around to get a good look from a safe distance. Later we noticed cats peering out of other restaurant windows, so it must be a generally accepted practice. Jebus, the one at Green Planet, certainly did his best to charm the customers.

We'd done a lot of walking, and we did another hour or so after dinner before heading back to the room. Christopher was tired, and so were Dave and I. We tried to get him to sleep in his cot, but he refused. Actually, he screamed. And screamed. He was so tired, he almost fell asleep with his chin tucked over the top bar of the cot, refusing to relax. And time we tried to coax him down he just started screaming again. We decided to defer to the sleep needs of the other patrons of the Botel. He fell asleep instantly and completely once installed on the big bed again, snuggling into his favorite H position.

Oh yeah, and free porn on the Botel TV.

Day Three

On Sunday morning we had breakfast, packed up our bags, checked out, and left the bags in the Botel's storage room.

We decided to do a planned walk as detailed in our guide book. We'd actually done a lot of the legs of it before, but we had different things to notice this time, and it took us further west than we'd gone before.

At the end of that walk, we were going to take another walk which started near where the previous one had ended. We wandered and milled and looked and looked, but never did find the starting point of Walk Four. We did find a long line of artist studios of all descriptions tucked into the archways under a train track. There were at least thirty of them, but probably a good many more. It being Sunday, we only saw a few people working, but peered into many windows. It was nice to see that such a place existed.

While walking along the canals, we saw a conference bike. Dave took a photo, but if you plug the words "conference bike" into google, you can see one right away. They're constructed for seven people to sit in a circle and cycle together. It's supposed to be a team-building thing. It looked like lots of fun, and given the dominance of bikes on the Amsterdam landscape, it was a fitting place to encounter one.

Back to the National Monument again, we decided to try to get a free tour of the local diamond factory. We had vouchers for it, and details on how to get there, but when we did, it turned out that the building was unmarked. There was a pottery sharing the lot, so we looked around that. Mostly blue paintings on white clay, not really the sort of thing I go for, but it was interesting to see the process. The pieces were all individually painted, but a rough outline was stenciled onto each one first, and a finished plate provided to serve as a guide for shading and such.

We finally found our way into the diamond factory. It was really just a matter of opening the big black-glass doors and going in, but it was not something the building invited. We asked for a tour, and despite the fact that there were four other English speakers there waiting for a tour as well, the people behind the security glass seemed to be swearing among themselves in Dutch. Someone in a suit came out and invited us to follow him to the work room, where two people sat grinding facets onto diamonds I couldn't even see. We looked at the displays and heard a little talk about what diamonds have to go through. Then he took us to another area and locked himself in a small room with us. A tube popped out of a pneumatic chute, from which our guide produced four individually wrapped diamonds. He showed us the differences between them, and it was pretty clear when they were all right next to each other. The top specimen, he said, was selling for 8000 euros. We didn't make any purchases, even though they had rings and earrings and necklaces there for mere hundreds of euros. They gave us free beverages before releasing us back to the street.

We wanted to give the baby a chance to run a bit, so we searched for a park located near the botanical gardens. It took us ages to find it, and when we did, it was just a patch of grass with a cinder track around it. There was an Auschwitz monument there, which did seem to draw a steady stream of visitors. The baby refused to run, but did consent to play with the small stones on the path for a while.

Amsterdammers love their dogs, but they do not love to clean up their dogs' poop. Seriously, watch your step. Everywhere.

Back through the red light district with only a few women in windows, we searched for a light meal before heading back to the airport. We got some nice Greek food from a small place where one guy did everything. Seating us, taking our orders, cooking our food, serving us, checking on us, and taking our money. He seemed glad we were there.

I only smelled pot eleven times in three days, and six of them were on Sunday. They really do seem to try to keep it indoors, and there were signs up condemning harder drugs. They don't want all the negative effects of hard drugs causing trouble for the nice, law abiding pot smokers.

We collected the bags, took the train back to the airport, and waited around for the check-in desk to open. There was nothing strange or foreign about the airport this time, although we did draw comments when we bought some biscuits, which Dave handed to the cashier and I paid for. She stared at us and said that usually it's the other way around. Once through security, we got one of the little carry-on trolleys that had seemed so odd just a few days earlier. The baby slept through most of the flight, and both the baby and I slept most of the car drive home. We arrived home around midnight and fell into deep, deep sleep.


Amsterdam Central is really a lot like San Francisco's touristy bits. I know that very few natives really live there or indulge in the activities the area offers. Still, it has a lot of history, and a lot of local color. I don't delude myself that I've seen the REAL Amsterdam, but I did have a good time, and would love to go back and explore some more.

I asked Dave on the way home how far he thought we'd walked over the three days. I'm notorious for over-estimating how far I've walked, but I was thinking around ten miles. Dave is generally accurate with these things, and said he thought it was at least fifteen miles, but maybe closer to twenty. It sure didn't seem like it, unless you ask my feet. Better shoes next time.

I'm sure I raved about it all to Dave while we were there and after we got back. I thanked him a million times, and went into great detail about what I liked and thought and all that. Still, the night after we got back he woke me up to ask me if I liked the trip. Now this is rich because Dave never tells me when he likes anything I do for him. During and after his Tigers and Tanks day a few years back, his only comments were "mmmm" and "ungh." No matter how much he enjoys something, it's only mmmm or ungh. Honestly! So there he is in bed, waking me up and asking me if I enjoyed Amsterdam. I said, "Yes.... wait, let me put that into terms you'll understand: UNGH!"

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© 2003 Susan Van Valkenburg

since 12 February 2003