Category Archives: Amsterdam

Cycling, clothes and cloth in Amsterdam

Like the clever alliteration in the title? Of course you do. That’s what you read this blog for.
Apologies for the break in communication, but I haven’t been very inspired recently. I tried to be inspired a couple of days ago (with an even cleverer title), but it didn’t work. Luckily, though, I went for a weekend jaunt to Amsterdam, which has provided me with much new knowledge and jokes at my expense with which to create a blog post out of.
For those of you regular readers out there, you may remember that I got stuck in Amsterdam back in July, in my attempts to get to Florence. It was not the funnest experience, though I was hugely grateful to be flying KLM and Aer Lingus for the trip and not Ryanair, as I was at least put up in a hotel, given dinner, breakfast and wine and allowed to make the delightful realisation that Dutch people are hot. Very, very hot.
It was mainly for this reason (and maybe a little bit for the cheese with cumin in it, but, honestly, mainly for the hotness) that I decided I needed to have a quick weekend jaunt to Amsterdam before the end of the year. Luckily, I discovered back in September that Aer Lingus was having another sale (there are some upsides to that Irish recession! At least… there are for me… because I don’t have a ridiculously over-priced mortgage… and oh, I take it back, that was cruel and heartless… boo to recession-era jokes), and so I immediately booked some tickets.
So, at 4:30am on Saturday morning, I bounded out of bed and into my employer’s car (who had kindly said she would drive me to the airport at that ungodly hour). In a kind of sleep-deprived haze (I honestly can’t remember much. I think I was surrounded by Norwegians at the check-in desk. I like Norwegians even more than I like Dutch people, but even that wasn’t enough for me to sit up and take notice), I managed to board the aeroplane and find my seat. When I got off at Schiopol Airport, I still hadn’t quite woken up and promptly lined up in the ‘EU Passport’ line. I handed over my passport and was greeted with, ‘Since when has Australia been a European country?’ but in my sleep deprivation, I heard it as, ‘Since when have you been in Australia and Europe?’ Thinking I was dealing with some crazy Dutch-English translation problem, I patiently and kindly attempted to translate. ‘Oh, do you mean, how long have I been in Europe for? When did I leave Australia?’ The 20 year old passport man sighed and smiled tiredly over at his friend who was checking the ‘All Passports’ line.
‘No, I mean, since when has Australia been a European country?’
Suddenly cottoning on, and realising that most Dutch people speak better English than I do (so the chances of it being a translation problem were slim to none), I checked above his head and saw the ‘EU Passports’ sign that I had completely missed just a minute before. I apologised many times and attempted to go to the next line, when he said, ‘No, no, its fine. This time, its fine.’ (dramatic pause) ‘If you pay.’
Which was my first encounter with Dutch humour. Delivered so drily, so sarcastically, that you’re not entirely sure if they are poking fun at you, or if they actually hate you and are attempting to explode you with their eyes for choosing the wrong passport line. Amusing, if you decide to believe its the former.
I got my luggage and headed off to find food. I had now been awake for 5 hours, with no breakfast, and my stomach was making it increasingly difficult to move happily the longer the situation went on. ‘Oh, you think its more important to get your baggage then get me food, do you? Well, BAM, there’s a headache.’ ‘Have to buy a train ticket, do you? SLAM, overwhelming nausea.’ Thanks, stomach. I went as fast as possible into the nearest supermarket and was confronted, again, by the glorious-ness of that Dutch invention, cheese with cumin. Every time I leave the Netherlands, I forget about it. Then, I go back again, and I remember HOW MUCH I ADORE IT and eat my body weight in the stuff. I’ve never seen it outside of the Netherlands, what’s that about? I would totally buy the stuff if people would only make it available to me on a daily basis. Actually, second thought, don’t make it available on a daily basis. Continue to make it a good, long, expensive aeroplane trip away. Ta.
Into central Amsterdam on the train, then on to a tram, and after a quick walk (dodge the bicycles) I found myself at my hostel. Already, I was in love with the city. The first time I visited Amsterdam, I was 18, and it was part of the 3 week bus-around the continent organised for all the exchange students in Europe at the time. I wasn’t too fussed with the place. There were far too many XXX signs and the ugliest, tackiest souvenirs I had ever, ever had the displeasure of coming across. There were probably a lot of things going on with me on that 3 week trip around Europe, but, I did end up actively disliking a lot of the places we visited (Paris, Amsterdam, Venice….). I’m not saying it was the trip per se… maybe it was the hordes of tourists, maybe it was the fact we only got to spend a day or two in each place, maybe it was that I found the kids on the tour, on the whole, to be a bunch of loud, obnoxious twats, but a lot of that holiday I found disappointing. So, its nice to come back to some of these places again and go, ‘Oh, I see now. This is why everyone loves ——–‘
First of all, the XXX sign I saw everywhere? Not actually to do with XXX porn. Is actually, hilariously, the sign of Amsterdam the city. I want to know if the reasons we started using XXX as a sign for racy things was BECAUSE it was the sign of Amsterdam the city. Someone research that for me, would you? And report back. Thanks.

Canal! Boats! Trees! Houses!

Anyway, I was in love with the city. Because houses are taxed according to the width of their frontage on the street, you have these hilariously thin, tall buildings. ‘Oh, its expensive to have wide buildings? Well, we’ll just make them wide… IN THE SKY.’ Boo-ya. That’s the Dutch for you. Add on to this, the fact that many of them are turning into mini Towers of Pisa as their foundations sink into the ground or rot away (there are businesses in Amsterdam specialising in crooked windows for people who don’t want to fix the foundations of their house, but would like to fix the cracks forming between the windows and the walls), and that some of them were DELIBERATELY built crooked to make it easier to get furniture into the upstairs windows when building, you get some pretty higgeldy-piggeldy dwellings (I believe you’ll find that, in regards to the architecture of Amsterdam, ‘hiddeldy-piggeldy’ is a technical term). Then there’s all the curvy, pretty decorative things on the front of the houses, and the little bridges and the cobblestones, and the wrought iron railings, and the canals and the boats, and, well, it seems like you’ve somehow stepped out of the real world and into a fairytale land of gingerbread houses.
My first port of call was to meet some old family friends, who happened to be staying in Amsterdam at the same time as me. I went to find their apartment, a convenient 5 minute walk away from my hostel, and we spent a few hours catching up, before heading off to do a walking tour of the city. On the face of it, it seemed the perfect afternoon to do a walking tour. Sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. But, after 3 and a half hours of being outside in the close to 0 degree temperature, not seeing much sun because of the long shadows of the tall, tall, higgeldy-piggeldy buildings, and I had stopped being able to feel my toes. The poor girl who was doing the tour (a Dutch girl who had grown up in Canada and then returned to Amsterdam to live) was working only for tips, and, whilst she had 30 people on the tour to start, by the end she had half the number. That’s got to hurt. The tour itself was very interesting. I saw the red-light district proper, and tried desperately not to stare. In all honesty, I wanted to stare at everyone and everything – not just the ladies in the windows, but the ‘gentlemen’ coming out or going in. They looked so normal! They were all ages, all types, but all very leery, very seedy in their expression and intent. Not so surprising, really, but I was surprised about how open it all was. I definitely found it bizarre having real women in the windows, very much the product on sale. I don’t know that any of those men would look so seedy outside of Amsterdam, or if they would feel comfortable looking that way outside of the red-light district, but, there, in Amsterdam, it was fine, it was expected even. I’m still not sure where I stand on the whole prostitution issue. I know there are women out there who find it all very empowering and its their choice and isn’t that what feminism is about and all, but walking through that district made me exceedingly uncomfortable. It did not feel or look empowering to me. But, hey, well, I don’t know, I’ve never done it (No, really…).
Anyway, the tour was great. It was even better once we had gone inside and warmed up and could feel all our extremities again. I went back to the hostel, got gussied up (now there is a term I enjoy using) and we headed out again. Amsterdam at night is even prettier than Amsterdam during the day. Especially at Christmas time. Every street is hung with twinkling lights, and not those tacky, flashy, whirring, neon ones that you see on houses in the mid-West of the USA (no offense, mid-West of the USA), but, understated, magical ones in lovely shapes and swirls. The Dutch are also very enamoured with fried, sugary dumpling things, which they often fill with yellow sweet creams, or fruit, or chocolate, or cover in sugar, or nutella, or other heart-attack inducing fillings, and these are out in force in the nighttime. The sugar smell just adds to the fairytale feel, and even without the magic mushrooms (which are now illegal in Amsterdam anyway), you find yourself attempting to pull out chocolate hunks of the nearest house a la Hansel and Gretel.
I slept in the next morning, which was absolutely delightful, and completely unexpected, considering I was staying in a 16-bed dorm in Amsterdam on a Saturday night, but, there you have it, the Dutch are very good at everything, including creating a room for 16 people to sleep in, without making it smelly, noisy, cramped or ugly. I headed out to meet up with my friends again, but we parted ways soon after a wonderful breakfast – I wanted to head to the van Gogh museum, and they had already been, so we decided to meet up again that afternoon. However, they very kindly lent me one of their bikes to get to the museum quicker.

Do you want a bow-tie? OF COURSE you want a bow-tie. There’s a bow-tie here for everybody!

Now, I was a bike rider in Sydney. I loved my bike, I cycled over the Harbour Bridge, over the Pyrmont Bridge, I cycled in the city even though I was convinced I would be killed, I once cycled from Newtown to Chastwood and back again for a work day. So, I loved my bike even when it was hard to cycle; even when I turned up wherever I was going red, sweaty, smelly and dirty; even when my bike was stolen; even when I was being abused by car-drivers; even when I was called pinko lefty scum or a hipster by pedestrians; even when I was swallowing flies and pollution and cramped over my bike handles. So, to then go cycling in Amsterdam… well, it was like a dream. Of course, everything is flat. That’s a distinct advantage on Sydney. But, on top of that, there are bike lanes EVERYWHERE. Because EVERYONE cycles. EVERYONE. There’s paths for pedestrians, lanes for bikes and roads for cars, everyone existing very happily next to each other. Because its so flat, there is really no need for gears or for those mountain/road bikes that people use in Sydney, so I was on this heavy, big-wheeled, black bike with great big curving handles that looked like it had just come out of a pre-war photograph. Instead of being hunched over my bike handles, I was seated straight up, looking around at all the pretty things that were going whooshing past my head. In short, I was on one of those incredibly pretty, incredibly cool hipster bikes that people buy in Newtown, except that it was actually practical here – I could go anywhere I wanted with this bike (as opposed to the hipsters in Newtown who would find it difficult to go further than, say, Erskineville, on their bikes)! With my black, white and red houndstooth, knee-length jacket on, I looked oh-so-ladylike and proper and ‘historical- arthouse-film-like’, which is a look I am always hoping to cultivate. Apart from some confusion over which side of the road I should be cycling on, I found the whole experience utterly delightful, and was seriously considering moving to Amsterdam simply to ride a bike (oh, as well as marrying an attractive Dutchman who also rode a bike and having little blonde babies who rode around on bikes too).
The van Gogh museum was good, very interesting and slightly comforting (van Gogh didn’t decide to be an artist until he was 26? And didn’t start practicing until he was 27? So, you can still get good at something this late in life??), but the more delightful part of my day was getting back on the bicycle and heading to Vondelpark, which I cycled around and around and around until the rain convinced me I should head to shelter. Cycling around the park got me thinking about the one activity you need to do in a city to fall in love with it, and I feel like cycling in Vondelpark is the experience for Amsterdam. I then tried to think of single experiences for other cities I’ve been recently, but found it more difficult. Drink red wine at outdoor table and chairs in Paris, I think. London… I find it difficult to choose something for London, as I was already in love with the place before I went there.
Anyway, after my cycle, I headed back to the hostel, had a shower, got dressed up and headed out again. We had Mexican food for dinner, which was UH-MAZING and then we had Margharitas. I don’t know if I’ve never had a Margahrita before, or if I’ve just never had a GOOD Margharita before, but these things were to die for. My conversation at the table disintegrated to, ‘Oh my god. Oh my god, this is so good. This is so good! Can you believe how good these are? These are, like, the best things in the world! Are you having another? I’m definitely having another. Oh, I can’t wait to have another! OH MY GOD, this is even better than the last one!’
After another early evening and lovely sleep in, I headed out to the markets on Monday morning. Apart from the attractive Dutchmen and the cumin cheese, the other reason I had wanted to go to Amsterdam was to visit the vintage cloth and trimmings market that a friend of mine had told me about. Cloth and trimmings are dangerous for me, because I have all these fabulous dreams of what they could be turned into, and get really excited, but then lack the technical knowledge of how to create the amazing clothing fantasies in my head into practical realities. Spotlight was, like, the worst store to take me to as a teenager, because I would want to buy everything (and sometimes did) and then I would take the materials/lace/ribbons/buttons home and then simply add them to the growing mess on my bedroom floor (see previous posts for further clarification on the extent of bedroom mess). Still, I wanted to see this market. So, see it I did. It was torture. So many kitsch, gorgeous, cute, neon, flirty cottons, lace, buttons, ribbons that would make the cutest, kitsch, flirty skirts and dresses, except for the fact that I HAD NO IDEA HOW TO SEW. In the end, after a quick and rough estimate of how much material, potentially, I would need to circle around my waist, I bought 6 different patterned cloths because I couldn’t bear to leave them behind in Amsterdam for someone who clearly wouldn’t love them as much and as well as myself, and then convinced myself one of my friends in Ireland would be able to teach me how to make a simple skirt. And then, upside was, I would know how to make a simple skirt. And then, maybe, in a few years, I could graduate to simple dresses, and then all my dreams would have come true.
I could tell by the amount of Dutch being spoken around the markets that there weren’t many tourists about, which also delighted me. It is my greatest joy, as a tourist, to go to a place that is not tourist-y and just hang around, pretending to be a local. Reveling in the fact that locals would look at me and assume that, I, too, lived in this place (of course, most of these people are probably not thinking twice about me or whether or not I’m a local, but, this is the little fantasy I have). Sometimes, I’ll even speak to people in an accent. It started when I was 12 on a holiday to the USA, and I decided to go up to the counter at Disneyland and speak to the woman in an American accent. I don’t know what possessed me. It didn’t change the interaction, except that she didn’t ask me where I was from. So, I’ve become a little obsessed with this game now, and its only heightened by the fact that I tend to mimic people’s accents accidentally whenever I’m around them for a long time. When I’m in a country that speaks a language other than English, I like to stretch this little performance even further into a game called, ‘See How Long it Takes for Them to Figure Out I Don’t Speak Their Language’. The aim of the game is to successfully complete an interaction with a local and have them: a) Never speak to you in English and b) Never realise that you don’t actually speak their language. The first one is reasonably easy if you are in a country that doesn’t have a lot of English speakers (eg, Chile or Argentina). The second is the hardest. I use all sorts of tricks. I think about the interaction beforehand. I gather as much information as I can before I begin, for example, checking the price on something before I go to buy it, so I can have the right money for them and don’t have to look at the till or smile at them blankly as they say the amount. Its relatively easy to then guess at what point they are telling you the price and when to hand over the money. If I’ve worked out a few easy phrases (‘please’ ‘thank you’ ‘hi’) in their language, I’ll throw them around as much as possible to make it seem like I actually know how to use the words.
In a country like the Netherlands, though, where everyone speaks English, and where I was only staying for a few days, so had no time or opportunity to learn some of their crazy language (the only word I really know is ‘verboden’ for ‘not allowed’, which is similar to the Norwegian, and I just love how ominous it sounds – ‘it is FORBIDDEN to walk on the grass…. FORBIDDEN! And if you do, we’ll curse you and all your family with the black plague!’) its a race with the clock to stop them realising and switching to English. So, I would pick up products at the market stalls, admire them, and when people came over and started yabbering at me in Dutch, I would smile and nod and smile and nod, and then back away as quickly as possible. Don’t let them know! Don’t let down the charade! One woman at her stall was telling me the gloves I had picked up were the wrong colour for my jacket, and brought out another pair to show me. I know this, because she held them to the jacket and pointed out the colours, as she yabbered away at me. I smiled and nodded and then shook my head as she tried to get me to take them. It wasn’t that I didn’t possibly want the gloves, it was that, if I stayed to buy them, I would have to prove to her that I didn’t speak Dutch, and that would be truly disappointing. It was worth more to me to have this random market stall owner think that I was Dutch then it was to buy lovely gloves. That’s how crazy I am sometimes.
There were many lovely things at this market, including second hand clothes. One stall had, I kid you not, an entire table of the tackiest holiday jumpers you have ever seen. They were 5 euro each or 3 for 12.50. Of course, I got three. I’m wearing one now. Its delightful. Its red and knitted, and has Christmas trees and snowflakes and festive green beads all over it. I feel like I should be in a Christmas special for some B-Grade American TV show. Its fabulous. Anyway, at the stall, I picked out my three jumpers and brought them over to the stall owner. I was still kind of giggling over the fact that I was buying 3 tacky Christmas jumpers and he clearly picked up on my slight giddiness and made a joke. In Dutch. I know it was a joke, because of the tone of his voice and because he leaned towards me conspiratorially and then pulled back and laughed. So, I smiled and nodded as he kept talking. At some point, after he had put my lovely jumpers in a plastic bag, I realised he asked me for the money. I handed it over and he gave me my change. I uttered my only word of Dutch: ‘dank’ for ‘thank you’, and waltzed away, happy in the belief that I had convinced this man of my Dutch heritage. It was only after a step or two that I realised that the man had been very attractive, with tousled dark blonde hair, a pierced ear, leather jacket, tall with a kind of attractively crumpled face in the manner of George Clooney, and he had, as far as I could tell from his manner, being flirting very mildly with me. I stopped short, horrified. My favourite travel game was actually potentially preventing me from meeting and being chatted up by attractive Dutchmen! Which was, as we have previously discussed, my main reason for coming to Amsterdam! I walked away sadly, knowing it was too late for me to turn around and ask him to repeat his joke in English so that I could understand it and respond appropriately.
Damn.
So, after that experience, I walked back to my friends’ place and we had a quick lunch after visiting a beautiful little courtyard that you can only live in if you are a single woman. Its called Begijnhof and used to be a place where religious single women (not nuns though) would come and live and do good deeds. I had read about it in that article about the many women of the current generation who would never get married. It seemed an appropriate place to go and check out after my failed attempts at meeting attractive Dutchmen. I then borrowed the bike again and headed to a confectioner’s that had been recommended by my friend who had recommended the markets. It was a delightfully kitsch (getting a pattern here) and over-the-top place, with crazily-decorated marzipan cakes on each table (one was in the shape of a giant Santa rat – really? – and others had barbie dolls or trains or just gorgeous flowers and lovely things), patterned, plastic table covers, pink walls and many other wonderful things. I had hot chocolate and cheescake. And cream. Much whipped cream. Here is the link for you to look at – http://www.detaart.com/en/home.htm – with my limited Dutch, I am fairly confident the name of the cafe translates to, ‘The Cake of my Aunt’, or something similar – not sure what the m’n stands for.

Cycing in Vondelpark

I took the opportunity to have another quick spin around Vondelpark and take some happy snaps this time, but, time was running out. I returned the bike to my friends, we took some quick photos (to prove we were in Amsterdam at the same time) and then I headed off on the tram back to central station and from there to the airport. I was very sad to go. Not least of all, because I had yet to find my attractive Dutchman who was going to buy me my very own falling down, gingerbread house on the banks of a canal somewhere. My step-brother is actually living in Amsterdam at the moment (lucky bastard) and I didn’t get to see him as we were on totally different time schedules, so that seems as good a reason as any to book another trip back there in February. Whose with me, yes? I thought so.

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