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The Amsterdam Post

February 22, 2013

I didn’t have any expectations for my trip to Amsterdam. I didn’t want to make a massive to-do list and stress about ticking off every point, nor did I want to crack open a door for potential disappointment. I booked the trip with just enough time to confirm the basics of what’s in the city, learn how to say “Do you speak English?” in Dutch, and print off directions to my hostel from the train station. The rest, I figured, I could play by ear — which is a very new concept for me to put into action. I like my minute-to-minute schedules, my precise details. They’re good company to have around.

But, maybe for the sake of adventure, maybe to save myself from some pre-departure stress, I didn’t really want a plan. So I managed to get on the train after some drama, and I found myself in Amsterdam at 9:30 Thursday morning.

You know, just in Amsterdam, Netherlands. After having been in France 3 hours earlier. No big deal.

I had the same surreal feeling to when I had just arrived in Paris. New country, new city, new architecture, new language, new chapter of adventure. It’s a feeling I don’t know how else to describe, but surreal is the epitomizing word. Surreal and exciting.

I knew I would be ironically restless if I just wandered for three days, so the one plan I did have was to buy a 48-hour card that would give me admission to tons of museums and sites as well as passes for public transportation. I would museum-hop Thursday and Friday and see sites not covered by the card between museums or on Saturday. It was easy enough to get the card once I got there, though I did accidentally buy a train ticket while trying to find the metro (Amsterdam Centraal isn’t the easiest station to figure out). 5 euro souvenir, anyone? I later successfully found the metro and quickly determined “Waterlooplein” is the best name for a metro stop (or for anything) and soon enough found my hostel, one just outside the city’s center that I chose because the only negative reviews said it was “boring” or had “not enough drugs,” but its cleanliness and safety ratings were through the roof. After picking my bed in a room of six and putting my backpack in my locker, I had the entire afternoon to explore Amsterdam.

I didn’t look up directions to the places I wanted to visit; the card came with a map, and I picked up another one at the hostel. Once you get lost in Paris dozens of times, you no longer fear getting lost in a city. Instead, you learn how to get un-lost. (Both maps, by the way, are terribly wrinkled and mildly ripped, but they’re mostly still legible.) My parents were worried before I left Paris, as most parents would be when their relatively young daughter ventures off on her own to a city known for its drugs and prostitution for a few days during which she would lack access to means of regular communication (I went old school and left the laptop in Paris, and my French phone refuses to contact anything in America). Honestly, I probably would have been worried, too, if I had taken a trip like this before starting the semester in Paris. But the wonderful thing about life is once you’ve done certain things, you kind of feel like you can do anything. Once you go to Paris for two weeks, you can do anything. Once you go to university, you can do anything. Once you start a four-month stay in Paris, you can really do anything. Amsterdam? I could do it.

So I went back to the city’s center and just walked, trying to (and only sometimes succeeding) navigate the streets intertwined with canals and painted with bicycle lanes. I marveled at the buildings with such a different style than those in America and France. I heard people speak Dutch on the sidewalks and English at the outdoor restaurants. I saw a multitude of storefronts with souvenir wooden clogs and blue and white pottery and plastic tulips.

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Guys, I was in Amsterdam.

While I’m horrible at navigation, I’m very good at stumbling upon 1) interesting things and 2) things I wanted to find eventually but not necessarily at that moment. Exhibit A: The Van Gogh museum.

The museum itself is undergoing renovation, but its collection is on display at another museum, Hermitage, until April. After a few hours of wandering half aimlessly, half attempting to find anything, I accidentally found the Hermitage and Van Gogh.

Hands-down, best museum exhibit. If you’re in Amsterdam, go. I’m not a museum- or art-junkie (though going to Amsterdam helped), but the exhibit was so well designed, wonderfully informative, and, of course, home to the most beautiful paintings. I’m particularly fond of all of the blossom works, and I’ve loved the famous blue and white almond blossom piece for ages. I caved, not wanting to spend money besides on food, and bought a postcard of it for a euro, which is now on my apartment’s slanted wall. (I was tempted by the scarf, but it was 200 euros. Nee, dank je.)

I don’t usually like just listing off what I do abroad on the blog except for time-based update posts, but there was so much that I saw there that I can’t really incorporate it all into paragraph-post style. So, here’s a list, including descriptions and sometimes pictures. It’s in chronological order, no less.

The Amsterdam List 

  • Hermitage Museum, temporary home of the Van Gogh museum
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Favorite museum. Read above.
  • Tassenmuseum Hendrikje
Or, the Museum of Bags and Purses. Yeah, they have one of those. I learned about the history of bags and saw a cornucopia of purses (almost literally — there were tomato purses, pea purses, eggplant purses…).
  • Fotografiemuseum
A photography museum. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t fantastic, either. Moving on…
  • The Tulip Museum
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It’s basically the cutest museum in the history of museums. It’s tiny, but it teaches you the history behind the discovery of tulips and the creation of Tulip Mania. One gets to see different varieties of tulips and a tulip-harvesting workhouse. It sounds dull, but it’s just so colorful.
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  • Wootenbootmuseum

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It’s a houseboat-turned-museum. It’s a cool enough thing to just see what’s inside and outside of one of those boats that people live in.

  • The Diamant Museum

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Honestly, the Diamond Museum sounds more interesting than it actually is, but hey, you get to meet the charming fellow pictured above.

  • The Tropenmuseum
It’s a massive world history museum that’s both fascinating and terrifying (too many creepy masks). But it’s also very good shelter from the never-ending snow.
  • The Artis Royal Zoo

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Who doesn’t love a zoo? It’s not nearly as good as the North Carolina Zoo, but it’s huge for being in a city. I couldn’t help but get the impression the animals felt a bit crammed, though, which makes me uneasy. So, good enough for a city, not as excellent as the one in Asheboro, N.C.

  • A tour of the canals

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Paris sports the night better than Amsterdam does, but it’s still lovely. The tour was free with my card, and it was very cool to see the city — especially what I had seen earlier in the day — from a boat on the canals.

  • Lindengracht market

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I accidentally found this street market on the way to the Anne Frank House. It has everything, from meats and cheeses to clothes and purses to batteries and dog leashes. All around me people spoke Dutch. I am so, so glad I stumbled upon it.

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  • The Pancake Bakery
It’s a great restaurant with a nice, warm atmosphere and amazing food. I don’t like American-style pancakes, but bacon-apple dutch pancakes? America, why don’t we have these? We need these. Really.
  • The Anne Frank House

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It was, as I’m sure you can assume, very sad and very interesting. Even as it’s a museum, one of which Otto Frank approved, it felt a bit intrusive to be part of a group of tourists examining the place a Jewish family hid for their lives and were, after two years, forcibly removed from. As you climb up the stairs and visit various rooms and watch informative short films, the atmosphere switches back and forth from crowded and loud to quiet and solemn.

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  • Bloenmarkt

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The floating flower market doesn’t really float, but the shops, which look like a bit like gardening sheds, sit on a canal. It was a shock of color and visual warmth from the blizzard that was surrounding us.

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  • The Red Light District
I figured people would ask me if I’d seen it, and I would hate to say, “No, I skipped that cultural facet.” So I crossed the street on my way back to the train station, saw it, and promptly turned away towards safety. It’s not the most comfortable feeling, being a small girl alone in the middle of the prostitution hub. But, hey, I saw that cultural facet, even if it was for nine seconds.

After three days full of new sights and experiences, it was time to board the train back to Paris Saturday evening. It was the first time I’ve taken a trip somewhere and not returned to Chapel Hill or Raleigh. I thought going to Amsterdam and returning to Paris would make Paris feel a bit more like a home, and it kind of did. The familiarity of Paris, the metro, the grocery store where I stopped for dinner, and my apartment certainly felt reinforced. But once I pulled into Gare du Nord, I immediately had the desire to go back to Amsterdam someday. It’s not a big city, not nearly like Paris, but it’s still new and fascinating and different. It was proven to me again that kindness knows no nationality. And I loved exploring at my own pace, seeing what I wanted to and bypassing what I didn’t.

Before I went to Amsterdam, many people asked me if I would be alright on my own. I wrote earlier, being on my own in Paris was starting to get to me, so the clear solution wouldn’t necessarily be to go to another city alone. But I wanted to see that, yes, traveling alone to somewhere completely new could be fun, and it could be safe, and it could be a time to treat oneself.

Amsterdam was fun. It felt safe. I used the three days to just treat myself. I stayed busy during the day, wanting to see as much as possible, so, while I had many instances of “Dad would love this” or “I wish Mary could see this” or “I have to tell Marshall about this,” I never really felt lonely.

I did feel successful, though, as I arrived at my apartment Saturday night, late-night salad in hand and the brief to-do list of “tell family I survived” in mind. I went to Amsterdam. I saw what felt like everything but what I knew wasn’t close to everything. I got the travel and rooming logistics right, and I made it back to Paris in tact with nothing stolen. And I had such a wonderful time.

I Skyped my parents, fulfilling my to-do list, simultaneously tired from the day but buzzed from completing my travels. They told me they were proud of me. This is the cheesiest but truest thing to say, but I was, too.

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