Dams and Twerps Part I
Since I had a little break between my summer and fall semesters, Jason and I decided it was the perfect time to take a trip to Europe, a continent we’d been contemplating traveling to for a while.
Tempted by the convenience of a direct flight, we decided to land in Amsterdam and tour sections of the Netherlands and Belgium. In case you are wondering, even ten hours on a plane is agonizing. Sure, you basically just sit, sleep, and eat but boy is it miserable. Our trip was fabulous though. Here’s my full account of more recollections than you’ll recollect wanting.
Day 1: Royal Jetlag
Although long flights are about as fun as colonoscopy parties, the hardest thing about going to Europe isn’t the plane travel but the jetlag. The eight-hour time change is exactly enough for Europe to be getting up when it should be going to sleep. Thus, our early days there were hazed by jetlag’s cloud of drowsy oblivion.
Jason and I arrived in Amsterdam around 8 AM, midnight back home. We had only slept an hour and a half on the plane but we were determined to stay up as long as possible to exhaust ourselves out of jetlag quickly. This plan worked better than expected, at least initially. The options for distractions were plentiful.
First, we set out for the Anne Frank Huis but ended up going on a tour of the Royal Palace (Koninklijk Paleis) instead. Once Amsterdam’s town hall, that royal residence was opulent and stately. After a brief respite to eat a cheese sandwich in a tiny outdoor café, we were off to the Anne Frank Huis once more but somehow ended up searching out the Begijnhof instead. Long ago, the Begijnhof was a sanctuary for a group of ladies that lived like nuns without taking vows. These women sought to assist the sick and educate the poor. Houten House, Amsterdam’s oldest house and one of its two remaining wooden-fronted residences, is enclosed in their once-haven. (Wooden houses were banned in 1521 due to their propensity to go up in smoke.) The Begijnhof was a peaceful place worthy of the term “sanctuary.”
Next, we were off to the Anne Frank Huis again but ended up in the Amsterdam Museum. How did that happen? I blame our unfocused jetlagged brains. The Amsterdam Museum is an intriguing institution devoted to all things Amsterdam. Its collection includes everything from a giant Goliath statue to a Rembrandt. (Who doesn’t have a Rembrandt in Amsterdam?) Unfortunately, shortly after we entered the museum our jetlag became insurmountable. The museum’s fascinating signs and videos became blabber that floated around us like an incoherent soup. We stayed at the museum until it closed, a little over an hour, but the last 10 or 15 minutes we were both having a hard time not falling asleep standing up.
At that point, our empty stomachs and Amsterdam’s curiosities were completely forgotten. All we could think about was snoozing. We went to bed at 6 PM and, with the help of a couple sleeping pills and our lack of sleep, we were able to rest 12 and a half hours, waking up at 6:30 the next morning. Our jetlag was under control and didn’t manifest itself too severely thereafter… well, except for the occasional falling-asleep-without-knowing-it episode.
Day 2: Anne and the West
Before Jason and I left on our trip, I vowed to eat nothing but chocolate, cheese, pastries, frites, and waffles while in Europe. I broke that vow during our very first breakfast with delicious smoothies and fresh fruit. But I did eat a lot of cheese and pastries during that meal so my promise was not entirely hollow. Incidentally, the pastries in Europe weren’t as good as I remember but the cheeses were even better.
Following breakfast, we were off to the Anne Frank Huis again. This time we actually made it, after a little dilly-dallying to check out points of interest in the Jordaan neighborhood. However, it turns out that getting into the Anne Frank Huis is not as simple as just making it there. We had to purchase tickets online for three hours later because admission was completely sold out until then. In the meantime, we decided to go on an hour-long canal tour. This proved quite interesting. Then we visited the Westerkerk church, which was built in 1620. There we walked up 186 of the steepest steps I’ve ever ascended, so steep in fact that we had to come down them backwards. The views of Amsterdam from the top were impressive though and worth the rung shenanigans.
Finally, we got to tour the Anne Frank Huis. Seeing the untouched bookcase, the dim rooms with their blackout shades, and Anne’s bedroom walls covered with movie-star ornamentations was quite sobering yet powerful.
After visiting the Anne Frank Huis, we did some more wandering and then enjoyed our hotel-room balcony until the breeze became too chilly. Sitting out on that perch at 7 PM when cathedral bells assaulted us from every direction, Amsterdam’s 20+ churches all seemed to be ringing at once, was one of my favorite moments of our trip. When the balcony got too cold, we headed downstairs for a fabulous dinner at the Bord’Eau Restaurant Gastronomique.
Day 3: Royal Blue
We decided to take a train to Delft, the home of Delftware and Vermeer, the next day. We toured the Royal Delft factory where hand-painted white-and-blue porcelains have been created since the 17th century. I may have purchased some of their uber-pricey knickknacks. Maybe.
Next, we climbed 370 steps to the top of the Nieuwe Kerk, the second-tallest church in the Netherlands. These wooden and stone steps twirled around a tiny turret with significant gaps between them. I must admit, between the stair rifts and the dizzying views from balconies where the railings barely came above our waists, I had some height-dread moments. But what a scene! On a side note, the Nieuwe Kerk is the burial site of William of Orange and many other royal family members. It is still the burial site of choice for Dutch royals.
The Oude Kerk, AKA Old Church, was our next stop with its crooked spire. Built in the 13th-century, it’s the final resting place of 400 Dutchmen, including the painter Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope. Both the churches we visited in Delft were a little morbid but intriguing. Their floors were paved with gravestones ornamented by a bizarre mix of skeletons and cherubs.
I was utterly delighted by Delft. Its Markt, surrounded by outdoor cafes and quaint shops, was charming and quintessentially European. It was there that I ate one of my favorite desserts of the whole trip, a vanilla yogurt curd served with oranges. Wow!
My wordy account of Europe will continue next week… whether you want it to or not.
A Few Traveler Tidbits
Here are a few of the notable differences between the Netherlands and the USA:
- Stop signs have not made their way to Amsterdam. A few stoplights adorn Amsterdam’s busiest streets but at most intersections you are on your own.
- Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day. In fact, it seems that many Dutch people skip it entirely. So finding a breakfast spot outside your hotel can be challenging. Luckily, most of the hotels provide excellent breakfasts.
- Although bikes in Amsterdam outnumber cars, no one wears a helmet. Even the little kids being transported via wheel-barrel-like bike attachments don’t… no one.
- Most of the people are a normal weight. America really does have some fat issues.
- Street musicians are much more talented. We heard Mozart concertos and Bach toccatas gracefully performed by groups on curbs.
- Meals move at a different pace, as do their checks. Although the Dutch value efficiency, when it comes to food they take their time. Asking for your check can prompt confusion.
- Cars are minimally present compared to bikers and pedestrians.
- In July it doesn’t get dark until about 10:30 PM. I can only imagine how miserably black it is in the winter.
- Tipping isn’t done very regularly. It’s hard to include a tip at many restaurants because there isn’t a spot on the tab for it. Some Americans would probably enjoy this change but we felt obligated to figure out how to leave a tip anyway.
- Besides restaurants, almost everything closes at 5 PM. This means you have to get up pretty early to make the most of your time. We usually arose between 6:30 and 7:30 AM… so much for a relaxed vacation.