I found the damn tram station! That Halal market I saw earlier in the day coddled between the two large cement walls had been holding the secret to my travels in the Netherlands all along. Looking through my phone, I opened up the “In-Flight Dutch” course pdf file. As I tried to cram as much Dutch into my brain before getting to Centraal, I hear people speaking perfect English. The announcements are also done in both Dutch and English. Me, I'm feeling like a fool. Besides to think that Dutch was merely German's clog wearing cousin would lead to some serious conversational faux pas. I could only get about three pages in on a flight from Los Angeles to Copenhagen; yet, somehow I was going to learn Dutch by osmosis. It was wishful thinking at best.
Somewhere between the kerfuffle of trying to take pictures and video of my trip into Amsterdam proper, I was given a lesson in train riding etiquette by a GVB operator. A couple of girls decided they wanted to try to evade fare by using the rear exit door. Unfortunately, the GVB operator (nor the passengers) were having none of it. Instead, the conductor asked them to pay for their fare or get off the tram repeatedly, each time becoming more incensed and hostile. He was not going anywhere with these scalawags. What seemed like an eternity (really just about 5 minutes) of hearing the conductor over the loudspeaker working his bilingual skills and the grunts, and sighs of discontented passengers, they decided the stares of discernment were not worth the free ride to Centraal and they exited the train. I had never seen anything like it. Back in the States, specifically the SF Bay Area I've seen conductors finally give in just to diffuse the situation; however, this tram conductor would have sat there all day if needed. I didn't want to spend my day stopping like this, so three stops later I saw a glimpse of one of the canals and hopped off.
Damn are my instincts good!
I just started to walk and got lost. I took in the sights, smells, and sounds of Amsterdam City. Deep-fried goodness, bike bells, and WEED. Even though I tried to put my phone away, I couldn't help it. The architecture in this city is an art nerd's dream. Amsterdam is covered in art, that's covered by more art. My head on a swivel I attempted to do my best owl impersonations trying not to miss a beat. I had to find a bench so that I could admire it all in peace.
Extraordinarily vibrant, elegant, organized chaos, a beautiful enigma that becomes more intriguing with each step, the canals are just part of its charm. The Dutch were friendly and always smiling back at me. I felt welcomed and despite not knowing where I was going, I knew that my destination was ever changing anyway. At first, I went off scents like a little bloodhound and indeed contact high is a real thing. Despite being hungry, I did not want to leave any cobblestone unturned. Still gloomy with the sun only making special guest appearances, I marched on until I reached the outer canals where tourists were scarce. You learn quickly how to use your reflexes as bicycles, Vespas and Cantas, the Smart car's baby cousin zoom past you. After a while, you'll get addicted to the adrenaline rush.
Earlier in the day, I asked Jay to take me to an Indonesian (he pronounced it INDOH-KNEE-SHE-ANH) restaurant. That was my only request for the entire trip. Still, dinner was hours away and needed something to tie me over from skipping breakfast and running on nomadic pleasures. On a busy corner not far from Centraal Station, I discovered Stach. What caught my eye (and reeled in my stomach) were the rows of freshly baked pastries and bread. I was parched and famished. CARBS! While I could have indulged in Pommes frites with mayonnaise, I grabbed a cheese tray (four types of cheese and a fig paste block), croissant and sparkling water instead. Looking down at my phone I see a missed call from Jay. Juggling food, phone, and a wallet, the cashier was patient. I still had no idea where we were going to meet.
Every bench was taken and I wasn't as lucky as when I got off the tram. I retraced my path and ended up at the bench in front of a tram station overlooking a cathedral, cheese shop and a Gay and Lesbian Information booth. The benches felt more like gargantuan armchairs, my feet dangling as if I were a toddler, I tore into the croissant-like a feral dog. Taking moments to myself, I was content just to sit and exist. I don't remember the last time I was able to do that back home. The air was crisp, and the city was starting to change its colors once again as the evening rolled through. Tram 5 = home, but this feisty Amsterdam City is just heating up and I want Indonesian food. I called Jay and gave him unclear directions. “Church, cheese shop, Gay and Lesbian Information Center, oh and I'm sitting on a bench watching the tram go by.” Twenty minutes later and not before slamming his bicycle brakes inches away from the bench, he appears magically out of thin air.
“I don't even know how you can do that. You're like a fucking ninja, man.”
He interrogates me a for a few minutes wondering what I have been up to all day. We walk through the streets of Centrum and he's giving me a history lesson along the way. I'm snapping pictures, but making sure my head isn't buried in my phone screen. That and Jay walks so fast it's easy to lose him. He's taking me down side streets I didn't know even existed, although I was just in the vicinity. How could I have missed all of this? He proceeds to lock up his bike in a parking lot solely for bicycles.
“Eh, I'll pick up later.”
The Red Light District: It's what Fisherman's Wharf is to San Francisco. Touristy and full of stores that try to sell you useless shit. Unless you are looking for a penis pillow or a doll with anatomically correct parts and “fur”, I'd stay away. Listen, I'm no prude, but I wasn't in the mood for it. Jay explained it best.
“I mean it's there, we know it's there and why people go there. Some of us find it disgusting and some of us like that sort of thing. Really it's not for me, but it's for someone who likes that sort of thing. There are far better places to go to than the RLD. Some men get loud and rude. They think they own place. The prostitutes don't like their pictures taken, but some people will try to do it anyway. I don't understand it.”
I actually didn't realize we were in the RLD until I looked at the posts on the corners donning red lights, and even then it took me a minute before my brain processed the information. It wasn't part of my Amsterdam experience so I conveniently hid the file. Going through the maze of side streets and bicycle lanes, my appetite was growing and this mini workout was leaving me drenched. My little Japanese fan couldn't keep up. In a dense quarter full of dining options for every budget, coffee shops, and souvenir shops, even a local can get lost. It took us nearly a half hour to find the place, where he claimed he was a regular. He laughed and said, “This is why I love this city!”
The host was gracious and while they exchanged pleasantries in Dutch, I was looking for our table so I could sit and let my Barney Rubbles rest for a bit. Asking for water, I expected a tall glass of iced water. Do you remember what they say about expectations? A waitress showed up with a small bottle of water in a glass container that was the size of a petite baby bottle (6oz?). It was cold and it came with a straw. This wasn't an Indonesian restaurant either, it was Surinamese. Good enough. We both ordered the Peking duck. He shoveled his down, while I was trying to act like a lady and not inhale mine. At that point, the conversation alone energized me and the food was merely an afterthought. Jay gave me a rundown on why he would never leave Amsterdam, and it was pretty damn persuading to an expat in training. Sleep? What sleep?
“The night has just started!”
If I thought Amsterdam was gorgeous during the day, it was even more mesmerizing at night. Something about the lights hitting against the water, people becoming more jubilant, and music coming from seemingly nowhere once again the city took a new form. She could give a Broadway actor a run for their money. It was seamless. On our way to Centraal Station, I begin to wonder if we are taking a train trip of some sort since it was already noted that going home was not an option. Centraal Station, the busy little hub and shopping center, which came across as a never-ending cycle of pandemonium. The time of day? Irrelevant. We were just passing through. Once on the other side of Centraal Station, another bike parking lot and ferry docks. Across the way, I see a funky looking building and the “I Amsterdam” sign (found near the Rijksmuseum also). Wait I've seen this before. Damn you Bourdain!
We patiently waited for the ferry. Me, I'm acting as if I've never been on a boat before. Apparently, this is a free service and we were on our way to Amsterdam Noord, the abandoned shipping yard that hipsters took over and made their own.
Cafe Noorderlicht, I saw it on an episode of The Layover with Anthony Bourdain and he hated it. I never gave it a second thought, yet here I was. Unlike Bourdain however, I wasn't here for any organic fare. Instead, we were here for a good microbrew. My mistake for not writing the name down, but after one bottle I was feeling jovial and chatty. Jay and I kept drinking and we talked about everything from politics to social issues, travel, and life. It's hard to connect with people nowadays, since many are just, well, dense. With Jay, time stood still. The twinkling lights and classic rock playing in the background, it felt like I was reconnecting with someone from a former life. As strange as it sounds, two adults, having a deep conversation about politics while drinking isn't necessarily something I would do in the States. Here I learned so much about a country in a matter of hours simply by being receptive to new experiences and attentively listening. Misconceptions about Amsterdam are plenty, but with an open mind, you can discover its treasures.
It was getting late and after losing the beer count, we were ready to take the ferry back to the southside. A bathroom break was taken in a stall as big as a Cheez-It and the walls felt like they were caving in. I'm not sure how long I was in there, but I'm sure it was long enough to prompt an, “Are you okay?” followed by uncontrollable laughter. The crowd was louder and rowdier on the way back. It was like one big frat party. Seemingly out of nowhere a group of Brazilian tourists brought out a guitar and started to sing in Brazilian Portuguese. I followed along as much as a could and by the time we reached the dock, the entire ferry full of drunks were just ending a poor rendition of “La Bamba.” Day one in the books.