Thursday, September 12, 2013

Amsterdam

Amsterdam has definitely not failed to impress so far.

The flight went off without a hitch, and we actually arrived to Amsterdam early. However, the flight was decidedly less luxurious than I was expecting. When I flew Aeroflot (a major Russian airline) to Moscow I had a big, cushy seat with my own monitor from which I could select hundreds of movies, track the flight's progress, or listen to music. The plane had two aisles and an impressive, comfortable feel in general. This plane, run by US Airways, looked exactly the same as my flight from Boston to Philly, except that there was a monitor every 5 rows or so and there was an extra 10 rows of seats. It was a little disheartening, and the seat was as stiff and uncomfortable as any domestic US flight would offer. I figured there was a reason that US carrier flights were more expensive than the Russian ones, but apparently there isn't, at least not for this flight.

I sat near the back of the plane with some native Dutch folks and a sizable quantity of American tourists. A friendly Dutch woman tried to teach me and an American student who will be studying abroad in Spain some Dutch as well as make a list of things to see in Amsterdam. All in all the company was pleasant, but eventually everyone except me managed to fall asleep. I contented myself to watching Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief and listen to music, knowing there was no way I would fall asleep on the plane.

But by the time we arrived (8:00am Amsterdam time, 2:00am Boston time) I was pretty out of it... and it showed. At immigration sat a row of Dutch border agents who spoke English in a perfect British accent. The passport stamper, who simply let the pretty girl in front of me pass without asking a single question (I swear she never stopped moving) asked me what the main purpose of my visit was. I replied that I was "just visiting," which I immediately realized was a dumb answer. He then asked who I was visiting, and I told him I was visiting my friend Chris Tyson. Perhaps because that wasn't a Dutch name he then asked me in which town I would be staying. At this point I probably should have said the first Dutch town that came to mind, but I was incapable of processing thoughts. I told him I couldn't remember just that minute, which made him even more skeptical. I assured him Tyson was picking me up at the airport, and he grudgingly stamped my passport.

One thing to note about the Netherlands is everyone here speaks English. Many signs are in English, and you can easily get around without speaking any Dutch at all. It's situations like this that make it obvious how advantageous it is to be a citizen of the global hegemon - I can simply arrive in a foreign country and reasonably expect everyone there to speak my language and accommodate my ignorance.

Despite the English signs directing me to the exits, I still spent a brief amount of time walking in circles in the Amsterdam airport (which is quite nice, like everything having to do with public transportation in this country), looking for Tyson. Eventually I found him, and immediately entrusted him with the thinking for the rest of the day. The weather was (apparently) classic Dutch - comfortably cool (60s), partly cloudy, and windy. We took a bus to his new town of Haarlem where he lives in a small apartment with his Dutch girlfriend Rachel. Haarlem is a nice looking town, with clean brick and cobblestone streets and classic Dutch buildings, a grand cathedral and as many bicycles as cars. Unfortunately all those bricks and cobble stones really put the hurt on the luggage we dragged behind us, and already the wheels on my 50lb suitcase are destroyed (they melted). It may make for a long remainder of the voyage...

Tyson made me breakfast and then mercifully let me sleep for a few hours. I passed out as soon as I hit the mattress, and woke up immediately after that. Tyson decided he wanted to go on a good run today, so I rode with him to a sand dune park (which looked more like the Outer Banks than what I imagined the Netherlands looking like) and jogged around. While running I felt like a baby duck walking for the first time. I don't know if it was because I'd only gotten 2 hours of sleep or was 6 hours jet lagged or had been sitting for the better part of the last 24 hours or that I haven't gone on honest run in a month, but my knocking knees and scattered breathing were sure signs of a runner who has seen better days.

With the run out of the way, we could get to doing what people come to Amsterdam for. Well, at least one of the things, we'll get to the others in a minute. It turns out you can get really good Belgian style beer here for about as much as Natty Ice in the United States. For example, you can get a 330ml bottle of "Duvel" here for less than a Euro and a half, while a 750ml bottle of the same stuff in the US will cost you well over $10. Tyson and i collectively drank 6 or 7 excellent (albeit similar tasting) beers while we shared a small homecooked meal of lemon chicken, sauteed potatoes and broccoli. We then packed a few beers for the train and set off for the main attraction - downtown Amsterdam.

The result of holiday sexcapades
This is when things started getting weird. Pleasantly weird, but weird nonetheless. We met up with Rachel and some of her Dutch friends at a theater festival entitled "Fringe." On our way there we bumped into a group of the performers doing some last minute advertising for their show. The troupe, wearing various costumes from togas to smurf suits, excitedly greeted us and guided us to the pavilion within which the show would take place. About fifty people sat in the pavilion, waiting for what was described to me as a "Dutch show," which meant literally nothing to me. It turns out that "Dutch" in this context meant that the actors would try to be as blatantly sexual as possible. The show was based on the holiday of "Carnival", which is basically an excuse to dress up as ridiculously as possible and make a fool of yourself by singing and dancing as loudly and wildly as one is capable. From the homoerotic Superman to the tall blonde girl wearing a white thong on the outside of her red tights who stared at me as she sang/shouted something in Dutch that I didn't understand, the show was indeed a spectacle of a certain kind of "Dutchness." After the show I found out that what they were singing was preposterously lurid, which made the staring contest with the blonde girl that much more... interesting.
She won the staring contest

We hung around drinking beer and talking for a while afterwards, until another completely different show began. It was a one woman show, which was less of a spectacle than previously but arguably more artistic. She dallied on in Dutch about something she was trying to say but couldn't, and I watched her facial expressions and body language to try to get some inkling of what she was talking about. It wasn't comprehensible, but it was interesting nonetheless. When I bumped into the performer later on I told her as much, and she gave me a forgiving smile for appreciating her show without understanding it.

We left for a "Belgian Beer Bar" a few blocks away, where I was put in charge of ordering. While everyone speaks English, it's still best to order in Dutch if possible, particularly with a Dutch accent for menu items. I was tasked with ordering two "Gentse Tripels" which, it turns out, if said in an American accent, earns you nothing. The "G" in Dutch is not really a "G" at all, but rather a "Hchchch" sound that you have to make in the back of your throat. I pointed it out on the menu and she said, "oh, Hxhchchentse Tripel? Of course."

At this point Tyson and I were pretty deep into the Belgian Beer buzz and we left for the Red Light District. But first we had to get some French fries. Near the Red Light District Tyson took me to a small French Fry stand, that sold inexpensive fries with mayonnaise, ketchup, and an array of other sauces. I got "speciaaaaaal Ketchup" which is simply ketchup, mayonnaise and onions.

While munching on our fries we arrived at the Red Light District, which merits some discussion. Now, I was told beforehand that girls stand in windows in skimpy clothing and entice you to join them in their little red-lit stalls. Once inside, they simply slide a curtain over the window and, for a mere 50 euros, within feet from hundreds of pedestrians, revel in some meaningless, primal expression. Despite being forewarned, the actual sight of drop dead gorgeous girls hopelessly knocking at their glass cage to entice the throngs of (predominantly male) tourists was simultaneously tempting and deeply disturbing. I didn't really believe it until I saw it, and I didn't really know what to make of it.



Here I was, meandering the streets of Amsterdam, munching on some fried food, refusing cocaine offered to me by random men standing on the street, passing theaters offering live sex shows and the infamous banana bar, staring at barely clad Bulgarian women in glass cages, talking to Tyson about the ethics and psychology of prostitution, swimming in a sea of debauchery and pleasure.

Amsterdam.

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