Amsterdam!

I would just like to preface this post by describing my last couple weeks of class. I had really started struggling to keep up with some of the coursework and worried I might be falling behind, so I spent three straight weeks dedicated to a consistent 9-5 style work schedule. I had a phonetics exam two weeks ago that I did really well on, then I planned to devote this past week to studying for my comp exam on Thursday. I was then informed that our next online lit exam was scheduled for Friday, the day we were to leave for Amsterdam. I spoke with my professor and she agreed to let me do it Thursday, which was fantastic, but it made last week a blur of studying and staying on top of all my other assignments. I left my comp test feeling pretty good, confidently handed in my phonetics assignment, then sat down to work on my lit exam after I finished class. I’m so glad she let me do it early, because it took a solid five hours or so, which would have really dampened our first day abroad. I think I did well enough on it, but when I emailed it to her around 11 Thursday night, I felt like my incessant dedication had come to fruition and it was time for a well-deserved break. Really, to not take a break would contribute to burn out and make me a less effective student overall, so I guess you could say my sanity, as well as my future academic success, depended on this trip. With that in mind, I joyously packed my bag and collapsed into bed around midnight, though I was too excited to fall asleep right away.

Our flight was scheduled for 6 am, and since the metro doesn’t start running until then, Helena, Nola, and I decided to meet in a mutually convenient location and split a cab. We planned to meet at 4, so before going to bed I set my alarm for 3:30…and 3:32…and 3:34 because I was so worried about not waking up in time. I was too excited to sleep very soundly though and ended waking up multiple times throughout the night to check the time. When my first alarm finally went off I felt surprisingly refreshed and eager to get the holiday underway. Everything went well and we made it to our gate without incident. By the time we boarded I was pretty hungry, but I hoped I would be able to catch up on some sleep as the flight was almost three hours. Of course, that didn’t happen though. I was however, quite surprised when, not long into the flight, the attendants brought out a food cart! We weren’t even served drinks on our last couple of flights, but not only did they give us a beverage, we were also served a sandwich! Now I know I always say that hunger is the best spice, and that the best sandwich is a free sandwich, but I was blown away at how delicious it was. It was literally just two pieces of bread with two pieces of cheese, but it was seriously amazing. I’m not sure what kind of bread it was, but it was so light and airy and flavorful and it had seeds or something in it. The cheese was called “Boomer Cheese” which is native to Holland and somewhat sharp. I also tasted a hint of what I think was some kind of mustard, which I usually don’t like, but the flavors married marvelously. I was feeling very content when I finished the meal, and considered trying for sleep again, but before too long the attendants came around another time! I almost didn’t know how to react when she asked if I wanted a tea or coffee because two in-flight beverages is practically unheard of. When she pleasantly handed me my steaming cup of tea it was accompanied by a small packet. This thing was called StroopWaffle (perhaps spelled that way, I never got good at Dutch) and its like two waffle crisps with caramel or syrup in the middle. It was heavenly. Although the food was incredible, I was also amazed at the greenery which started to come into view in the predawn light. Upon landing, I was beyond excited to explore this new territory

As soon as we had deplaned and met up outside of the gate, the first thing Nola said to me was, “did you try that sandwich?!” We raved about it for some time to Helena, who had been in too deep a sleep to care about food. The airport was bustling and quite a scene. One of the first things we came to was this electronic charging station where you sat on a stool and pedaled a stationary bike to power it! When we got to the main part of the airport it opened up into what could have passed for an indoor village, and everything was ornately decorated for Christmas. Its hard to describe the exact atmosphere, but it just felt so…I don’t know, traditional I guess. We had a hard time buying our train tickets at the kiosk, and I think we may have gotten to hear some of our first cuss words in Dutch from the boy behind us, but we eventually got them. We were trying to get to Amsterdam Centraal, so when we asked the man on the platform if we were in the right place for the central station, he said yes. We rode for about 40 minutes or so, then at the station looked for the ferry we were supposed to take. When we couldn’t find it, we asked information, who gave us a very confused look, and proceeded to tell us that we were not in Amsterdam. We just sort of returned her confused look until she pointed us in the direction of the right platform. I guess we had to gone to the central station in a neighboring city. We eventually boarded the correct train, and arrived in Amsterdam Centraal after about 20 minutes or so. We found our way to the ferry, which was free, to take us across the channel to where we would be staying. When the ferry dropped us of on the other side, we actually did a really good job following the directions through the small village to our place. Again, I was fascinated with the architecture and the whole feel of the area. It really reminded me of being back in a small town. Oh and another thing we noticed rather quickly was that literally everyone seems to ride a bike!

Anyway, for this trip we decided to go through AirBnB, which is pretty cool. Basically, people register their empty rooms with the company, then travelers can search for them on the sight and ask to stay there. We were staying with a man named Milton. The place seemed like an average townhouse, but it was also kind of different. The front door opened directly to a steep and narrow staircase, which led to the main floor. To the right was the living room being used as the guest room. There was also a tiny bathroom and kitchen, and another small room. Up the second flight of stairs were two bedrooms and the shower. We quickly ascertained that Milton was from Kenya and shared the small house with his seemingly teen-aged daughter. The other students were still in the room because checkout wasn’t technically until noon, but we had arranged to drop off our stuff early. He couldn’t give us the key yet though, so we agreed to be back around three. With that, we found our way back to the ferry, walked back through the train station, and emerged in the heart of Amsterdam. I immediately fell further in love with the architecture and feel of the city. We wanted to find some traditional Dutch food, but everything seemed to be more geared towards tourists, so we had to settle with a regular cafe. The food was decent. Afterwords, we kind of just wondered around taking in the sights and smells of the city. The sun was out, but it was quite a bit colder than Madrid. The temperature wasn’t even that low, but the wind made it seem much worse. We eventually made our way back to Milton’s at three and got a proper view of our room. There was a sectional couch with a full sized air mattress in the middle. We couldn’t decide who would get the couch, so we decided to all just cuddle on the mattress. The apartment seemed almost as cold as outside, so we burrowed under the blankets and enjoyed a much needed nap. As soon as we began to doze off, we could hear it start to downpour outside.

We kind of freaked out for a second when we woke up in darkness, but it turned out to only be about 6:00. We spent a long time searching Yelp for authentic Dutch food, and we were shocked at how difficult it was. We eventually settled on a small restaurant that wasn’t too expensive and was only about a two mile walk from our house. As we walked out the front door, we were more than relieved to see that the rain had passed. We probably made it there by around 8:30 or so, and we immediately fell in love with the atmosphere. It was small, cozy, and oddly sort of homey. The best part was when I asked how much tap water cost, and the waiter gave me sort funny look and said, “its tap water…its free.” I know this sound obvious, but it was literally one of the first times I’ve encountered free tap water in Europe. They usually don’t even offer it and instead make you buy a bottle of mineral water, which is usually one of the more expensive beverages on the menu. Anyway, the waiter then suggested a Dutch beer for us and Helena and I ordered Boerenkool Stamppot, while Nola order Hutspot. So this beer had a relatively high alcohol content at 8%, but it was surprisingly light and refreshing. The stamppot, was basically cabbage hash with some other vegetables that you pour some beef stew over. Again, I had quite the appetite by this point, but it was amazing! The whole meal was completely satisfying. We didn’t really have a good idea of where to go next, so we eventually ended up in a bar. We showed the bartender a picture of the brand of beer from the restaurant, and she said they didn’t have it but that she could give us something similar. As she sat them down on our table, she gave us a smile, winked, and said “good luck”. I guess she was saying that because the alcohol content on this beer was even higher, but otherwise it was nothing like the other one. It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever tasted, but it was not very good. We sat at the bar and talked for a long while, and around 11:30 or so we decided to succumb to our curiosity and head to the Red Light District.

Our only problem was that we had no idea how to get there, so after we paid our tab we asked the bartender. We weren’t far, and she gave us pretty concise directions. As we turned to leave, without a hint of a smile the bartender told us to be careful. Her sincerity was touching and slightly concerning. We really had no idea what to expect. We took a couple of turns, and before long we knew we had made it. The first few things we came upon were large strip clubs and various establishments offering seemingly every type of service one might desire, but soon we got to the heart of it. Again, I had no idea what it would be like, but I was rather surprised. So along the whole street, there are literally like storefronts with full length glass doors that have women standing behind them in a very small room. If a man is interested, he gestures or something, she lets him in, they very briefly discuss pricing, then she closes the curtain; we later learned that the average visit lasts between 6 and 15 minutes, but rarely longer than 10. Oh and there are actually red light bulbs (though some were purple) hanging just inside the window. I guess its a fitting name and all, I just didn’t think there would actually be red lights on all the windows. That Police song makes so much sense now! Anyway, the main strip seemed to go on for a quite a while, and there were even more windows down the side streets. I was also surprised at their attire; though I wouldn’t say they were modestly dressed, there was technically nothing more than PG-13 nudity. Most of the women wore pretty blank expressions, some looking demure and others somewhat bored. Then there were those, especially on the side streets, that were very actively trying to attract attention. I tried to imagine what it could possibly feel like to be in that position. It was overall quite a fascinating experience. It also didn’t feel the least bit dangerous. There was a sort of energy on the whole street, and it was pretty obvious that most of the people there were tourists. We walked away reflecting on the situation, until we came upon a burger place that smelled delicious.

I wasn’t very hungry, so I examined the beer list, still trying to chase the dragon of that first one. I settled on a French-sounding ale, that was not the same but was also quite delicious. We also ended up eating some of the burger, and it was amazing! I know these descriptions of food are beginning to sound redundant, but it was seriously soo good. It was juicy and cooked perfectly, the cheese was great, and there was some sort of special sauce that just made the whole thing. We went to another bar or two after, then decided to make the journey back to Milton’s. By the time we crossed the channel, the wind was roaring and it was pretty cold, but we all agreed that it had been a fantastic day.

We took our time getting up the next morning and eventually took showers. It was actually quite different. You basically open the door into this small tiled room, with a sink on one wall and the shower head on the other. I regretted forgetting my flip flops, but it was a nice shower nonetheless. Now that we had a taste for burgers, we found a burger bar downtown that we decided to try. As soon as we left, we realized today was a bit different than yesterday; it was completely overcast, the wind was stronger, and the temperature was lower. It wasn’t all that bad though. Once again, the restaurant did not disappoint! This time we tried Irish beef burgers with Amsterdam cheese, and it was amazing. It also had that special sauce on it that was unidentifiable yet delicious.

Our next objective was to go back to the area of the red light district because along the way we had some seen some very pretty channels that we wanted to see again in the daylight. We never did find it though. I guess we walked in the wrong direction, but that was alright. We found ourselves in a cheese shop where we could sample several different kinds, and they were great! We also found a free “cheese museum” but it really just seemed like another store with more samples. We then walked through some sort of flower market that was pretty interesting. We eventually procured a tourist map and located the Anne Frank House. It was quite a walk from where we were, but we were already numb from the cold anyway so it didn’t matter. When we got there, the line stretched all the way around the corner of the building! I suppose we expected that, but it didn’t make it easier. We made up our minds to stick it out, and those two hours really seemed to fly by (not exactly, especially after it started raining!). We finally made it in the door right around dusk. Though we were damp and freezing, it turned out to be entirely worth it. It was surreal to actually be inside a house with so much history. Somehow, I’ve never actually read the Diary of Anne Frank, but its definitely on my list now. It was fascinating to actually go behind the bookcase and see were several people had to hide out. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have to “speak softly and step lightly” all the time with blackout curtains constantly drawn. Though I suppose those conditions weren’t as bad as where they all eventually ended up. I didn’t realize it, but apparently she died in Auschwitz very shortly before the liberation. It was all pretty sad.

When we left the museum it was still cold and raining, and we didn’t really have anywhere to go. We just sort of started walking until we realized we didn’t know where we were. We decided to get a warm beverage and regroup. We got some tea, and tried to soak in the warmth of our small corner. We exchanged pleasantries with some local boys seated next to us, and we eventually asked them for food recommendations. They told us we wouldn’t really have any luck finding traditional dutch food in the city center, but when we told them about our meal the night before, they conceded that it was probably the only authentically dutch dish. One of the boys suggested a Thai place, which we all agreed to rather quickly. They then pointed it out to us on our map and showed where we were currently located. The shop had a nice atmosphere, and we were in no hurry to venture back out into the elements, so we ordered another drink. Eventually, an English business man sat down on the other side of us, and he was quite an interesting conversationalist. He gave us some other suggestions on places to go, and we talked to him for quite a while. We finally ventured back out, and it didn’t even seem that cold anymore. We expertly navigated our way to the restaurant and were less than surprised to be greeted by a long wait. It didn’t matter though, because we really  had nowhere else to be. It turns out the British man was correct in that the food was mediocre; don’t get me wrong, it was delicious, it just wasn’t the best Thai I’d ever had.

After the restaurant we ventured back to the red light district. We wanted to see a show or something, but everything was way out of our price range, so we decided to go to the Red Light Secret’s Museum of Prostitution instead. It was actually really interesting. It started out with a short documentary about a typical day in the neighborhood. I was somewhat surprised at how involved the community is; the sheets are taken to a local laundromat, a man from a nearby cafe regularly brings coffee to the working girls, and a local restaurant caters their food. It showed one of the girls going about her daily business cleaning her work station, then going to a hardware store to buy a new red light bulb. It was interesting to watch them just go through their usual routine. We then got to walk through some small galleries depicting different aspects of the trade throughout history. It was interesting to read about the origins of the district, which is the oldest area in the city. It was originally a popular port, so naturally the sailors attracted that type of commerce. There have been multiple religious movements over the years to abolish it, but it always ended up flourishing because authorities mostly just turned a blind eye to it. It was officially made legal in 2000. I learned that prostitution is actually the world’s oldest profession, and we saw several famous works of art dedicated to the subject. Then we ended up standing behind two red-lit windows on the street front. We were on the second floor, right above the museum sign, so obviously no one paid us any attention, but it was still interesting to see it from that perspective. After, we passed through to what a typical work station looks like. Its pretty much just a small room with a bed and and a sink that the girl can decorate however she chooses. Then we walked into an upscale brothel room, complete with a bathtub and a television. So the main difference is that on the street, people settle on a set price and pay up front, so the girl tries to get the client in and out as quickly as possible, whereas in a brothel clients pay for time, so they try to prolong the process as much as they can. One sign said it was a minimum of 75 euros, but that people could end up paying several thousand for one visit. We then entered into a room that was designed like one where clients could explore some of their more unconventional interests; turns out older prostitutes enjoy entering into this type of work because it tends to be less taxing on them. In the next room was a simulator where you could sit in front a screen and watch a recording of random people on the street to get an even better idea of what it would feel like to be behind the glass.

Probably the most interesting thing were the different stories they had posted on the walls throughout the museum in which women of all different backgrounds shared some of their experiences. Many seem to view it as just a job, but some, especially some of the older ones working in the special interest department, actually enjoy it. Then there were the tragic stories. One young woman was lured from her home in Poland by a man who had promised her a job working at a hotel. When she arrived in Amsterdam however, he withheld her passport, forced her into prostitution, and kept her wages. He was arrested after two years for trafficking, but she continued to work because she didn’t see any other option. She is currently saving her money and hopes to one day have enough to return to Poland. It seems pretty difficult though. If I remember correctly, the girls have to a pay a landlord 150 euros to rent out their space for just half a day. Although things are monitored, the literature still conceded that there are some underage or non-legal citizens workings, some against their wills. There is however, a growing amount of activist groups that advocate for worker’s rights, and I even read somewhere that they were unionized. I think it started during the Napoleon occupation in the early 19th century that women were required to get a medical exam twice a week; if they are clear, they are given a red card, but if not, they get a white card labeled with whatever disease they have. They are then not allowed to work and receive free medical care. Also prostitution is considered a legitimate and taxable profession. At the very end of the tour was a wall of visitor’s confessions, which were entertaining to read. Then there was actually a confessional that you could go into and write your own if you so desired. We left the museum with a fresh perspective on the whole situation, and it was an enlightening experience.

We didn’t really have time to do much on Sunday as we wanted to budget enough time for the train. We ended up getting there pretty early though, so we enjoyed a nice meal in the airport and shopped around for a while. One the flight back, we did not get the cheese sandwiches, but we had chicken instead and it was almost as good. When she asked what I wanted to drink, I asked her how much the red wine costs, but I don’t think she heard the first part because she just smiled, handed me the bottle, and asked if I wanted a glass of water too. Then they once again came around with hot beverages and stroopwaffles. I could really get used to the service in Holland! It was nice to be back in the warmth of Madrid, and by the time I reached my apartment, I was pretty wore out. I was completely satisfied with the trip though. Between the friendly people, the architecture, and the food, I think I could seriously see myself living around there.

When I was finally back, I had a better opportunity to connect to the internet and read more about current events. Of course we had heard about the attack in Paris, but there honestly was not much talk about it. I mean everyone was expressing their sympathies and “today we are all French” could bee seen in various locations written in many different languages. Reading some reactions to the event caused me to reflect on my time in Morocco. I would like to think that I would never have had the tendency to discriminate against an entire group of people based on one terrorist group, but being exposed to true Islamic ideals and real-life Muslims have definitely allowed me to be more open minded today. I honestly feel pretty bad for all the Muslims who are open about their religion due to the discrimination they will have to face. I read that one lady in London, who was wearing a hijab, was actually pushed in front of an underground train. I mean someone made a good point that no one believes the KKK was representative of all Christians, just like ISIS isn’t a relevant sample of Muslims. Anyway, I feel like most people will be able to discern the difference between the two, and that line of thinking will prevail. We’ll see how events continue to transpire in the future, but hopefully things will end up in the best interest of humanity. Imagine that!

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