Directly from work on Tuesday (a little after 14,00) we hit the road for Amsterdam. We refers to Zack, Reneé, Ryan, and myself.
A side note: in Europe hours use the comma instead of the colon and money uses a comma instead of a decimal however for anything in the thousands they use a period instead of a comma. On my blog I try to throw in what we see here so that you at home can experience things a little like we do. Back to the story.
The drive took us about 8 hours just like it was supposed to with no hitches. That is until we reached the city. Our directions seem to usually do us well until we get into the confines of our destination. Amsterdam is a big place and we drove in circles and circles for at least an hour. Eventually we found a parking place in an area near the train station, so we thought we could find our hostel easier on foot. As we stood outside looking lost holding luggage a nice man with a bike came and offered to show us to the hostel, which he did, of course he also told us how he was homeless and asked for money. We gave him a small amount, but with the knowledge of what Amsterdam is known for we did not want to be a part of any habits he may have. For those who may not know Amsterdam has a very large and very legal Red Light District, which I will talk about later. Amsterdam is also well known for the amount of marijuana consumed in their city. This however is NOT legal. We learned on a tour we went on that Amsterdam is the 7th highest city for the amount of pot consumed and (although I have a feeling many locals do take part) that tourists are the ones who consume the most. If you are ever in Amsterdam you should be aware that there is a distinct difference between a Café and a Coffeehouse. Which would you assume you could get coffee and which would you go to for your weed? Partially a trick question. Both serve coffee, but anywhere labeled "Coffeehouse" will also sell special menu items. It is interesting however that if someone where to come from one of these Coffeehouses and run to a police officer declaring what was being sold he would say that the tattle tail was crazy because that is illegal and they would not sell that. In one way or another the cop would deny it could be true and ignore the information. Not being a consumer of drugs myself I forget the numbers here, but it is a very high weight that someone could legally carry and if caught with would not be punished. Our tour guide, who was Irish, said that in Ireland he would be in HUGE trouble if caught with the amount that is legal to carry in Amsterdam.
Okay I have side tracked from our trips order. We arrived at our hostel, which was only a couple blocks from the Red Light District. That does not in any way mean it was not safe and in fact it would be difficult to find a place to stay very far away from the Red Light District. Our hostel was SO cheap and we soon discovered there was a reason. We were in a dorm with 20 people and at least one of those people smelled SO GROSS! But after we dropped our belongings off, it was at least midnight by this time, we headed back to the car to take it to a parking garage we got a coupon for at the front desk of our hostel, which also happened to be the bar on the ground floor. It again took us quite awhile to find the garage, but we eventually did with our super star driver, Ryan (he really is a great driver and did an excellent job the whole trip). And by 2am we were in our beds in the smelly room. I was so tired I slept quite sound until I woke up to the sound of bells in the morning and the sun shining in the window. It was actually wonderful, although it was odd to open my eyes look across the room from my top bunk and see a penis, yes that is right, painted in purple on the wall across from me. Poor Reneé only had 25 minutes of sleep all night due to the snoring (not even from Ryan) and other sounds I will not go into detail about. The good news was when we woke up we were checking out. And for sleeping there from 2am until 8am I think it was okay and we only paid 9,00 euro a piece and you can't find a hostel cheaper than that.
In the morning we headed straight for the car, not to leave, to drop our bags off. On the way we stopped an a Bakery we had seen the night before. The others all had some type of savory item they liked a lot along with a sweet. I had a apple turnover. I thought it was fine, but did not live up to the Bavarian bakeries I continue to rave about.
After we dropped our bags we followed our map to the Anne Frank House. This was something I have wanted to do for a long time. I read "The Diary of Anne Frank" in middle school I believe and although I didn't even love the book I just wanted to see the actual place it was written. I have also heard from a number of people that they were disappointed by their visit. I think sometimes it does help to go into something we no or low expectations and maybe that is what did it for me, but I loved (as odd as that is to say of something of this nature) the entire experience. Anne Frank for anyone who does not know was born in 1929 in Germany and then migrated to Amsterdam with her family where she grew up and then went into hiding from the Nazis during WWII. She and her family were rated our by an unknown person to this day and all taken to concentration camps. Anne, her sister, her mother, and three others that were hiding with them all died before the end of the war. Her father was the only survivor and he published her Diary and turned their hiding place into a museum for people to visit. I think all four of us were very moved to be walking on the stairs that Anne and her family climbed and walking across the floors where they spent hours every day sitting as still as possible for fear that any noise might give them away. The hiding place was actually fairly large compared to what you may imagine. They had a bathroom, a kitchen, a couple bedrooms, and an attic (Anne's haven) but the difficult part for Anne was one not being allowed to move until late at night and most of all that she could not go outside and breath the air and run and play as a girl is meant to do at her age. It was sad, but it was wonderful to be that close to such a large piece of history.
After we left The Anne Frank House we realized that not one of us had any other agenda for our day in Amsterdam. On a map we got at our hostel there was an advertisement for a free tour that began in a central square at 11:15, so we thought free was the right price (of course it was made clear from the beginning that tips were appreciated) and since we didn't know much about the city it would be a good investment of our time. On the way to the tour we stopped at a Café (I almost said coffeeshop and then remembered I already explained the difference and it was most definitely not the definition of a coffeeshop). This place was called "Bagels and Beans." It was perfect! We all loved it. They had fresh squeezed juice, which I have been craving. I haven't found anywhere in Bavaria, or anywhere else for that matter, where I can get fresh juice or a smoothy. Ryan, Reneé and I all had a glass of the mix of all their juices I think pineapple, strawberry, orange, and a couple others. Zack just had strawberry. Having stopped at the bakery for breakfast I wasn't hungry for a bagel, but I probably shoudl have taken one to go because both Ryan's and Reneé's were so good, yes I tried them both. Ryan had an everythign bagel with truffle cream cheese and Reneé had a plain bagel with goat cheese, honey, walnuts, and thyme. Then to add to that Reneé and I each got coffee to go. I love coffee at home both at Neil's in Oregon and Avelino and Adagio in Bellingham, but I think that this was the best coffee I've ever had. Maybe it was because I haven't had good coffee since I've been here, but it was really really good. And on top of it all they had soy milk. I usually am a fan of Americanos, but I could not waste the opportunity to have soy milk, so I ordered a cappuccino. Have I mentioned how good it was yet?
So we reached the tour and there was a ton of people there. Thankfully they split us into several groups. They had a German tour, a Spanish tour, and two English tours. As I mentioned our guide was actually Irish. We liked him a lot, his name was Bernard. He had been living in Amsterdam for 6 months. After he graduated college in Mechanical Engineering he decided he just wanted to go experience something different for a change even after being heavily recruited in his field. I say good for him!
There was a lot of history he gave us that I wish I could repeat, but my memory for that type of thing is just not so good. And since the tour took 3 hours that might out run all my other blog entries thus far. One of the first places we walked was through part of the Red Light District. I wasn't expecting it and all of a sudden we rounded a corner and there was a young woman posing in her underwear. Having never been in a Red Light District before in my life my first thought wasn't, she's advertising herself, it was it this some kind of model in a lingerie store front, which still would have been a bit risque. We proceeded to see a row of window fronts with girls posing very scantily clad. Then there was one standing in her booth on her cell phone smoking a cigarette. We learned that they rent these spaces from 70-150 euros per 8 hour shift, so they need to make at least what they put into it back. All prostitutes own themselves by law, so they can say yes or no to anyone who approaches them and can negotiate their price. We were told the size of women go down in the evening when a new shift comes in and we did see some very large women and some were much older than you might expect, which I would assume would also be attributed to the time of day it was. We stopped at the end of the street in front of a church. Here is some history that discussed me and therefore I remember it. A long time ago sailors would come into Amsterdam on their boats and "enjoy" their time in the Red Light District along with all the other sins Amsterdam has to offer. The next day they would come to the church and confess to the Priest everything in detail as the Priest wrote it down and put numbers next to each thing. Then he would add up the amounts and charge the sailor that much for a card. I am forgetting what they called the card, but basically it said okay your sins are erased. Then they began to offer these cards before the sailors even went out. They could come to the church say what they wanted to do and were planning to do, buy the card in the same manner, go out partake in these sinful activities, and then wake up the next morning with this card already purchased to feel clean knowing they'd already taken care of everything from the night before. Thankfully this system is no longer in place.
We saw many building on our tour that were leaning forward and sideways. I forget why they were leaning, but I do remember that instead of leveling the house they would level the floors inside, so the house is still crooked but inside things are all right. We saw a hidden church. It is on the top floor a house and is where 400 Catholics came to meet a long time ago when it was forbidden. The only thing was that they also built the largest organ in the city, in the world, I forget, but it was big, so every Sunday they heard 400 people singing along with this Organ. Sort of an odd way to hide your service.
We did not walk down it but we saw the Jewish Street where all the Jews lived back in the day. After they were all taken or in hiding people went in and completely ransacked the neighborhood so much so that in the end it looked at thought a bomb were dropped on it. The winter of 1944 (I think it was) was colder than any winter previous so people were looting wood to burn just to stay warm. Now many of the buildings on this street that have been rebuilt look very different from the rest of Amsterdam. The painter Rembrandt's house might have been down this road as well. Once again my memory is foggy. Not because I was smoking while I was there though. :)
We saw the narrowest house in Amsterdam. I'll see if I can get a picture up that does it justice. It was so tiny.
A new piece of history that is still unfolding is that the city is actually cracking down on all the "bad" things that go on in it. They are trying to scale the Red Light District back to only one street, which would drastically down size it. And also they are trying to slowly close the coffeeshops and reduce the amount of marijuana that is sold and consumed. Currently they have both a museum about pot as well as a university dedicated to learning about it and these may go away making them a thing of the past. We did not visit these sites, but it makes me interested to see what they are about since one day possibly soon they could be gone making the Amsterdam that has become so famous only a thing of the past. Reneé and I were talking that it is odd to stop and think about the things we see and have or are living through that will someday be in history books or possibly stories that people talk about from back in the day. But someday back in the day will be our current day... so bizarre for people as young as us. Amsterdam has already made mushrooms (the drug) illegal. The only bad part of this is that they did not take inventory of what people had when they made them illegal and said you could sell what you had but not restock to keep selling. So people are still selling the same stock they had supposedly, but we all know they are just restocking. I think it had cut down on the problem of mushrooms though.
We walked into a beautiful courtyard in the middle of matching houses where we learned you can live for free if you are a woman, you can prove how devout you are in your faith, and are willing to stay celibate. We then moved on to an area where squatters live. In Amsterdam you are able to live for free if you can find a building that has been abandoned for at least 12 months. Then you must let the city know you are claiming it. You can contact the head of the squatters (it is a community and a lifestyle) and they will arrange to get an electrician, a plumber, and a lawyer to make necessary arrangements for the place. You also much have something like a table and chairs and a bed.
I forgot to say that outside of that church I talked about already what a bronze breast with a hand on it in the brick on the ground. Someone, again back in the day, came and put it there in the middle of the night. The city had it removed and the whole town protested to have it back, so they put it back eventually. They feel like because it isn't saying this is right or this is wrong it really does show what a part of Amsterdam is and lets you decide what you think of it for yourself.
Another old tale Bernard shared with us was of a man who took communion and then threw it up and tried to burn it to clean it up. But the host floated up because it could not be burned. It ended up in box and it was the miracle of Amsterdam, but then at some point someone broke in an stole the box not knowing what it was and threw the host in the water. And that was the last time it was seen. I think other things happened to it as well and it always survived. That is a very bad job of me relaying the miracle of Amsterdam, but it sounded something like that and I'm sure you could find the whole story on the internet if you wish.
The tour was great. And we definitely thought our guide was worth a nice tip. Not to mention it was St. Patrick's day and we got to spend it with an Irishman wearing lots of green. :) At the end of the tour a group of us followed Bernard to a restaurant that served Dutch food. It looked gross to me. A pile of mashed potatoes with bacon in them topped with a nasty sausage all covered in a gravy. The four of us just opted to get a beer. Heineken is from Amsterdam, so we wanted a pint before we left, but as it turns out Heineken is no better in Amsterdam than it is in the States. The best part of joining in at the restaurant is we met Parker. Who is Parker you ask? Our new best friend and favorite travel companion! He was on our tour and we got to talking to him at the restaurant and he was tired of Amsterdam after being their for nearly five days and was thinking of heading to Brugge, Belgium... well how perfect because we were heading there also. So I offered him a ride and after being very humble we convinced him to join us. So we agreed to meet at our parking garage at 5:30. In the mean time we stopped at a souvenir shop. I thought it would be so cute to get Elisa and Sadie wooden clogs from Holland, but sorry girls those shoes cost an arm and a leg. Some day you'll understand it is the thought that counts. Then we decided to eat at a falafel joint that was just a hole in the wall. For 4 euro we got a pita with falafel (a ball of ground garbanzo beans with herbs that is fried) and lettuce and then unlimited "salad bar" which was olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, spicy carrots, many sauces, tabouleh, and more I can't think of. So we would load up the pita with this stuff, eat a bit and then go back and top it with more. It was so good and we were stuffed when we left. Oh and we got sides of fries because Belgium is known for their fries and Amsterdam copies Belgium on a lot of their food. They double fry them so they are extra crunchy and yes they are better that way. They also have numerous dipping sauces. We chose curry and it was once again fantastic! This is just the beginning of what all I ate on this trip.
On the way back to the car we saw a market that was starting to be taken down, so we walked through. I actually liked that everyone was preoccupied cleaning up so we could look at things without being hassled.
As we were crossing the street to the road where the parking garage was there popped up Parker. Perfect timing. What was even more perfect was that he lost the map we had drawn direction on for him to meet us, so it was just by chance and the grace of God that he found us.
We had a very enjoyable drive to Brussels even though Reneé, Parker, and I were crammed into the back seat. It wasn't so bad for only two hours. As usual we got lost and did not know where the south station was we were supposed to drop Zack off at for his friend to pick him up, so we just left him at a park near the Arch de Triumph in Brussels (apparently arches are everywhere not just in Paris) and his friend said he could meet him there. After we left we were lost for at least an hour if not two trying to get out of the city to head to Brugge, which is toward the coast. After getting on the autobahn the wrong direction we stopped at a gas station for directions and were pointed the right way. From there it was okay until we reached the city of Brugge. Again we could not find our way to the hostel for at least an hour, but eventually we made it.
As seems to be a reoccurring theme it is late and I need to go to bed so I can function tomorrow at work. I still have a lot more I can't wait to write about so stay tuned for the rest of the story.