I feel a little awkward in writing about Amsterdam, because Amsterdam seems to be one of the cities at the very top of every Europe-visiting tourist's list of favorites (along with Paris), but I never managed to really decide whether I liked it or not. I guess I wound up being there nine days, and never really felt that I'd got to know it.
Amsterdam is one of those cities like Honolulu, where there is one sector, the Centrum (or Waikiki, in Honolulu), where all the tourists are herded into. (Very much like the French Quarter in New Orleans, and a lot like the Trinity-College Temple-Bar area in Dublin.) Actually, Amsterdam is not quite as bad as Honolulu, because people who live in Honolulu almost never go into Waikiki, whereas the Centrum in Amdsterdam is where all the major shopping locations are, so apparently lots of locals do go there, despite the tourists.
I hadn't included Amsterdam on any of my previous trips partly because it never quite fit in the itinerary before, but also because I had the impression that it was dangerous and very expensive. Dangerous at least in the sense that I had read a number of stories of people being robbed or of attempted robberies in Amsterdam -- usually a matter of pickpockets.
I'm sure that there are indeed plenty of pickpockets in Amsterdam, but I didn't encounter any and nobody tried any of the standard tricks one reads about --- "accidentally" smearing mustard on one's clothes and then offering to help, etc. Probably I just don't look like someone who has anything worth stealing. Or perhaps thieves can see that what I have is not carried very accessibly.
Anyway, this time in Europe I did leave the possibility open that I might be brave and stop by Amsterdam, and I even listened a little to some Dutch language tapes before I left, although I didn't get a chance to listen to them very much.
As far as Amsterdam being expensive, I wasn't wrong about that. My experience in Germany was that it was almost impossible to spend a whole lot for dinner there. A little more than ten euros, usually, for a full sit-down dinner including a glass of wine. In fact, sometimes I ordered a dessert or something else simply out of embarrassment at spending so little. Whereas in Amsterdam, dinner at almost any real restaurant (not fast food) is almost always close to 20 euros, usually with a glass of wine but no dessert.
And hotels are also on the expensive side, with a caution from my guidebook about the cheaper ones. So I indeed lucky to have one of my ZEGG friends who lives in Amsterdam offer me her apartment on Overtoom Straat while she was visiting her boyfriend in Findhorn.
One very useful little guide book I found was titled GET LOST! The Cool Guide to Amsterdam (by Joe Paulker). I found it extremely easy to obey the command in the title of this book, especially in the Centrum, which is a mass of narrow little streets. It seemed that all I needed to do was to walk down two or three of these little streets and I had no idea whatsoever of where I was or what direction I needed to be going in. I'd get to a place where I knew I'd been three or four times before, and still wouldn't have any idea how to get anywhere else. I didn't find the canals very useful as an orientation guide, mostly because there are so many of them, and they all look pretty much the same. To me, anyway.
Although not in the Centrum itself, the apartment I was staying in was a very short tram ride (two stops) to Leidensplein, which is on the edge of the Centrum, and where there are lots of tourist-oriented restaurants and lots of shopping. "Plein" translates in English to "Square." I tended to eat in Leidensplein most of the time, because, touristy as it was, at least I could find decent restaurants (Italian, Greek, Chinese, Thai) that were reasonably priced, at least by Amsterdam standards. The restaurants on Overtoom Straat itself tended to be overpriced and pretentious.
Incidentally, whereas I have been very careful for many years now to always say "The Netherlands," I discovered that most of the English-language tourist literature uses the term "Holland," which, I recently learned, technically refers only to about one-third of the country.
One of the big reasons I didn't get to know Amsterdam better was that it was raining fairly hard a large part of the time I was there. Amsterdam is not one of those places like Honolulu, where you can get light showers off and on throughout the day, or like Berlin, where you get a fierce thunderstorm which is gone after an hour or so. In Amsterdam, it rains hard and it rains all day.
In particular, there were very fierce thunderstorms all day the day I arrived. And pretty much the same, although not quite as bad, for the next few days. And then came days when, after some initial rain, the sun started shining and it seemed clear that the rain was done for the day. One could recognize the foolish people (like myself) who didn't know the city, because they were the ones walking around in the sunshine without umbrellas, and one could be sure that within an hour or so they would be very wet.
So I stayed in the apartment quite a bit, those first few days. But of course it occurred to me that people who live in Amsterdam don't stay home all day just because it's raining hard. And the apartment came with a nice little umbrella right by the door. So I did go out some in the rain, but not in the fiercest thunderstorms.
One of the most noticeable features of Amsterdam is of course the amazing number of people on bicycles. And it's very different from Germany, where all the bicycles seem to have at least twenty gear ratios and all the riders seem to be practicing for the tour de France. The bicycles in Amsterdam are like those I had when I was a kid, in the 1950's, with no gearshift and, undoubtedly, a coaster brake. And people ride them sitting up straight very sedately, at not a whole lot more than walking speed.
I didn't go in any of the coffee houses where it's legal to smoke marijuana. (Technically, contrary to what many tourists believe, it is not legal to smoke it on the street, although one is not likely to be arrested.) One can simply go into a coffeehouse and drink beer and eat a croissant or whatever without smoking, but these places all seemed dingy, smoky, and very unattractive to me. I'm not much of a pot smoker myself, and sitting around watching people get stoned doesn't seem very entertaining to me.
The number one thing one looks for in a bar is conviviality. If I walk into a bar and there's a general conversation going on, I will almost always sit down and have at least a drink or two. But in these coffee houses, there didn't seem to be any conviviality at all. Maybe it takes place on a different level, and one has to get used to it.
I didn't find any really good bars in Amsterdam either. Mostly the ones I went in were the sort of place where there are three or four or maybe five customers, who apparently come in every day and have a few drinks and and all know each other and who don't really have a lot to say to each other.
I did strike up a fairly nice friendship with the woman bartender in a bar close to my apartment, though, even though it fit the description I've just given. The thing is, I went in and asked, "Could I have a red wine? A merlot, maybe? Or something red, in any case." And this was the only occasion in all my time in Amsterdam where I encountered someone dealing with the public whose English was not excellent. So her boy friend, who looked like he was Indonesian, maybe, explained to her that I wanted a "rode wijn." (The first word has two syllables, with a drawn-out and very resonant "o", and the second sounds like the German word "wein.") So we had some fun as she taught me to say "rode wijn," and when I came in on subsequent occasions, I would always ask for "Een rode wijn," and she would smile, possibly at my bad accent.
But then later, on a subsequent visit, I think, I learned that she was Mexican, and so I spoke to her quite a bit in Spanish, and she liked that. Her little boy was sitting at the bar, at least during the early part of the evening, and I asked her, "Cuanto anos tiene?" and she told me "Cinco."
Several of the bars I went to were reasonably friendly, meaning mostly that the bartender was friendly. But it didn't seem that Amsterdam has much of a bar culture.
When my friend came back from Findhorn, I moved into a hotel in the Centrum for three nights, because her apartment was really not something that two people could share very easily, unless they were very good friends. And that was good, because I got a chance to know the Centrum at night a little and in particular to wander through the red-light district. (Since I eat dinner so late, I usually don't wander at night too far from where I'm staying.)
One thing about booking this hotel is worth telling you about. I spent quite a bit of time on the internet looking for a hotel, and the woman whose apartment I'd been staying in also logged in and suggested some that she found. That was Sunday morning, and I needed the hotel that evening, so after I decided on one, I decided that rather than fool around booking on-line, I'd just call them. But when I did that, the phone rang a long time before it was answered, and then the person who answered said that they were full.
But Bookings.org showed them as having several rooms available, maybe ten. And so I decided to see what would happen if I made my request on-line. And almost immediately I got back email saying that I had a confirmed reservation.
At this point, I wasn't sure quite what to believe. My friend said, "Well, if you have a confirmed reservation and you get there and they don't have a room for you, then it becomes their problem." But I couldn't help but think that if I didn't have a place to spend the night, that would be even more my problem than theirs.
In any case, they did have a room for me, and a very nice one in fact. And later on, I heard the manager telling another guest, "Normally, this would be high season. But at the moment, we have so few rooms booked that we're discounting them to almost half price."
Which seems to show that for a lot of hotels, anyway, using the telephone is no longer a reliable way to get information.
It was a very nice hotel, certainly three stars, part of the chain of hotels with "Tulip" in the name. This one was the "Tulip at the Dam," or something like that. Located at the Amsterdam equivalent of Trafalgar Square, but off in a little alley so it wasn't noisy. I was paying 79 euros a night, just a little above my usual limit, but after having stayed so many nights in friends' apartments and paying nothing, I thought I could afford it. The hotel's usual rate was 129 or 139 euros a night, way beyond my means.
Love & Kisses to All,
Never eat at a place called Mom's, never play cards with a man called Doc,
and never sleep with a woman who has more problems than you do.
--- Nelson Algren