If You Hear the Bell, Run Like Hell

Welcome to Amsterdam, land of bikes.

Amongst other things, of course, that Amsterdam is known for.

I’ve spent the last three days trying to figure my way around. It got off to a bumpy start after I got off at the wrong train station (no train announcements in English led to a confused me jumping off a stop early). Things got worse when I discovered that streets go in every direction here and many don’t have signs that are easily visible (grid systems, people, grid systems are the way to go when designing a city!). Streets that run parallel to canals are often named the same thing on either side. And don’t forget to watch out for all the cyclists! Confusing huh?

Yes.

So it took me awhile to find my hostel, which was up two sets of very narrow stairs that I got stuck in and nearly fell backwards down. But I had arrived.

It’s interesting to note that even though I’ve been travelling for four months, this is the first time I’ve been on my own in a country where English is not spoken readily. My handy European translation book that I picked up conveniently forgot about the Dutch, so I’ve been getting by with timid smiles and lots of hand gestures. I shall be quite good at charades by the time I’m done this trip, I think.

I spent my first day in Amsterdam wandering and trying to get the navigation down, and in doing so unintentionally ended up in the Red Light District which is a convenient five minute walk from my hostel. Well, they’re certainly not prudish around these parts, now are they?

Right smack in the middle of the District there is a former church, which was a pretty hilarious thing to see in such an area. It’s now a gallery (with a good exhibition of photo journalism on right now, FYI), but the history of how the “Old Church” and the District itself came to get here is quite an interesting story. Basically, I think it went down like this:

  • Amsterdam was based on trade. Sailors came in on ships with goods and had a few days in town. Rather than having randy sailors tearing through the town looking for women to hook up with, the townspeople decided to centralize the “business”, therefore creating the District. Always savvy, those Dutch.
  • These sailors, often married, were religious and had morals. They couldn’t frequent these “businesses” without clearing their consciences afterwards. Also savvy – the church. Sailors could visit the prostitutes and then pop next door to the church for forgiveness the next day.
  • But what about those sailors that would be shipping out the next morning? Why, the church had a solution for this too – forgiveness in advance! Sailors could purchase forgiveness for sins they had yet to commit.
I have obviously taken some liberties here. And the church is actually old, built in the 1300s.
Besides the legalization of prostitution (and looking the other way with marijuana), Amsterdam is pretty ingenious on many fronts. Throughout history they’ve stayed neutral in conflicts, recognizing the business opportunities available in war. Cycling really is the primary form of transportation – I’ve seen few cars, and most seem to prefer hopping on the back of a friend’s bike over taking a tram. Houses are built with a slight lean to ensure that when moving objects or goods in or out, they don’t smash the brickwork on the way.

So, is there anything that the Dutch don’t do right?

Well yes, the food.

If you like mashed potatoes, ribs, or bratwurst, you’re set. Otherwise…good luck. I have had a few good salads here, but they’ve been hard to find. I decided to try the local delicacy – frites – with mayonnaise, not ketchup, so that I would look like a local and therefore blend in. Nevermind the fact that I am clearly not Dutch. Regardless, this is what I got:

THIS IS NORMAL. WHO NEEDS THIS MUCH MAYONNAISE? Did the woman look at me and think “this gal, she probably could use more mayonnaise in her life” (all in Dutch, of course).

I struggled to scrape off as much of it as I could, but eventually had to abandon ship when it began to leak through the paper. I swore I would never eat frites again.

And then promptly had them with dinner. They came with the meal! Sorry cholesterol levels.

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9 thoughts on “If You Hear the Bell, Run Like Hell

    1. I think in addition to mayo, I might be done with ice cream for a bit just to get that memory out of my head!

  1. That was my thought too! A Dutch version of a Flake ’99’ but with a French fry instead of a Flake bar.

  2. I spent a week in Amsterdam when I was 18 or 19 (can’t remember exactly how old I was). It seems it hasn’t changed much since then. Still a million bicycles and the “District” which I found fascinating. No inhibitions in that country! I actually bought some “risque” undergarments in the District. Wonder if I would still do that!!!

  3. I have to say as a mayo addict that looks like heaven to me!! I should have traveled with you Sam – first reading that you had enough money for some beers and now Mayo with Fries on the side – I would be having the time of my life!

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