Originally published November 9, 2009
The two days I spent in the Netherlands were educational, to say the least. With the tour, we stayed in Amsterdam, but also visited the small town of Edam. Our hostel was in a seedy area, which was slightly frightening, but I did manage to meet many interesting people while sitting on the front steps. An above-ground tram went past the front of our hostel, and I could hear the constant dinging from my window.
Edam is truly a magical place, and I think I would have seen tiny fairies floating down the water if I sat in one spot long enough. Personally, I could retire there. Edam is a small, sleepy town, complete with ringing bell tower and pristine canals. Out tour group rented a fleet of “granny bikes” (the ones where you have to push the pedals backwards to brake) and lazily pedalled up and down the cobblestone streets. The houses that line each street are small, cute and Dutch. Most people have a boat docked in the canal in front of their home, and the town boasts more lily pads, weeping willows and bridges than I could count.
Edam is also famous for cheese, and we visited a cheese and clog factory before returning to the city. My brother was about ten seconds away from buying a pair of clogs, but we were able to talk him out of it. They are comfortable and handmade, but where would you wear them at home?
Amsterdam is basically the complete opposite of Edam. It is a large and crowded city, but it is still equally as beautiful. The streets are lined with buildings that are very tall and very old. At any given time, I was two blocks away from a canal. Most people own boats, and they also own bicycles. The Dutch people have more bikes per capita than any other European nation, which makes sense, considering the country is virtually flat. There is even a huge, five-level parkade beside the main train station dedicated to bike storage only. If I would have had more time, it would have been interesting to figure out just how many bikes are housed there. I would wager it is easily somewhere in the tens of thousands.
For me, the most important part of my visit to Amsterdam was spending the afternoon in the Van Gogh Museum. Vincent Van Gogh has been my favourite painter since I was young. Being able to view so many pieces of his artwork at one time, in one location, is a privilege. I felt truly blessed as I slowly walked through the museum. Photographs and prints don’t do his work justice. When you are close to a Van Gogh painting, you can actually see each of the individual brush strokes. It is magnificent.
Other highlights in Amsterdam included a visit to the Anne Frank House (which was very moving, despite being packed in like a sardine with about 100 other people), a canal cruise, a stop at the “I Amsterdam” sign and various random wanderings (which took us to a flower market, a coffee shop and the Red Light District – which I will say is everything it is rumoured to be and more. There really are girls in the windows, as well as shops that sell everything imaginable. Taking pictures is forbidden, and even pulling out your camera could result in it being thrown into a canal).
An experience that I will share occurred our last night in Amsterdam. Our group was hopping from one disco to the next in the Red Light District, and ended up in a small bar. The bar started filling up quickly, and before I knew it, the whole place was completely packed with people. What made this so fascinating was that EVERYONE started dancing. Back home, a lot of guys stand at the side and watch the ladies dance. Not in Europe. Everyone, and I mean everyone, participates.
The part that really got me, however, was the realization that everyone was also singing the words to the songs being played by the DJ. The music was North American, and the lyrics were in English, yet the entire bar was singing along. I had an opportunity to meet some people later that evening. In that single bar, I spoke to individuals from Brazil, Ireland, Australia, Japan, Jamaica, South Africa, and Sweden. Many of them could only speak basic English, and one guy admitted he had no idea what the words to the songs actually meant. That didn’t stop him from singing along. In that bar, in Amsterdam, I felt the greatest feeling of community I have ever felt in my life. We were all from different places, different background, yet we came together, partied together and sang and danced together. It was something I will never forget.
I probably slept for about four hours the entire time I was in the Netherlands, but I don’t regret the lack of sleep for a second. After two days, however, I was excited to move on. The next stop on the agenda was Berlin, and the history girl in me was already starting to hyperventilate.