Day 15: Amsterdam: "I now understand the Pilgrims leaving."

I was awoken about 6:45 as the train pulled into the station at Dusseldorf. That's a fun word to say. Dusseldorf. Guten Tag, Dusseldorf.

Anyway, I spent a while talking to the Italian guy next to me, and he said I would surely enjoy the Amsterdam atmosphere. Afterward, I put my contacts back in and watched the Dutch countryside slide by me. It was very flat and very pretty. Everything seemed manicured or efficient.

The Dutch also threw in plenty of canals for good measure. I do enjoy a good canal. After Venice, though, even the romantic sense of a canal seemed somewhat utilitarian.

We got to the station in Amsterdam fairly late, but I was in no big hurry. I dropped by the tourist office, but found it overly expensive (they weren't even giving out maps, good heavens) and settled for some free vocal information. Amsterdam was a very touristy and costly place to be, and it was hard to find people who would sell food in my price range yet still take a credit card and save me a trip to the bancomat. But, the city's beauty was free, so I soaked up all I could.

Centraalstation, where the train and metro meet, is a very handsome building. Every city should invest in having pretty public transit.

Unlike my other stays, I had not yet booked a hostel (as I wasn't even totally sure if I would make it this far in my adventuring). The Americans in Zurich had recommended a place called the Flying Pig and, not impressed with my other recommendation, I decided to take them up on it. I spent a good portion of the morning wandering semi-lost till I gave up hope just before stumbling onto it. The atmosphere was very friendly and youngster-oriented, although it was at times difficult to breathe.

With a place to stay for the night picked up and my bags dropped off, I ventured back out into the streets, this time armed with a free map.

I walked all over the place, making a huge loop and soaking up tons of good sights. Heh, I also got plenty of random architecture pictures, so sorry if you don't like them. I like 'em.

Here's their old market, now a huge shopping center.

And I thought the only Madame Tussaud's was in London. I thought wrong.

Right next to it is Koninklijk Paleis. There's a big square in the middle of them, where more of those street performers who stand there all day and demand money of tourists "work". Actually, I have to hand it to these guys. They were among the most entertaining I've seen, and they were out there early both mornings and still out there in the evening.

There was lots of weird stuff, too. Like giant wooden shoes.

And Bicycle-Repair-Man!

Speaking of bicycles, Amsterdam is the most bicycle-friendly place I've ever seen. In addition to being quite flat, its bridges are rounded, and they have tons of bicycle-only lanes. And not just parts of the side-walk, either: full lanes with streetlights and everything, just like for cars. So, bicycles are everywhere.

And I'm not totally sure why those people are so protective of their trash as to have huge spikes on the fence, but, oh well. The city's pedestrian-friendly, too, though you have to watch out for mad bikers. It's always a good idea to push the crosswalk button marked with instructions and a very confused-looking yellow guy.

So I walked, first passing by Nieuwe Market.

Then I paused for a snack of the last of my Pringles and Swiss chocolate (best breakfast ever), looking out over a canal.

With all these canals, it was important to build plenty of beautiful bridges.

And to have awesome lock systems (heh, me and waterworks, I just don't know what it is).

And the Magere Brug, which could raise to let sailboats through.

From there I continued east, which was as good a random direction as any, till I came to the Tropen Museum, a place packed with tropical thingies. Actually, I spent all my time just staring at it and thinking how pretty of a building it was.

But the exterior was nothing compared to the entry hall. Wowzers.

I tiptoed forward to check out the rest of the building, gazing as I went, but a lady stopped me and asked why I was here. "Admiring the architecture" didn't seem like a good enough answer, and I was turned out quite quickly. Ah, well, it was beautiful while I got a chance to gaze in wonder.

From there I continued on till I got . There was some crazy lady with a plastic bag there mumbling things at me, and I'm pretty sure she was asking for money. Whatever the case, the mumblings could've been a witch's curse, so I snapped the windmill and moved on.

Block after block of gray, fairly utilitarian offices and apartments followed. After the glories of the nineteenth century, the plain styles of the modern era just didn't seem to cut it. Even so, they did have a cool sense of art, like this old-fashioned crane.

There was a bridge built circa 1942, too. I liked the pseudo-art-deco. I'm still not sure whether I like art deco because of Batman or the other way round. Whatever the case, one enhances the other.

One end of it had a nifty comparison of trains throughout the ages. And bicycles parked all around. Always the bicycles with these Dutch...

Shortly thereafter, I came upon the Artis, which is a combination zoo, planetarium, aquarium, and who-knows-what else. It looked like fun, but I would've spent all day in there (plus it was almost all in Dutch). Besides, there was still much to do.

Like this random school with an eyeball sculpture in front.

I cut back west, my feet saying it was about time to be heading back. Too bad for them, I since it was still fairly light out and I could see things like this 3-dimensional representation of Rembrandt's Night Watch in Rembrandt Plein.

I then came over to Museum Plein, where the main museums are settled. There's also a skate park. Looking back, there were lots of skate parks in Amsterdam, along with internet hotspots and coffee shops. Of course, a lot of those coffee shops weren't sellin' "coffee" if ya know what I mean.

I decided to do museuming the next day and instead take a meandering walk back through the wide boulevards filled with shops. In addition to being filled with beautiful old stuff, Amsterdam is way commercialized, with more McDonalds and clothing stores than you could shake a meter-long shaking stick at.

I passed a store completely dedicated to American literature, and, for some reason, people were actually inside. There was also a good gigantic toy store, though it didn't hold a candle to what I had seen in Zurich. Best of all, there was an "American Food" store, packed with oreos, peanut butter, and all kinds of foodstuffs I haven't seen in months, which got me quite excited. Mm, I'm going to gain about 30 pounds once I get back.

With all this food on my mind, I took a long detour in search of a place to eat, first looking at Chinese, Jamaican, and Kosher. Finally I settled on a schnitzel place, which was very good, if costly. When my belly was stuffed, I finally settled back at the hostel and spent the night watching Dead Poet's Society and Traffic. Everyone else found Dead Poet's so sad, but I've always thought of it as inspirational. Traffic was good, if complex in its storytelling, but I barely made it through before retiring for one last night's sleep in a European bed.

Day 16: Amsterdam and beyond: A Glasses Day

When I left England, I brought along with me one of my half-empty travel bottles of contact cleaner, assuring myself it'd be enough for two weeks. It was indeed enough for two weeks, but not sixteen days. I left my contacts in the last of it, and, for the first time since I was so sick putting my contacts in was an impossibility, spent the whole day wearing my glasses. As I went about, people seemed to treat me differently because of them. Not necessarily badly, though I did feel more vulnerable. Maybe that was just because of the lack of peripheral vision (which was especially problematic when dealing with traffic). Whatever the case, the weight of glasses on my nose was bothersome, and I would be glad to get back to sticking chunks of plastic in my eyes as soon as possible.

I checked out in the morning, made a donation to Travelers for Trees, left my heavy bags at the hostel, and walked out into the streets for another adventurous day. I headed south, eventually coming to something called the Amsterdam Dungeon, which was a haunted house going year round. The guy in front tried to do a scary laugh to impress the crowd, but, deep down, I think he was just making fun of my hat. I would've gone in, but money and time were getting tight (one more than the other).

It's supposed to be such a scary place, but the morning sunlight caught it just right to make it look all bright and cheery. Sorry, Amsterdam Dungeon. At least the random architecture around the city looked more like it was supposed to.

Instead of big, shining cathedrals, Amsterdam seemed to lean more toward the big, scary gothic cathedrals. Both look good to me.

And this building was just plain weird lookin'! It's like they just wanted a pointy facade with only one room per floor.

I finally found myself on the south side of the central town, where the massive Dutch parks begin. The sun came out properly for about thirty seconds, just long enough to snap a picture of the pond.

There was also a neat statue of some guy with a quill pen and parchment. I have no idea who it is, but that never stopped me from liking a statue anyway.

Just around the corner there is the National Film Institute. I thought I might check out a movie, but, no, nothing in English and they were all grossly expensive. Still, the building was cool.

Then I hiked over to the Museum Plein again, first looking over the Van Gogh Museum.

I know it's just a matter of opinion, but I've never really been a van Gogh fan. I prefer artists that are, you know, good. Ah, I'm kidding, I'm kidding! Honestly, I do like more realistic painting, but there is a certain beauty in his heavy brushstrokes and use of color, especially in Starry Night. But, Rembrandt sounded better, so I went over to stand in line at the Rijksmuseum.

I spent all afternoon there (well, an hour of it was standing in line), learning about Dutch history and culture and gazing on the works of masters long passed. Everything was awesome there, from the cases of collected weapons to the landscapes and portraits to the artefacts from when the Dutch dominated international trade to this statue of a mischevious little Cupid.

Even the building was great, what with gardens of many styles and plenty of frescoes amd all.

Overwhelmed once again with artistic wonderment, I at last decided that I'd had my fill of hanging around. I'd take one last meandering walk and then settle back into my ride back to England. Along the way back to the hostel to pick up my bag, I passed the Heineken brewery. The stink of rotting yeast was just as overwhelming as a Rembrandt portrait, but in a totally different way.

Also on the way back, I passed through a corner of the infamous Red Light District. It was the middle of the afternoon, when things should be at their quietest, yet still the vices of the neighborhood was sickening. And I don't mean that metaphorically; it seriously turned my stomach.

Here's a dramatic re-creation of my reaction. My semi-puritanical ideals quickly proposed a six-month voyage across the icy Atlantic in a tiny, diseased ship as a good escape.

As an aside, the city flag of Amsterdam is a red field with a blue stripe and three white 'X's. XXX, fitting indeed.

Anyway, I got back into less disgusting streets, and had yet more adventure. I paused to glance at my map to make sure I wasn't following the wrong canal, and immediately a bum said he'd be happy to give me directions. I assured him I was fine, so I continued on. As I was putting my map into my pocket, another bum got the idea of talking to me. He and a buddy of his were walking, picking up mostly unused cigarettes from the ground and carrying a bag of oranges. At the sight of me, he interrupted their conversation (quite politely), smoothly circled back, and asked if I'd like directions (most of the bums in Amsterdam are polite, though there are a few jerks). I told him I was fine, so he, again, politely asked me how I was liking the city before cutting to the chase and asked for money, not much, just whatever I could spare. Before I could get all philosophical about charity ethics (which usually gets rid of beggars), he went on a long monologue about how he uses the little money to buy and then resell magazines, thus making enough to squeak by. His English was exceptional, and, as I had overheard earlier, he was fluent in other languages as well. I told him that I didn't have any euros (only enough to catch the metro to the bus station), but he said that any currency would be okay, since every little bit helps. I must admit I was so impressed with his knowledge of linguistics and socio-economics that I ended up giving him a dollar. It was incredible. There's no reason this guy couldn't have a six-figure salary. Well, no reason but his own lack of ambition and direction. Sigh.

Shortly after that little experience, I picked up my bag from and hung around for a while, watching 8-Mile. I've seen countless zombie movies, shrugged off Ring 2, and laughed through The Shining, but 8-Mile scared me beyond reason. It was terrifying. I left halfway through, deciding sitting bored at the bus station fighting off more beggars would be a less frightening way to spend my time.

So, back in the streets again, I caught the Amsterdam subway and rode out to the bus station on the outskirts of town. It was really a clean, nice station, even if service wasn't as efficient as I'd have like. I used the last bits of my change to buy some dinner of a bread roll. As I was checking in, it turned out that there was an earlier bus that was almost empty, and they offered to send me back on it for nothing extra. I figured it'd either be waiting around here or in London, so I figured I'd go ahead.

Soon I found myself on a coach speeding south toward the Channel. The bus was indeed almost empty, with only a couple of African and Middle Eastern families and a gang of Belgian guys. We stopped at a McDonald's for a snack for some reason, but, since they didn't take credit cards and I didn't want to get out a bunch of extra cash from an ATM, I decided just to work the sudoku in a Dutch newspaper. It was kind of fun, though, since McDonald's there gives out free paper flags and has a big basket of games normally only available in Happy Meals. I got a flag and a facepaint kit.

But, still, it was a McDonald's that doesn't take credit cards. And you had to pay for extra ketchup. For shame. That's like having apple pie without ice cream. It made Corporate America cry.

Anyway, we were back on the coach soon enough, and I watched the last of the Dutch countryside slide by me. They seem to be upgrading some of their windmills from the old-fashioned sails to modern giant, bird-slaying steel wings.

I read the last of the newspaper I had gotten at the hostel (Did you know a form of squatting in abandoned buildings is legal in the Netherlands? Neither did I) and then watched the Dutch sunset. It seemed a fitting end after having started the trip by watching the sunrise in Stanstead.

When it was finally dark, I got a little sleep, waking briefly in Brussels and then in Calais to go through customs and change to the ferry. It was a nice, big ferry with an arcade and shops and everything, but I was more interested in finding a reasonably comfortable chair in which to curl up. After a nap, we arrived in Dover, and I got a nice look at the white cliffs. They seemed to glow in the darkness.

The only things left were having my bag checked and the Brits joke about how much chocolate I was carrying, then I was on the coach again and soon in slumberland.

Postlude: Back in Britain

I awoke as we came into London, and things started to look familiar again. Because I had taken an early coach, the bus back to Hatfield didn't start for an hour after I had arrived, so I hung around and listened to the English accent. At last I crawled aboard the bus and settled back, watching as we passed the Wellington Monument, Buckingham Palace gardens, and one more statue of Lord Byron.

I had learned a good many things, such as the fact that Chris Tucker and Chris Rock are two different people. I learned better stuff, too, like that Rome has a pyramid and public water fountains or that Switzerland learned the power of neutrality after successfully staying out of the Thirty Years War.

Ah, but there were more important lessons than trivia. This will sound cheesy, but I learned a lot about responsibility. It's easy to take care of oneself, even in the strangest of circumstances. Just keep a cool head, sit back, and let the adventure unfold. I also learned that money is an object. That's it, an object. If you're too miserly (like me), you'll miss out on awesome things, like climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa or having a night out with random people you just met filled with laughter. But, if you toss your money away without thinking, you'll also miss out on a lot of fun when you realize your wallet is empty. The Golden Mean is the way to go; everything in moderation.

Most of all, I learned a good deal about relying on Providence. God was watching out for me the whole time. Almost everything went off without a hitch, and the hitches, however devestating they may have seemed, taught me a thing or two. In Amsterdam alone, I just happened to wander by the Eurolines bus office to ask where to pick up the bus; if I hadn't been led there, I never would've figured it out in time. The entire trip was filled with happenstances like that. Frankly, I should be dead on the side of the Veneto autostrade, but here I am, safe and sound, truly thankful.

So, in conclusion: Rome had the best gelato. Pisa had the best pizza. Florence was crawling with tourists and Davids. Venice was crazy-cool. Swiss chocolate has my vote for the best in the world. Amsterdam is... interesting. And, it's good to be back.

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