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The three hour morning train ride from Bonn, Germany, to Amsterdam was uneventful. Late winter and early spring does not boast a particularly green Germany. Beyond Cologne and Dusseldorf the scenery primarily is a factory spaced every five miles. This is every two minutes at 160 miles per hour. The train follows the Rhine River, which goes through Bonn, Germany then northwest all the way to Rotterdam, Holland.
My transition from Deutschland to Dutch-land was clear when the factory every five miles was replaced by a windmill. These windmills are surrounded by tightly packed villages. Holland is a densely populated country. Jane Holtz Kay of the Christian Science Monitor writes that Holland holds "16 million in 13,000 square miles (the size of Connecticut)." That's 1,230 people per square mile.
At the country's border I was 30 minutes from Amsterdam, with no preparation. Not a guidebook or map to speak of. Outside the overcast was perhaps a foreshadowing warning. It filtered the sun's radiance leaving it like a white polished moon. Darkness was upon me. I wrote in my journal "I hope the sky clears up so I don't have a shit day." It didn't. I did.
Some 100 miles back I made friends with the Chinese couple that sat across from me. They came better equipped, giving me a glimpse of their maps and plans. A large, suspender-bound Hollander sitting next to me steamed of perspiration that only added to my anxiety.
Minutes away from the city people were getting up and gathering their bags. My luggage was light: a camera, a passport and a wallet. I decided to buy a water while the train prepared to exit passengers. The water was 2.70 euros. Although I paid 90 euros for the train ticket, paying $3 for water disgusted me. Leaving the train in a mild furry I abandoned my change, my new friends, and… my camera.
Exiting the station, oblivious to my loss, I headed straight for the North Sea. The couple on the train suggested the "Highlight Cruise" with Canal Boat Tours through the canals to start my day. It was a wise choice. The tour was 8.50 euros—very reasonable—and was given by the captain in English and Spanish. I asked the captain how he decides the languages of the tours. He said he simply greets the passengers with a hello to decipher what they speak, and gives the tour in the dominant two or three. Tours can be given in whatever languages the captain speaks. When asked how many he replied, "English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish—oh yes and Dutch of course." The Dutch are masters of language. This small port country does the majority of its business with other nations. Amsterdam in particular thrives on business and tourism from foreign lands because it is the fourth most visited city in Europe.
Canals run all through Amsterdam from the city center, this gives it the nickname the "Venice of the North." Holland is below sea level and the windmills were originally used to pump water off of the land and into man-made canals. This gives Hollanders dry ground to build on. According to the captain, Amsterdam was founded in the thirteenth century by two men and a dog on a dam around the Amstel River—hence the name Amsterdam.
As we propelled through the city center in our glass roofed vessel the captain introduced us to its history. The Jewish quarter, the romantic Jordaan quarter, the secret churches where Catholicism was practiced during its ban in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What interested me the most was the architecture. Homes were nearly all built during the Dutch Golden Age in the seventeenth century, when most of the canals were built, by hand. These buildings are lined up shoulder to shoulder, tall and skinny, with no alleyway in sight. They are so front heavy with intricate ornamentation that they are now literally tipping forward.
Canals flow through the entire city with no fences surrounding them. Captain informs us that every year more than 100 tourists and drunks run their vehicles right off the road and into the waters, sometimes creating a new entrance for one of the numerous house boats. Though this usually happens while parking, not high speed chases.
As the tour came to a close I wrote in my journal, using words to capture what would have been effortless with a camera. I loved that camera. I stepped onto the dock and right back across the street to the train station. The woman at the information desk patiently directed me to lost and found. Although Hollanders are language savvy, "masters" as I quote myself, there are exceptions. The man at the lost and found confidently assured me that he spoke English—he didn't—he knew only how to count, curse and not find my camera.
So back I went, into the wild. Amsterdam is a city more diverse that anything I've ever imagined. Americans refer to it as the San Francisco of Europe. It's inconceivable that such polar opposites have been able to live and function here together so well for so long. In Germany a perfect stranger didn't hesitate to inform me that drinking beer in a can on the street is for homeless people; and I should be ashamed of myself. In Amsterdam you could kneel down and pray in the middle of the sidewalk, or chug whiskey in the street while standing on your head, and no one would so much as do a double take, so long as you don't disrupt traffic.
As I took in the visual and audible bombardment of the city I noticed the many tracks surrounding the train station's exit. The tram station was connected to the information center down the block so I saw about getting a ride out to the Van Gogh Museum. I'd never had an opportunity to see internationally recognized art so I was set on witnessing the colors of Van Gogh. It was my trips only aspiration.
When asked, the man at the ticket counter said with a grin "of course I speak English." I simply said "Van Gogh," and he handed me a ticket demanding "6.70 euros for tram two," He then pointed out the window at the numbered tracks just outside. On platform two a tram arrived shortly. I entered and showed the driver my ticket. He did nothing with it, just turned his head and accelerated.
The city was even more distinct from the tram. In the canals you're looking up at everything, below the streets and under the bridges. From here on the street you feel engaged with the city, the bikes, the people, the bikes. There are an estimated 400,000 in Amsterdam, more than one for every other resident. Two-wheelers are their main mode of transportation. In fact people ride along the tracks inches from the tram, smiling over at you.
About 30 minutes into the ride I began to notice that the scenery was starting to look less like Amsterdam. And my fellow passengers didn't look like tourists. I opened the tram map I obtained at the station and found the museum—tram two went by it. I looked up at the front of the tram and in bold red letters was the number 13. I got on at platform two not tram two. I rushed to the front of the tram and asked the driver if we were stopping at Van Gogh. He shook his head very concernedly and slowly said "no, no, no." "Then where are we," I asked holding up my map, he replied "We are no longer on that map."
I was trapped, a man with no hope. The people around me were going out of their way to avoid eye contact. After 15 more minutes on the tram it stopped. There was no more track. I had reached the end of Amsterdam. I considered taking a taxi, but the driver offered to take me back into town, the way I came, with the wrong ticket. So there I stayed on cursed tram 13.
On the way back the driver explained the fastest way to get to Van Gogh. Take 13 to three to 12, all with a ticket to tram two. Patiently I wrote in my journal, enjoying again the wonders of Amsterdam from tram route 13. At last we came to my stop. The driver directed me out and repeated "three to 12 from here."
It was easy. On, off, no sweat. Paulus Potterstraat was my final stop; the museum was a block down. A Scottish man working construction pointed me in the right direction and informed me that the Dutch pronounce it Vaughan Khokh. As I approached the boxy, bulgy, bland gray museum I was not impressed. This was in no way reminiscent of Van Gogh's work. At the front was a cluster of some 200 people standing before the steps, shrugging their shoulders. Atop the 15 steps stood an excitable man peeping his head over a concrete wall. "No, no one can enter," he said, in English. He was like the Guardian of the Emerald City gates in The Wizard of Oz. After following my long and misleading "Yellow Brick Road," getting help from a not-so-cowardly tram driver and a not-so-brainless construction worker, I was told that my Oz was not available. "The electricity is out in the entire building," shouted the guardian, "it will be at least an hour." I truly was Amsterdamned.
It was now 2:30. I hadn't eaten anything all day. More importantly, I needed a beer. Across the street was a cozy looking restaurant called Small Talk. The host graciously told me to seat myself, and there I sat for 20 minutes. Everyone around me was eating, but no waiter even took my drink order. As I walked out the door, indifferent to my plight at this point, the host simply said "tot ziens," meaning bye-bye.
Two buildings over from Small Talk hung an "Amstel Bier" sign and a picture of a croissant, perfect. Nope, closed. So on I walked, my head held low, a failed traveler, crossing this street and that. Daydreaming, I began contemplating spending the rest of the day in a hash bar when I was approached by a bike. I instinctively put my hands up to shield myself when a woman, with her eyes locked on mine, peddled right into me, tossing me like road kill to the side of the bike path. I looked up at the wheels treading by me and thought, ‘Amsterdam was a mistake.'
I was wrong, this experience was no mistake. I did find a restaurant—The Pompa—and it was wonderful. I had a beer in my hand before I could sit down. They served a Mediterranean menu, with a smoked duck sandwich on special (hold the bird flu). It was just what I had in mind; not exactly the herring roll or bitterballen (deep-fried breaded meat balls) that are traditional to the area, but much better. I did see Van Gogh. The colors he produced on the canvas were worth every stroke of struggle I went through to see it. "Writing, in Vincent's view, was one of the necessities of life, an expression of his craving for a certain friction of ideas," was posted on a second floor wall of the Museum. I can see why Vincent experienced a friction of ideas living in Amsterdam, I certainly did.
Andrew Mertens is a practicing writer in Iowa and a frequent traveler of Western Europe. In addition to backpacking nine countries of the European Union he spent this early spring in Germany and will be living in Dublin, Ireland this summer.
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