Friday, February 27, 2009


So, I told you all I was going to Paris, but I myself did not know I would go to Amsterdam. I mean, I hadn't planned on it at least. But there you go. Crazy things happen when you stay in youth hostels.

My youth hostel in Paris was nice enough. You can only expect so much from a place where you pay 20 euros a night, after all. It was clean (except for the showers, which I hadn't planned on using in the first place--you can get away with a lot when you don't sweat much and have pretty dry skin) and sort of cute and in a good neighborhood near the Tour Eiffel and a minute's walking distance from a metro station. But most importantly, there were some really good people there. I've heard that there are hostels where the crowd is sort of questionable, but that was not the case where I stayed. I met some very interesting characters, including a girl from Australia who has, get this, the same first and middle names as me. Must be fate.

Well, the Aussie and I met this American who had been in Afghanistan for quite a while and who was travelling around Europe. He was going to Amsterdam and proposed that we three go together. Well, I don't know why we both agreed. Perhaps the stars were aligned or we just both happened to feel spontaneous at the same time (spontanaety is not usually my thing--I get a kick out of detailed planning). In any event, we hopped on a train to Amsterdam, and about 4 hours later there we were.

After Paris, Amsterdam was like rolling around in lush spring grass after a long winter (don't tell me you've never rolled around in lush spring grass). Paris is nice. Paris has a certain beauty about it, and I certainly can't say much against it. Any city that can house Monet's water lilies and the greatest macaron maker in the world has my vote of confidence. But...

But Paris is gigantesque, filthy, crowded, and harried. By the end of the week, whenever I blew my nose, soot came out (sorry to be so explicit, but if you had soot coming out your nose you might want to give other people the heads-up too). I got really, really tired of taking the metro everywhere and feeling like some sort of subterranean homesick alien, being jostled by everyone and crammed in like a sardine at rush hour. I started to see why Parisians are notoriously stressed and "rude." If I lived in Paris for any length of time, I think I might be a little bit rude as well. Cities just get to you that way. At least that's the effect they have on me. I started craving fresh air and space, glorious space.

Amsterdam was the antedote.

As far as cities go, Amsterdam is absolutely beautiful. The architecture is whimsical and asymmetrical (if you pay attention, you notice that sometimes the houses are kind of lopsided--probably not intentionally, but a neat effect nonetheless). The canals are so picturesque with their houseboats and bridges. And the city is actually very small. You can walk pretty much anywhere in 20 minutes, which, let me tell you, is laughable in Paris. When I first saw the map of Amsterdam after a week of looking at the map of Paris, my sense of distance was wildly exaggerated because what I thought would take 40 minutes only took about 10.

But, most noticeably to me, the pace of life is just slower in Amsterdam. People actually sit down for more than 10 minutes to eat meals. You can flaner (stroll) in Amsterdam. In Paris, if you try to do that, you'll get shoved off the sidewalk by people who know where they're going. And the people there are so nice. Not that I've had any bad experiences in France, but this is a different kind of nice. This is a bona-fide nice. The sort of nice that makes people stop what they're doing and offer to help you find something or give you directions completely unprovoked. And, I should add, they all speak perfect English. Better English, in fact, than many native English speakers I know. Many of them have no noticeable accent, and if they do, it often sounds British rather than Dutch.

The strange-looking vehicle in the photo above literally made my day. It is a bicycle-powered beer-wagon. We're just walking around the city and this thing rolls past. Apparently, you just hop on, start pedaling, and order a beer from a handful of beers on tap (!), and you can enjoy Amsterdam while drinking a beer and cycling. This idea gave me a lot of hope for my imagined bicycle-powered ice cream maker. If you can make a bicycle-powered beer mobile, you can make an ice cream maker. (This topic is another post in itself.)

I will definetely be going back to Amsterdam. I did not get to see the Anne Frank house or the Rembrandt house. The Van Gogh museum was a little disappointing. It cost 15 euros to get in, and it was tiny, tiny, tiny. But can you really put a price on seeing Starry Night in person? I think not. Above all, though, Amsterdam is just a good place to relax. There are some beautiful gardens, and lots of people seem to have dogs there (I add this because dogs make me very happy--how can you watch a dog doing its doggy thing and not feel happy?). I think I could possibly live there for a couple months out of the year. Too bad cheesemakers don't make enough to have flats in Amsterdam.
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Fiona said...

Thumbs up to the doggie thing.

I suspect the city/Paris/strolling reaction is very personal. Some of my family come from NYC, and I spent a bit of time there in grad school. As a result (maybe) I find Paris just fine, and not at all rushed.

Granted, I didn't use the Metro to get around, since I enjoy walking and don't want to miss any chocolatiers...

Still. I think being so used to New York's energies and to New Yorkers' personalities makes Paris seem very sweet and charming to me.

But you make Amsterdam sound delicious. Love the idea of slumpy houses.

meg said...

I think being used to small towns and the countryside make me a little more apt to stress out in crowded places. Not to mention the fact that I'm a little reclusive anyways. I think it probably has something to do with what you're accustomed to and what your temperament is.