Amsterdam 4: Food, Language, Coffeeshops, Transportation, etc.
Part of: Amsterdam Birthday Trip
For the final post on our trip to Amsterdam, here's a random jumble of all the leftovers - food, the coffeeshops, the Red Light District, our flight, Van Gogh, the language, etc.
Food in Amsterdam
The Netherlands is not generally known for its food, but there are some local specialties. One of these is herring, which we saw no need to try. Another is high-quality Indonesian food, due to the Dutch colonization of that area of the world, but we never saw any Indonesian restaurants for some reason. The one local food we did try - numerous times in fact - was the Dutch donut (right).
It was sold from a stand on the main plaza closest to our hotel, and it was hot and so very delicious. It's basically just a big ball of donut, optionally served with powdered sugar. Sadly I never managed to take a photo of the donuts themselves - they were so quickly gone after being purchased.
I had hoped to try a large Dutch pancake, but never managed to find room in our eating schedule. But we did have, and even remembered to photograph, some small oily pancakes from another outdoor stand. They were quite delicious too, but did not compare to the donuts.
Some Dutch food, however, was distinctly unappetizing. One very interesting common sight was vending-machine fast food. Sort of like the ready-made sandwiches at work, except full of hamburgers and frightening meat products.
But all of this shouldn't give you the impression that all there was to eat in Amsterdam were donuts. Quite the contrary, we found what we've been searching for for well over a year... Mexican food!!
There was this wonderful street not far from our hotel that had restaurants from a wide variety of places around the world, including Tibet, Argentina, Uruguay, and Mexico!! And although we were happy to just have Mexican food at all, this place turned out to be absolutely fantastic. The head chef was even Mexican. We were beside ourselves with happiness. And we ate there again the next night!
Coffeeshops in Amsterdam
One of the things Amsterdam is most famous for is its permissive attitude to marijuana, which can be purchased and smoked in places called "coffeeshops." (If you actually want coffee, look for a "cafe," "koffeehuis" or "tearoom.") There are dozens of these establishments sprinkled throughout the city, and we had a look in a few of them to see what all the fuss is about.
Contrary to popular belief, marijuana is not legal in the Netherlands. It is illegal like all other drugs, but is "officially tolerated." In other words, the authorities never enforce the law against marijuana, focusing instead on hard drugs (which are very much not tolerated). It sounded like they would probably legalize it if they could, but are prevented by European Union standards.
So the coffeeshops are allowed to take advantage of this "toleration" and openly sell marijuana at the counter along with soft drinks and snacks. There's a laminated menu of the selections. Interestingly, very few sell coffee! And none of them sell alcohol, as a matter of policy. You must be 18 to go in a coffeeshop, and hard drugs are strictly forbidden. This being Europe, tobacco smoking is very much allowed, and in fact many marijuana joints apparently have tobacco mixed in with them.
You don't have to buy any pot to hang out in the coffeeshops, but as with any establishment you should buy something. We had a lot of Diet Cokes. The atmosphere of these places varied widely. Due to the nature of the drug and the lack of alcohol, they were almost universally relaxed and non-threatening. Mostly we were ignored completely. Some were much like familiar Pacific Northwest coffee shops, with comfortable seats and a pleasant atmosphere. Others, however, were more like bars - filled with smoke, with loud music blaring, and absolutely packed.
The first coffeeshop we wandered in was a very comical experience. It was called Noon and was quite small - just a small counter near the front, comfy, couch-like seats lining the walls, and several TVs. Our first sight when we walked in were three young men sitting on a couch motionless, silent, and absolutely fixated on the television - which was showing an episode of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. They looked almost comatose. It was one of the most hilarious sights I think I've ever seen.
We sat down next to a hippy with a long grey ponytail and soon he was chattering away with David as he rolled his next joint. He was from California and had flown over by himself to attend the Cannabis Cup. This only-in-Amsterdam event ended on the day we arrived - thank goodness, or we may not have found a hotel! During the three-day festival, "judges" (i.e. potheads who have paid an entrance fee) go to all the coffeeshops and sample the various varieties, then vote.
One coffeeshop we actually looked for was the Damkring, which I think is the most famous. I was mainly interested in it because it was used in the filming of Ocean's Twelve. We could see why - it had one of the most interesting facades of any of them. And as a bonus, a cat in the window!
However, because of its popularity it was absolutely packed with people and was very unpleasant to be in. We stayed for all of two minutes.
The Red Light District
Of course, Amsterdam is also very famous for its Red Light District, which comes complete with legalized prostitution. We walked through once at night and once in the daytime, and although we were glad we saw it, we were always glad to leave.
Amsterdam's Red Light District is a strange animal. In some ways it's not nearly as seedy or scary as in other cities, in large part because it is a tourist attraction. Day and night, regular tourists like us and even families stroll through it.
Also, it's quite a beautiful area. As I mentioned previously with regard to the hidden churches, the Red Light District lines a picturesque canal and occupies lovely 17th-century canal houses. So it actually looks and feels like any other pretty part of Amsterdam - as long as you don't look in the windows!
Taking photos of the women in the windows is strictly forbidden and I didn't attempt to sneak any (there are tales of tourists' cameras being unceremoniously thrown in the canal, and I quite like my camera). But it wasn't that exciting of a sight anyway - much milder than I might have expected.
There were rows of windows several floors up, each lit up with fluorescent red lights and leading to a tiny room about the size of a department-store display. Each little room had a chair, a fan, and a woman standing or sitting in lingerie. Many of them were talking on cell phones, most looked bored, some looked quite uncomfortable, and only a very small percentage were attractive. Some were actually well into the 50s and very ordinary-looking - they could have been anyone's mother. That was horrifying! Most others were in their 20s and in a variety of body shapes, from anorexic to rather overweight.
I felt awful for all of them and ended up smiling at them, and they almost always smiled back. When crowds forced us to walk single file past the windows, they gave quite a bright smile at David, which then faded a little when I came into view. But they're clearly used to tourists. We never saw anyone solicit any of them, and I'm not even sure how you'd go about it (nor do I feel the need to know!).
Interestingly, the Red Light District is actually much seedier during the day. Apparently this is when more drug deals happen and the junkies come out and wander around. Indeed we did pass several guys that were talking to themselves or shouting at no one in particular, and although I believe they were harmless, we were ready to go pretty quick!
Dutch looks very weird and foreign when written, with extra j's and vowels all over the place, but actually it's a Germanic language and therefore has much in common with both English and German. Many of the basic words, like yes and no, are very similar to German: "ja" and "nee" (pronounced "nay") compared with the German "ja" and "nein."
A double vowel just makes the sound longer, and the combo "ij" is pronounced "eye." So the Rijksmuseum may look impossible to pronounce, but it's just "Rikes Museum." (Rijk means "national.") Incidentally, Matt Lauer just had another child with his Dutch-born wife, and they named the poor kid Tijs - pronounced "Tice."
But all of this is pretty much irrelevant for a tourist in the Netherlands, because the Dutch are all taught English from primary school, and speak it with near perfection. There was a clear lack of expectation that we would even try to speak any Dutch, and (unlike in Paris for instance), people seemed pleased to speak English with us and not the least bit condescending. Every random person we stopped to ask for directions responded immediately and perfectly in English. Amazing, and not a little surreal.
And as with many Europeans, the languages don't stop with two. At the train station, we waited to ask a young attendant a question while he helped a elderly German woman. He ascertained her language by trying several on her, and then directed her to her train in German (which was more hesitant than his English but still far better than mine!). Why aren't American children taught a foreign language earlier than high school? Brains are like little sponges when they're young. It doesn't make sense!
Overall, we had pretty good luck with transportation on our trip. Once in the city, we got around entirely on foot despite the cold, but there is also a good tram system that we could have used anytime.
The trams are very nice, modern, and nearly silent. This can be a very dangerous thing, as the tram rails run right through the middle of otherwise pedestrian-only streets! Between the bicycles, the trams, and the canals with no barriers, we definitely had to keep our wits about us. With all the people that come to Amsterdam to do drugs, I don't know how they survive their visit!
Getting in and out of Amsterdam, however, was quite a mixed bag. Security at Heathrow was a pain as always, but we had plenty of time so it wasn't stressful. We did very well on packing light, and didn't have to deal with checking any baggage. We still have to have our liquids limited to 100ml and in a clear plastic bag, but that was no problem.
To make the process a little more interesting, I was randomly selected for a full X-ray! It was fun. I'm always happy to cooperate with anything that helps keep bombs off planes, and it was all very interesting. A couple women took me back behind a privacy wall and had me take off my shoes, then stand on a mark and raise my arms over my head. She assured me the X-ray was light, and doesn't penetrate the skin.
The machine seemed to pick up something metal by the back of my neck, and they kept looking down my collar for a necklace or something, but I wasn't wearing one. After several trips back to the monitor and back to my neck again, they were thoroughly bewildered and finally offered to show it to me. So I went around and had a look at the monitor, while David watched in interest from his spot in line. There was indeed a large dark spot by my neck - but it was clearly the space between my head and my raised arm! If that was actually a necklace, it would have to be the size of a baseball. When I suggested the solution, they all agreed and I was on my way, fast-tracked to the front of the line. I sure hope they're new at their job.
The flight to Amsterdam on a small KLM plane was one of the best ever. It was only half-full, left on time, and was smooth as could be. It was really wonderful.
Once in Amsterdam, a taxi was 35 Euros so we took the train and trams to our hotel instead. That wasn't very fun. First, the evil train ticket machines (right) would absolutely not cooperate, even when a nice official came over to help. So then we stood in line and bought a ticket from a human. Then we had a little trouble figuring out which train to take and had to wait for a little while.
The train was great, and we saw the modern architecture previously mentioned, but the tram was absolutely packed, standing room only. But it was a relatively short ride, and we found our hotel pretty easily.
For our trip back to the airport on Sunday, we avoided the tram-train thing with a lovely hotel shuttle bus that took us direct from our hotel to the airport in a gleaming mini-bus, with three other pairs of tourists. It was 11 Euros very well spent.
The flight back to London was a far cry from our seamless journey to Amsterdam. First of all, instead of having one main security checkpoint at the airport, they have individual ones at each gate. That means we stood in line (or sat on a table) outside the fully-locked gate area until shortly before boarding time. After being screened as usual, we sat in the gate for about 10 minutes before going through passport and boarding pass check, which led to a new set of seats where we waited to board. All very odd and rather inefficient, but it wasn't that bad.
What really sucked, however, was the flight (that's our plane on the left). We boarded about 15 minutes late, and then sat in the plane on the runway for about 30 minutes while we waited for our "slot" to take off. The flight was completely full, and there was a toddler in front of us who did that scream-crying thing at the top of her lungs for much of the flight. Ironically, there was a tiny baby in my row, but she slept peacefully and hardly made a sound.
There was bad weather and very bad traffic at Heathrow, so we had to circle for well over a half-hour before a rather wild landing. The flight itself was bumpy, and I'm a nervous flyer under the best conditions so I found most of it rather terrifying. After we landed, I was so grateful to be in one piece on terra firma that I wasn't as upset as everyone else that we had to sit parked for 45 minutes until they found us a gate. Fortunately I still had a Hello! magazine with Tom and Katie's wedding photos to keep me occupied. But the toddler continued to throw tantrums for most of the wait. Definitely nominated for one of the worst flights ever!
We were very happy with our hotel, which was lucky since we booked one so late. But we are avid users of TripAdvisor, which hasn't let us down yet!
We were on the top floor of a wonderfully quiet street in a nice neighborhood. Just behind us was an incredible shopping street complete with Prada, Chanel, and all the wonderfully expensive stores. Sadly, we never had time for more than a cursory glance down it.
The best part of the hotel was the big, fabulous bathroom, which was a wonderful vacation from our teeny-tiny bathroom with teeny-tiny shower. The shower was huge and basically just took up half the floor space of the sizable bathroom. A drain and a curtain was all that separated the shower from the rest of the floor, which was made of some fabulous textured material that dried quickly and was never slippery. We took pictures so that we could show them to the architect of our future dream home! :)
Cats in the Window
One of the most interesting sights we saw on our trip was a quite unexpected one - two gorgeous cats sitting perfectly placed in a shop window.
They were sitting so still and without messing up any of the display that at first we thought they were mechanical! But they were definitely real, and so pretty. They looked around out the window quite a bit, but never moved a paw. We still have no idea how they get to their spots or whether they stay there all day, but it sure was a unique sight.
Van Gogh Museum
Our hotel was nicely located right in the museum district in the south part of the city. On our way into town everyday we passed the Rijksmuseum, which is the National Gallery of Art for the Netherlands and has an unsurpassed collection of Dutch and other artworks. Fortunately, given our time limitations, it was closed for renovations.
But practically in our backyard in the other direction was the Van Gogh Museum, which has the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world, and we knew we had to see that. The museum is in a modern building with an interesting design, and it the collection was well laid-out and labeled in Dutch and English.
It was neat to see so many original Van Goghs in person, including the famous "Sunflowers" (which is actually one of my least favorites). David has always like "Starry Night" and we had a print of it in our bedroom back home, but sadly it wasn't there. It has probably been snapped up by the Louvre or some other major museum.
They had the paintings laid out chronologically, so you could see the development of his work in the various periods of his life, which was really interesting. His self-portraits were especially intriguing, as were the dark paintings he did towards the end of his life at the mental hospital, shortly before committing suicide (he shot himself in the chest). One thing I didn't know was that he was influenced by Japanese art, and one of the paintings I liked the most (left) had a Japanese feel.
Vincent had quite a dramatic and tragic life, and whether or not you like his style, his talent is clear - some of the displays set similar works by other artists next to his, and there was no comparison. We don't often take the time for art museums on our trips, so this was a fun change of pace and we both enjoyed it.
We Are Amsterdam
And finally, the slogan of Amsterdam's tourist office is "I AMsterdam," and this is spelled out with giant letters next to the Rijksmuseum near our hotel. If the need to actually see his face or to have any decent lighting is disregarded, it was a perfect backdrop for David's official 40th birthday portrait.