Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Amsterdam: Now, where did I park my...(?)

To celebrate our same day, month and year birthdays (Different parents!), my wife and I discovered firsthand that the five minute walk from Amsterdam's Crowne Plaza Hotel to the Central Station Terminal (CST), where all train, bus canal and bike tours depart from, provided us with as many photogenic and interesting sights as we've seen in any major city...yes, including New York, which still remains our favorite city.
About a hundred paces from our hotel entrance, we came upon a narrow one-lane brick
alley (everything is made of brick in Amsterdam), called Nieuwe Zijds, which the locals use as a pedestrian shortcut between the two major traffic arteries: Damrak and Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal.(For today, remember Damrak.)
Our first surprise, was seeing a girl's bicycle parked atop a boy's bicycle, which, like your own depraved mind, immediately triggered logical questions- Did this person undergo a sex change and really likes to park here? Or is this more a pay-back statement about women's lib?
The one thing we were glad to see, is that the street signs are not only color coded and written in Dutch and English, but they also include "arrows" to popular attractions, as well as how to get to the CST! Since we speak zero Dutch, you can imagine how appreciative we were to see this.
This same Nieuwe Zijds alley is just wide enough for two Smart cars to pass, but aside from occasional compact delivery vans, foot traffic prevails. And in this alley, you will find
every shop, restaurant, eatery, store, bar, hotel, grill and office you can imagine, plus a couple businesses you might not imagine, such as the recreational "pot" lounge, which requires you to be at least 18 years old to enter. Having fulfilled that particular requirement in March of 1960, we went instead into the Cafe van Bareen to enjoy our first Amstel beer of the trip. Seated at the front window, the constant array of interesting passersby is pure entertainment, and we had only begun our second beer, when our conversation was abruptly halted at seeing a young man walk by with a potted plant atop his head, just as one might wear a hat. Janet immediately typecast him as a hardcore fan of Al Gore's winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth", but upon taking a closer look, the pot-ted plant was in fact marijuana or a plasticized version of, and we deduced that he was just taking sandwich-board advertising to its next inevitable step.(?)
Having come from California, we were totally unprepared for the wind that blows off the North Sea, and stepping out of the alley and onto Damrak, sent us scurrying to the nearest
souvenir store to buy some kind of warm clothing, any kind of warm clothing! There are two kinds of Amsterdam souvenirs- ones that say Amsterdam, and the others that say..."New York", and little in between. Not seeing any long underwear, we settled for gloves, scarves
and watch caps, and left the store looking like typical Californians caught off guard by the North Sea wind.
Damrak is just wide enough for the trolley, delivery trucks, autos and foot traffic to compete for space. Oh yeah, and bicycles...rows and piles of bicycles in every imaginable color and operable condition being ridden, impounded, abandoned or "parked" secured to every pole, tree, sign post, utility box, handrail, or fence you encounter within a block radius of the CST.
And the amazing thing that you soon realize as you explore Amsterdam, is that you rarely hear a car horn. You'll hear lots of small ka-ching ka-ching bicycle bells, aimed at tourists like us who are gawking at sights instead of paying attention to traffic (there are no sidewalk curbs to tell you when you're stepping into traffic.), but very few horns. I personally attribute this to two things- no one wants to spend time filling out paperwork after an accident, so people pay attention and are actually courteous about yielding the right of way. And secondly, these people have a laid back attitude because they are intelligent enough to not have an aggressive
military. (?)
Once we made our way inside the CST, we were able to locate every map and/or brochure that even vaguely mentioned the various sights we were interested in, and over the next four days, except for the canal boat tour, we walked or used the trolley as easily as if we had been natives. We finally got used to the cold wind, but I don't think we'd ever get used to being served a portion of cheese, chocolate and beer as a side order with damn near every snack, meal or condiment you order, so by our last day, we had both sufficiently built up a noticeable layer of insulation against the wind that we're probably still carrying around.
James L. Weaver
June 25, 2008

"Gimme some art now, Y'hear!?