Last night in Amsterdam

Firstly, RRRRAAAAAAGGGGEEEE!!!! I just spent about 45 minutes tagging all the pics in the Paris album and bloody facebook didn’t save any of it. BAH.

Secondly, we are back on the boat, after a lovely dinner in Nieuwmarkt for our last night in Amsterdam. Cara and Alfie went to a floating Chinese restaurant, and Sean and I went to a little pub where we had tomato and paprika soup with bread and cheese and it was just about the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted. After being out in the freezing wind, it was the perfect, perfect meal. Then I went and bought another beanie. I need one with flaps for my ears because the wind is just about snapping my ears off. So I now have a red Amsterdam beanie with bobbles. YEAH! Then we found an Irish pub, an actual Temple Bar in Amsterdam. We walked in and promptly paid 6 euro EACH for a drink. A terrible tasting Kilkenny and a weak, slightly sour Strongbow for 12 euro. Highway robbery. But, the bartender was uber friendly and we had an awesome chat to him about Australia. He’s British, but is moving to Brisbane. We talked about sport and cars and beer, so I contributed not much at all to the conversation, but it was a pleasant night. We’re totally besties with the owner of our hostel as well. He’s given us free snacks and left us on the boat while he’s gone for a walk. Everyone is very trusting around here. The Dutch are very peaceful. I’m sad to be leaving Amsterdam so soon; I feel like I could stay here for a few weeks (though with a better bathroom). Time to pack up, so I don’t need to rush tomorrow.
xxxx

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Good times, lazy days

We had unanimously decided to make today a ‘me time’ day. As a result, it was far lazier than our days so far, yet I still managed to end up doing a lot of walking. I woke up at 8am to Skype my parents (and it was wonderful to speak to them), and I was the only guest up until about 9am when everyone began to surface for the complimentary breakfast. As a result, I had the wi-fi to myself for ages, and managed to upload my Paris pics to Facebook! As I type this, I have nearly uploaded the last of them. I want to have a separate FB album for each city, and even then, there are plenty of photos I will later pinch from Sean, Alfie and Cara.

Once we were all up, we walked quickly to Amsterdam Centraal to enquire about trains to Berlin tomorrow (apparently we just waltz onto the train with our Eurail pass. Cool beans.) and then we went our separate ways. Cara headed off to the Van Gogh museum and the diamond museum, Alfie headed off to look at shops and Sean and I headed back to the boat to do some more photo uploading and Skyping. Then Sean and I went for a walk. In -1 degrees weather. Yay Europe! My face felt brittle, like the skin on top of milk that has been sitting out for too long. Brittle and freezing. But yesterday at the pub with the friendly bartender, he had written down the name of a brewery, complete with directions, that he thought Sean might be interested in. So we headed off to find out and it turned out to be not too far from us. Maybe a 20 minute walk? We got there at 2 and discovered it didn’t open til 3. But that was okay. We had tasty sandwiches for lunch at a fancy bistro and stayed warm the whole time. When the brewery opened at 3, we realised the English-language tour wasn’t until 4, but I wanted to see the Dutch Resistance Museum which closed at 5, so Sean walked me partway and then he headed back to his tour and I went to the Resistance Museum. It was wonderful. Well worth the 8 euro I paid for it. It’s an entire museum dedicated specifically to the efforts of Dutch people who chose to resist the Nazis during the occupation in WW2. Currently, they have an exhibition of photos taken by a gentleman who died in 2008. He had to hide his camera from the Nazis and fake a permit to take photos, but this way there is documented evidence of the persecution of Jews. There were hundreds and hundreds of stories in the museum, about people who smuggled children out of the ghettos and into hiding, people who built and distributed illegal radios, people who hid Jews, people who got friendly with the prison guards, got them drunk and managed to get prisoners out, and one woman who was sent to prison for opposing the Nazis and was assigned the darning of the Nazis socks. She sewed them shut. I didn’t have quite enough time to see the whole thing properly, but I saw plenty of interesting stuff and had a beautiful walk home in the winter sunshine. It was also nice to have the afternoon to myself for a bit.

I’ve been sitting here typing and photo-uploading since then. I used the terrible showers again, and it’s nice to feel clean. We will be heading out to get dinner shortly, maybe have a few drinks, but we have to get up and leave for Berlin tomorrow so it won’t be too late.

Signing off!

Cheese and canals

We have figured out that the bathrooms are not great, but the complimentary breakfast is AWESOME. So after eating enough to fill a horse, we headed in the freezing cold to Amsterdam Centraal to meet another free walking tour. The same tour company, the Amsterdam equivalent of the two tours we had done in Paris. We had high expectations by now, but this guy was also amazing. His name was Ged and he was from Manchester. These tours also had heaps more people on them, so we had to get used to being in a huge group. We formally began at the National Monument, in Dam Square. Then we walked past a ‘tasting-house’ – one of our tour guide’s favourite spots in the city. It was built back when it was illegal to sell alcohol in Amsterdam, so the owner got around the law by simply allowing people to ‘taste’ (buy it anyway). We walked through the Red Light District, which is significantly weirder during the day. Here we are trooping round in the brisk morning air, breathing mist into the crisp winter day, and there is a woman in sexy lingerie posing in a doorway. It’s really, really bizarre. But fascinating. There is no equivalent in Australia. Between the Red Light District and a church, there is an anonymous artwork set into the cobblestones, a sculpted gold hand on a sculpted gold breast. Apparently it just appeared one day and the council dug it up. But the prostitutes had decided they liked it and kicked up a fuss until it got put back. Our guide explained that the Dutch government is extremely pragmatic about such things, and would rather its citizens be happy. He said any law is breakable in Amsterdam provided it is discreet, it hurts no one, and its brings money into the city. That’s how there is so much weed – its not legal, its tolerated. The discreet bit is calling them ‘coffee shops’, instead of Weed Central of Ganja Palace. The hurting no one bit is that marijuana is a soft drug, that doesn’t induce violence and is impossible to overdose on. Because the government is so relaxed about marijuana, they have been able to stamp down on hard drugs, and as a result, Amsterdam has an extremely small amount of junkies and hard drugs. And it is wonderful, of course, for the economy. Our guide also told us, however, that the government has banned the opening of any more coffee shops and there is talk of movements to make weed only available to Dutch residents. So if anyone wants to front up to Amsterdam and experience it like it is, do it soon! We saw a hidden Catholic church, built when it was illegal to be Catholic in the city. We saw the headquarters of the East India Trading Company – oh man, Pirates of the Caribbean movie reference! – which is now past of the University. We saw a women’s prison, that has a carving of a woman being whipped over the doorway and the inscription, ‘I don’t hit you because you’re evil, I hit you to make you good’. Hmmmmm.

Houses in Amsterdam have taxes on the size of your house. The wider is is – that is, the more space along the sidewalk it takes up – the more expensive. As a result, houses in Amsterdam are very tall and slim and we got pics of the smallest house in the city. There are some big, old, expensive houses and some of them have carvings on the rooves detailing how the owner made their living (these were built centuries back and included arms dealers with cannons carved on their roof, and slave traders, with people carved on their roof). We saw the Royal Palace and the squats – part of the Jewish Quarter, which was cleaned out during World War 2 and then inhabited by poor people and hippies in the mid-century. These hippies later saved the city from a complete renovation in the 70’s which would have seen all the houses and canals knocked down and filled up and a big freeway put through the middle. Thankfully, those tree-huggers and crazies chained themselves to the buildings and again, the government pragmatically conceded. These squats that they lived in are painted beautiful vibrant colours and covered in manic graffiti. It was very cool. We walked through a ‘secret garden’ – an incredibly peaceful little estate, walled in because I think it used to be a convent? Even now, only single women over 30 are allowed to live in the houses surrounding the gardens. It’s a weird law, but that’s how the city works. Then we stopped for free cheese. It tasted like very strong parmesan, and was apparently aged Gouda. Delish! We finished the tour at the Homomonument, a memorial dedicated to all in the Netherlands who have been discriminated against and persecuted for their sexuality. It is a collection of pink triangle sculptures. Pink triangles are, as you may know, an international symbol of gay pride, invented by the Nazis who used it to segregate the homosexual prisoners from the other categories (communists, Jews, etc) in the concentration camps. It’s a wonderful example of resilience and reclamation. Here, our guide told us about Amsterdam in World War 2. We were sitting in front of the church, whose bells kept Anne Frank going in her many months in hiding. The house she hid in is right round the corner and Anne could hear the bells and wrote about how they kept her sane. We didn’t do the Anne Frank House museum today, but maybe tomorrow. Alfie and I did it during our last trip and it was incredibly moving. I would definitely see it again. Apparently when the Nazis occupied Amsterdam and pulled all the Jews out of the Jewish quarter, the non-Jewish residents of Amsterdam were horrified and went on strike for two days. The city literally shut down in protest of the treatment of its Jewish residents. Of course, the Nazi war machine was relentless and evil so the strike soon ended, with people being forced to return to work under pain of death, but for 48 hours, this little city had stood up to the Nazis and that counted for a lot. 
When the tour finished and everyone had dispersed, Alfie, Cara, Sean and I asked our tour guide where a good pub was. He walked us all the way to this little one whose name escapes me, but was wonderful. You could sit on a bench with the radiator under you and the bar right in front of you. When we walked in, there was no other customers. For a good 45 minutes we drank beer, cider and hot chocolate with the bartender who came from country Holland and spoke flawless English. I love the people we have met so far. Everyone has been so chilled and relaxed and spoken to us so easily and been so welcoming to their cities. 
After we had finished at the pub, we went souvenir shopping and found some chips. Then we got another (MUM/DAD DON’T READ) spacecake and headed back to the boat to change into warmer clothes, because we were frozen. Then we walked to a wagamama restaurant and had enormous bowls of ramen for dinner. We stopped to buy chocolate on the way back, and since then have been sitting up in the dining area typing! We haven’t planned much for tomorrow, which is a first. We are going to relax, first and foremost. Hurrah!

Amsterdam!

Mum, Dad, Chris, Annette, Melinda and any other parental figures, don’t read this, you’ve been warned.

This morning we got up completely smoothly and efficiently. We cleaned up the rest of the stuff in the apartment, and didn’t have to rush. It was awesome. We got to Gare du Nord and hopped on the train to Lille Flanders and went for an hour, then got on another train to Anvers Central (which is actually Antwerp, in Belgium. Anvers is the French word for it). We sat next to a very chatty French Somali man. On the next leg, from Anvers (Antwerp) to Amsterdam, I sat next to a Dutch man who spoke flawless English as well as Dutch (obviously), French, German, Spanish and was learning Bulgarian. He was really lovely and affirmed the two things I have come to be sure of when dealing with Europeans:
1. They love Australians. Love them. It’s a cliche, but it’s true.
2. They have a brilliant knack for languages. My Dutch friend on the train was telling me that Dutch schoolchildren have compulsory English to learn, and as a result, many Europeans grow up well-practiced in English. We are extremely spoilt, to be English speakers.

We got to Amsterdam Centraal and dragged our stuff out into the city with us. Our hostel (on a freaking BOAT) turned out to not be a very long walk at all from the station, but it took us ages to find, so we were quite relieved when Cara saw the distant sign and called out across the canals ‘VITA NOVA!’ It’s really cute in here. The reception dude was really nice, gave us a map of the place and a heap of vouchers for specific discounts on tourist attractions and activities exclusive to Vita Nova. Sean and I are in our own cabin as are Cara and Alfie. They are tiny, with a set of bunks, a sink and a cupboard. There is barely room for us and our luggage, but it is somehow very charming. We are only here for three nights, so I doubt any of it will be a problem. After dumping our stuff and googling some tours etc, we headed out. It was only 7.30 when we left and, like so many places in Europe, everything in Amsterdam is open very late. I wanted to walk through the Red Light District because we hadn’t last time we were here. Everything in Amsterdam is also very close together; it’s easy to see all the important things on foot. We walked into the Red Light District and saw the prostitutes in the red windows. It was hilarious. Most of them were on their phones or picking their fingernails and just looked bored out of their minds. Which you probably would be if you had to stand in a window with dumb tourists staring at you all day. We walked out of the Red Light District and found some pizzas which were delicious, but huge. We couldn’t finish them. And then (MUM AND DAD DO NOT READ) we went to a coffeeshop and got spacecakes. It did absolutely nothing for me. I doubt there was actual weed in it. But the experience has now been had! Huzzah! On the way back home we went to one of the Sex Museums (which is not one of those live sex shows. You couldn’t pay me to sit through one of them) but is an actual museum about the cultural history of sex, and then we headed back to the boat and were quite tired so we went to bed!! Big day. We only have 2 full days in Amsterdam so we’re going to pack a lot into them!!

XXX