Monday, August 21, 2006


As all great adventures do, the weekend in Amsterdam began innocently enough. After the harrowing adventure of taking the Russian bus to Helsinki, I spent the night at the same hostel I was at the first time I was here – the one in the old Olympic Stadium. It’s a great place, mostly because it has free wireless internet (and when I’m connected to it, my IP address says that I am in a place called Espoo – isn’t that just the coolest name for a city EVER!?). I did however find one downside to staying in the Olympic Stadium this time. Apparently it is still used rather often to host sporting events. Whilst I slept on Wednesday night, Ireland and Finland were duking it out on the futbol field. Of course, I have no idea who was victorious, nor do I really care. But it was kind of interesting falling asleep to the sound of cheering fans and commentary (in English) for a game I couldn’t see (it was on the other side of the wall). I think it may have influenced my dreams that night, but I’m not going to go there. This entry will be interesting enough without throwing that into the mix.

Since I had been awake for nearly 36 hours (sleeping on a bus is hard, especially when a very talkative old Russian lady is sitting next to you and taking up half of your seat as well), it was no problem for me to get to bed at a decent hour that night. I fell asleep (as the game was reaching its climax, judging from the sounds) at about 10:30 – plenty early to get a good night’s sleep before jet-setting to Amsterdam. My flight was leaving rather early, and with the big hullabaloo that has surrounded international flights as of late, I decided that it would be wise to give myself extra time to get to the gate. I woke up at about 4:30 (how I managed that, I’m not quite sure – must have been the excitement) and was out the door by 5:00. There is a nice shuttle bus that runs to the airport every 20 minutes from 5 am to 2 am every day from a hotel down the street, so getting to the airport was really easy.

When I got there, I realized that I had been worried for nothing. In less than 10 minutes, I was checked in, through security and at my departure gate. It was the quickest check-in I’ve ever been through. 10 MINUTES!!! And that’s even including having to go through security twice, because bike locks are apparently dangerous items, so I had to go and check mine that was attached to my backpack. Of course, I’m not going to complain. It was awesome. I had plenty of time for an espresso and a muffin before the flight (which I wouldn’t have splurged for if I had known ahead of time that breakfast was going to be served on the flight – a mistake I did not repeat when I flew back). These are just more reasons why I really like FinnAir. It all started because they had student discounts, and things just kept getting better from there.

As the plane landed and we were taxiing to the gate, I tried to calculate how long it had been since I had seen Chris. I believe the last time was at our annual spring luncheon with everyone’s favorite benefactor, Mrs. McDermott. That would make it about five months since the last time we hung out. And it had been over three months since I’ve seen any of my friends at all (with the exception of John Keese, who I ran into randomly in Salzburg in May). Needless to say, I was extremely excited when I finally found Chris in the baggage claim area. His evening had been a bit more interesting than mine. Apparently the earliest train from Lausanne (where his lab is) to Geneva (the nearest airport) wasn’t early enough for his flight, so he spent the night sitting outside the Geneva airport. Luckily the guards were understanding and didn’t give him too much trouble about it. (I can only imagine how Lindsey’s 24 hours in the Warsaw airport must have been last week – probably not nearly as nice as Switzerland. Sorry – another digression).

It was at this point that I realized that I had forgotten to write down directions to the hostel that we may or may not have had a reservation for (another long story). So where do we go? Well, we hopped on the train to the central station, figuring that would be a good starting point for the search. We were right on. There are loads of hotel-booking places and tourist information spots surrounding the train station, and we were able to get our hands on a list of ALL the hostels (with addresses and phone numbers) in the center of Amsterdam. We decided that it would be best to try first the one we had intended to stay at all along – the Witte Tulp (White Tulip, in case your Dutch is a little rusty). Making a reservation here had proved to be impossible, mostly due to the complete incompetence of the staff. Fortunately though, they had room for us for three nights. It was a bit expensive but all accommodation is in Amsterdam, especially where we were.

On a side note, I love the houses that line the canals – they are really tall (several stories) and deep, but very narrow. And all the staircases seem to be the same – really, REALLY steep. It saves a lot of space. Of course, getting up these steps late in the evening can be an adventure all on its own.

After we made it up the stairs to the dorm room, we realized just how close we were to the center of things. I knew we were in the red-light district, but didn’t know that the hostel backed up to the alley behind the Old Church, which is one of the main stretches of red lights, if you know what I mean. If you stuck your head out the window, you could see several of the ladies working late into the evening. And you could always tell how late it was at night by the level of rowdiness on the street.

Of course, we didn’t spend all our time in the red-light district. There is a lot more to Amsterdam than just brothels and coffeeshops. Aafke (my Dutch friend from the dorm in St. Petersburg) would be proud. We spent a lot of time just exploring and going to different museums. We made it to the Rembrandt house (it was cool being there in the year of his 400th birthday) and saw a really cool exhibit on his printmaking. And of course, we had to go to the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum. Much of the Rijksmuseum is under renovation, so they had a big exhibition of all their masterpieces up. Erica would have loved it, especially the Vermeer room. Oh wait, she’s already been there :-D.

We also went to a really cool museum that was just down the street from the hostel. Apparently a few hundred years ago it was illegal to practice Catholicism, but the authorities were willing to turn a blind eye if the place of worship in no way resembled a church from the outside. Therefore, there were a bunch of hidden churches throughout the city, one of which is still intact and has been restored to what it would have looked like then. It’s called Our Lord in the Attic and really worth the visit if you’re ever in Amsterdam.

We also felt it was necessarily to rent bicycles for at least one of the days. Bikes are everywhere in Amsterdam – when you cross the street, that’s what you have to look out for more often than cars or trolleys. It was really nice being able to roam all over the city the way everyone else does. We rode over to the Vondelpark, and liked that part of town so much that we spent most of the day there. I love big parks like that – it’s so nice to just relax in the middle of the day, or have a picnic and people-watch all through the afternoon. It made me miss Zilker Park just a bit. Of course, the weather is much better here than in Texas right now (I hope the rain comes soon, guys). It only rained the last day that we were in Amsterdam – the rest of the stay was perfect weather.

And being there with a biologist, we had to go to the flower market. Chris bought a bunch of tulip bulbs (that mostly what they have at this time of year). I would have bought some too, but don’t really have room in my bags – I’ve got enough stuff already. And I definitely didn’t have room for any wooden shoes, another of Chris’ purchases. I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to take home many souvenirs for people – for me, my pictures are my souvenirs. I have bought a patch for my camera bag for every country – it’s going to look awesome!

One thing that Chris and I agree on is that French fries with mayonnaise is one of the best things EVER! We had sooooo many. I don’t know what kind of oil they’re cooked in, or if that’s even the reason why they’re different, but they are sooooooo good. My favorite was the Mannekin Pis (yeah, you read that right, even if I didn’t spell it quite right) frites stand – conveniently located just a few blocks from home.

Overall, I think the trip was a great success. We got to hang out and have a good time, just relaxing and seeing the sites. I have to say that there isn’t much else in this world that can surprise me after some parts of the city, but I think that’s part of the charm. I hope that I can go back, soon and often. And know I have a friend there, so I have a great excuse.

Now that I’m back in Helsinki, I have to get down to business. I need to get my new Russian visa. I was going to do that today, but circumstances somewhat out of my control prevented that from happening. Apparently the consulate is only open from 9 til noon. I don’t get it – the world’s largest country and their consulate in a bordering nation is only open for three hours five days a week. That’s Russia though – not the biggest on tourism. I was able to talk to the lady at the train station into selling me a ticket to St. Petersburg without a visa. Logic eventually won her over – if I wait until Thursday when I finally have my visa in hand, the odds of there still being a seat on that particular train are pretty slim. And I have to be on that train – my train from St. Petersburg to Moscow leaves on Friday night at 11, and I can’t enter the country until Friday, so I must be on the 7.45 train from Helsinki. But I have my ticket in hand – now I just need my visa. Tomorrow. Then I’ll find a bicycle to rent and go on a little adventure of my own. Hehehe. I’m excited. Three whole days to explore at my own pace. Then onward. To Siberia. Crap. I’m insane.

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