Saturday, August 26, 2006

So You Want To Visit Holland

Some random, idiosyncratic suggestions from someone who has only been here for three months. But hey, that's longer than you've been here.

  • Take the overnight flight, but do not sleep. Stay up all day, and then crash around 9pm. Otherwise you'll have jet lag for a week.
  • From the airport, you just pay 3.60 euros and take the train to Amsterdam Centraal. Out front you can pick up a tram to your hotel. They take cash, but you can save some money by buying a strippenkaart at the AKO, a newspaper shop on your left as you walk out.
  • You have to prepare for any kind of weather here, from 50 to 95 degrees. Dutch meteorology is an oxymoron. In English, the Dutch word for weather translates as "pack of lies."
  • For the museums, I would prioritize the Van Gogh Museum, the Torture Museum, and the surprisingly good Amsterdam Historical Museum. In my opinion, Rembrandthuis is just a boring house with a few sketches at the end, and too expensive. I'll go even further on a limb and say that the Anne Frank House is not worth standing in line for more than half an hour. Take my word for it: The rooms are small and dark.
  • I did not see the Rijksmuseum, because you can see the Dutch masters and impressionists elsewhere. I'm sure it's excellent. If you like beer, people love the Heineken Brewery tour for the free beer at the end. I heard the Dutch Resistance Museum is good, even if there wasn't much, um, Dutch resistance. It's in the Plantage, near the the ridiculously overpriced zoo.
  • Two actual Dutch people insisted that I take a canal tour, but I can't see spending 30 euros to ride on a boat with 80 of somebody else's grandparents.
  • For souvenirs, there's an incredibly cool little shop on Prisengracht just a few meters from Westerkerk, on the left. Really fun. The other souvenir shops pretty much have the same stuff, although prices can be surprisingly variable.
  • Don't let anyone sucker you into buying wooden shoes, Delftware, dolls or prostitutes. Unless your mother asks.
  • The Dutch are not internationally renowned for their food. Like Russian food, it's really for peasants, with a lot of potatoes and other carb-rich filler (e.g, stamppot). Dutch people themselves are big on Surinamese food, Indonesian food, and Argentinian food, and I'd suggest you eat at those places. You certainly aren't going to find them in America, although I wasn't a huge fan of any of the three.
  • If you do want Dutch food, go for a pancake house, like the Cafe d'Oude Westerkerk (Rozengracht & Prinsengracht). Have one savory pancake, like the spinach, bacon & cheese, and one sweet pancake, like ones with blackberry compote or vanilla ice cream. Yum. The pancakes are like crepes, but a little meatier.
  • You can save a lot of money by avoiding restaurants and picking up cheap groceries at one of the 87 Albert Heijns in Amsterdam. You could easily spend 100 bucks eating three meals a day in restaurants. Remember that a nice glass of wine or beer is often cheaper than a Diet Coke or even water.
  • Credit cards are generally useless, except for your plane ticket and hotel. Expect to pay cash, and you'll save money. Most credit cards charge at least 2% in conversion charges, so buy your ticket & hotel at a U.S. website. Instead of credit, withdraw cash with your ATM card. My credit union doesn't charge any fees and uses the daily conversion rate, as high as it is. Sadly, the dollar has been in freefall against the euro since 2000, thanks to our country's excellent financial choices.
  • Try to pick a hotel outside of Dam Square, and for goodness sake, outside of the Red Light District. Rembrandtplein would be a good choice, or the southern half of the Jordaan. I heard good things about the Hotel Ambassade on Herengracht.
  • By consensus, the best day trip is to Bruges, which I never did. I liked Leiden an awful lot though.

Friday, August 25, 2006

More Guilt-Induced Travel

The only two places in Holland I have visited are Amsterdam and Enschede. That is so incredibly lame I can hardly put it into words, but somehow I managed not to leave the city unless absolutely necessary. Everything in Holland can be reached by public transportation in two hours, for Christ's sake. I'm leaving in a few days, so it is now or never.

I planned a day trip to The Hague. I wanted to visit the National Archives, which has a genealogical file on my family. (My Dad's family is French Huguenot, by way of Holland.) I spent the rest of my day visiting the city.

First priority was to visit the Rijksmuseum Gevangenpoort, the state-funded torture museum. You get lots of gory descriptions (mostly in Dutch) about how people were tortured in Holland and how the death penalty was administered. Until 1870 that is, when the death penalty was abolished as antiquated and uncivilized. That was 136 years ago. Ahem.

The museum seems to exist in part to expiate national guilt over the torture and lynching of Cornelis de Witt and his brother, Johan. I had to watch a long, dull video about it in Dutch. It's apparently the shame of Holland, but I had never heard of the guy. The political story is complicated, but after he was killed, his intestines were removed and squares were sold for five cents each. Look for that on eBay.

I took a walk around the lake, taking lots of pretty pictures of weird looking ducks and very pushy geese. Then I visited the Mauritshaus, which is a small musuem of well chosen masterpieces (good) and much too expensive (bad). It's the home of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring and a number of Rembrandts. It's Rembrandt Year in Holland, by the way, and museums here won't shut up about it.

Then I did my duty at the National Archives, and tried to board a train home. But my train was stuck in the station, so I had to get on a rush-hour train to Leiden and then transfer to my original train to Amsterdam. As I sat illegally in first class, I thought, why not stop off in Leiden and explore? The university is the most famous and prestigious in Holland, and that alone had me curious. My feet were burning, but I could sleep later.

I have to say, Leiden is great. I liked The Hague, but it has the solidity of a small national capital. It's the Montpelier of Holland. Leiden is dominated by college students, who are literally everywhere eating, drinking, and running you down with their bikes. It reminds me of Ann Arbor and Palo Alto, but with canals and windmills and 17th century buildings. You could also call it Amsterdam without the skanky tourists in the middle.

It was nearly 6pm before I made my way out of the train station, without a map or even directions, really. One of the fun things about traveling by yourself is that you can just see what happens. It's especially easy in Holland, because there are signs and maps everywhere. If worse comes to worse, you can just grab a bus or tram somewhere, because they all go to the train station eventually. And the strippenkaart that you use in Amsterdam for the tram? It works throughout the whole country, so I can get on the bus in Leiden, get my strippenkaart stamped, and go.

I walked through pretty parks, examined the oddly neo-classical architecture, and found my way to the university area. Like all Dutch universities outside of Twente, there is no campus per se. So there's not really a lot to see, but the law faculty had an interesting building. I took a lot of pictures, and then walked back to the center, ate dinner at one of the many canalside restaurants, and made my way home about 9pm. Didn't really get lost, actually. If you have time and are willing to meander, lots of cool things happen.

Oh, and I finally saw windmills. Check. You can view the photo album, with the usual commentary.

I leave Sunday for Rome, very exciting, but also strange to leave Amsterdam after so long. It'll be interesting see what it's like to return to Ann Arbor next weekend.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

You Used To Be My Fat Farm

With my only once-a-week record of posting these days, you might be thinking that I've run out of things to say. Not true! I think about writing all the time, I just don't actually do it very often.

Blogging is surprisingly stressful, and it takes away energy from other things I'm supposed to be writing to keep my job. And that makes me feel guilty in ways that just blowing off time does not, because I'm using "writing time." I'm also shocked by how anal I am about each post, to the point of editing them even days afterward. There are posts that I still don't like very much, and it hurts me inside.

I guess I'm not a born writer, because in my spare time I feel much better watching... let's pull something random out of thin air... ok, High School Musical and The Making of High School Musical. Not that I actually watched those things last night, but if I did, and then listened to the soundtrack afterwards, twice, that would feel good. Because ultimately, we're all in this together.

So anyway, I had this theory that Amsterdam was the perfect fat farm for me. In Amsterdam, to eat you have to walk a significant distance, and then carry your food home on your back. For me it's a good 10-minute walk each way, and due to my soda addiction, it's quite a heavy load. (During the worst days of the heat wave, I nearly made love to my cold cans of Diet Coke, like Flo did in Vietnam on The Amazing Race). And you have to make the grocery trek at least 3-4 days per week, because there's only so much you can carry, and fridges are tiny. Food choices were also quite limited, so it was easy to eat smaller amounts and limit bad foods.

Amsterdam also forces you to walk pretty much everywhere, which is good exercise. The city is pretty, so you often choose to walk even when you don't have to. Willingly. Then there were all the Dutch people staring at me, because I am the fattest person they have ever seen in person. So there was constant reinforcement of my need to get ahold of my physical self.

Bad foods, in turn, just weren't that attractive. The grocery store, Albert Heijn, is like the contemporary wing of The Museum of Junk Food. Remember in 1991 how you thought cookie dough ice cream was so rad, and so did everyone else? Remember cans of Pringles, which your mom bought you to wash down with a glass of Sunny Delight? Those are basically the junk food choices, neither of which any American has consumed since 1993. Oh, and about 47 kinds of pudding, and chocolate pudding gets old after awhile, even when it is only 18 cents.

So my theory about Amsterdam being my personal fat farm. It seemed like I had free will, but in reality the city was conspiring to make me thinner. Then it rained for four weeks straight and Amy gave me pneumonia, making me really grouchy and a little homesick. So I bought the Pringles and the cookie dough ice cream. I have no idea what happened to Pringles and cookie dough ice cream, because they are awesome. My sinuses cleared, the sun beamed through the clouds, and for the first time, I felt truly loved.

Bub-bye, fat farm.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


My flight to Barcelona was as smooth as stroopwafel honey. Time from my apartment door to the Schiphol gate: exactly one hour. None of the flight restrictions in the UK apply within the rest of the EU, so it's smooth sailing over here. One poor fool brought her stuff in a transparent plastic bag, and she looked very sad.

Not as sad as the people wanting to go to Heathrow, as all those flights were cancelled. They are seriously freaking out over there. Hopefully it'll yield fewer obnoxious British tourists in Amsterdam when I return. They are the worst -- loud, classless soccer hooligans. I have a theory that Amsterdam: Britain as Poconos: New York City. Discuss.

I arrived safely at my fabulous accommodations in the Hotel Jazz, unpacked my rusty high school Spanish, and set out to explore the city. I went out that night with a new friend of mine, Oscar, who selected a ream of tapas that were just delicious. Not quite as delicious as the sangria he ordered with vino blanco, which was just spectacular, fruity and only slightly sweet. He held me back from ordering a second jug, which nearly had me skewering him like the light and tasty octopus; in retrospect, I barely managed to stumble back to my hotel room as it was. That stuff is dangerous. Deliciously dangerous.

The next day I took off for the many architectural delights of Barcelona's native son, Antoni Gaudi. First was Casa Batllo (Motto: "Pick a vowel, we don't care"), an eight-floor townhouse with many fun architectural elements, like sky-blue tile work. Next was La Pedrera, his massive apartment complex with no straight lines. Cool, even with lines that were Anne-Frank-House-long. Try not to kill yourself on the glazed-tile terrace, like this poor guy.

The big disappointment of the day was Segrada Familia, Gaudi's crazy gothic cathedral. It looks fabulous from a distance, and the sculptures outside are wonderful. The inside is nothing more than a construction site. The only thing to amuse me was watching visitors desperately analyze every nook and cranny for Gaudi's genius. Gaudi's genius, I have to say, is both beautiful and deeply tacky. It is architecture-as-camp. And I love him for that. Too bad he got run over by a tram.

Language here is beyond confusing. My Spanish is sketchy enough, but many things are in Catalan, the insanely difficult regional language that seems like a mix of Spanish, French, and Euskera, the Basque language of my ancestors. So I don't know if I don't understand someone because they are speaking Catalan, or because I've forgotten nearly all of the Spanish I ever knew. Like adjectives, nouns, and the past tense.

Today I got a personal tour of Montjuic, in the hills above Barcelona, from the indefatigible Oscar and his trusty lime green circa 1988 Honda Civic. Oscar has, without a doubt, the best parking karma of all time. We swooped into the front entrance of Montjuic Castle, which rained cannonballs on 17th century invaders while providing panoramic views for the soldiers to enjoy. Much later the castle was used to house Franco's enemies, who presumably also enjoyed the views as they slowly starved to death, proving that a good view only goes as far as your food supply.

In the afternoon, after a leisurely two-hour dinner, Oscar was forced to spend a couple of hours at his advertising job, as Barcelonistas are expected to work on Tuesdays from 3:30 to 5pm. I trekked alone to the medieval cathedral in the Barri Gotic, which like Barcelona and all of Europe, was under intense, view-constraining construction. I was pleased to witness a conflagration as two groups of Mediterranean great-grandmothers nearly came to blows when one of them tried to sneak in through the exit. I whiled away the remainder of my afternoon walking through the neighborhood's old windy streets, imagining the future WWE UPN Smackdown: Spanish Grandmothers vs. Italian Great-Grandmothers in the Steel Cage. Extra bonus: Gravediggerrrrrrrrr! (Some of those ladies are going to need one soon enough.)

It was an eventful couple of days, so I retreated to the hotel for the evening and enjoyed the rooftop pool. I had a nice conversation with a New Yorker and his Swiss friend. Instead of throughly researching their many hotel options with Trip Advisor, weighing their budget and their priorities, they got off the highway, stopped at the first hotel they saw, and parked. That's a strategy, I suppose. Not, you lucky bastards.

Tonight it poured buckets in quite a thunderstorm. I hope they didn't get really, really wet.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Pretty Pictures

I've been holed up in the apartment with a bad cold ever since the visit of Typhoid Amy, who can be seen here cursing my respiratory system. I seem to be recovering after a couple of days of full-body, pain-surging-through-your-arms sneezes and coughing-up chunks-of-lung. Amy, meanwhile, has blogged our days together, leaving me free to do other things.

A few days inside has given me plenty of time to deal with my burgeoning collection of Amsterdam's Prettiest Pictures. If you double-click the first picture, you can run through them with my semi-snarky comments intact. I think Picasa is mostly great, especially for the Mac lovers among us, because Google just issued software that integrates it with iPhoto. The only thing I don't like is that the slideshow puts up the name of the image file instead of my hastily written comments.

On Sunday I'm taking a spontaneous flight to Barcelona, scheduled in a spasm of Shouldn't You Be Taking Advantage of this Taxpayer-Fueled Trip to Europe? Thankfully I've learned to be a light and simple packer. All I need is my chap stick, contact lens solution, and a cold bottle of Evian, and I'm good to go.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


As emotions go, pride eludes me. The closest I get to pride is "pleased" or "hey, that's cool." It confuses people. I get a lot of, "Aren't you happy about that?" As I get older, I've learned to fake it just to avoid stares of incomprehension.

The notion of gay pride eludes me even more. I can understand being proud of your accomplishments. I can understand being proud of your children. Being proud of something that you have no control over makes no sense to me. I'm not ashamed of being gay, and I wouldn't change it even if I could. But I'm not proud of it any more than I'm proud of having blue eyes or meaty infant hands.

So I'm not too big on the parade. I get the idea of why there is a parade, even if the name doesn't make much sense. The problem is that the parade is so intensely boring. Watching the gay employees of Citibank walk down the street just isn't my idea of a good time.

That said, I've been looking forward to Amsterdam Pride for my entire stay. Here, the parade floats actually float down the canals. And I figured, if anyplace can make pride interesting, it'll be Amsterdam.

It was everything we'd hoped for and more, so here's a web album. The photos were co-taken by Ames, of recent Frolic & Detour fame, who was visiting from the States (more to come, and the reason for my week-long absence.) I might add that this was the only sunny day of her entire visit, and a good day it was.

Here's the album, my first attempt to use Picasa. Note: You'll see a few butts and boobies.