Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Land of Bikes and Dikes

Bakkerij--how can you not love Dutch?
Onward to Amsterdam. My trip to Amsterdam was long. Four and a half days. Normally, I'd be okay with that. But after three days in Berlin, two long nightbuses and a whole sack of new books to lug around (including, might I add, a kickass, 571-page German grammar book which I affectionally call my new bible), I was worn out. I'm a fairly seasoned traveler. I know this tired feeling. It will go away when I discover the new fabulousness of this city! But it somehow never let up. Don't get me wrong, I love the Dutch. I honestly find their culture and language very, very interesting. But it was my second time there and I was just..I dunno, kind of wanting to be home. The cold freezing weather, my quickly depleting bank account, and our dodgy hostel did not help.
Red light district
But..I shouldn't be complaining. I was in Amsterdam for New Year's. It's a really cute little city. I know, CUTE, right? Not the right word? Well..yeah, it is. You know how you played with dollhouses when you were a kid? And you look through the windows and you're like, oh wow, it's all so miniature! And cutesy! That's Amsterdam. (My dollhouse didn't include the redlight district and coffeehouses..) The buildings are skinny and not more than 3 or 4 stories. The only tall part of Amsterdam is the people. (Currently the tallest in Europe) The streets are brick or cobblestone. And the people are generally pretty nice. And there are bikes EVERYWHERE.

Bikes, bikes annnnnnd bikes
It's like what every city planner dreams of: a city where pedestrians and cyclists reign and cars are sparse and ignored. Never happens, right? Well, it does. In Amsterdam. In Paris, I'm used to walking across the street on red lights and often in the middle of the street, away from crosswalks. (random note: I secretly enjoy that the Brits call them zebra stripes) If a car comes, well that's too bad. I normally walk in front of it. Don't blame me--I learned from my fellow Parisians. In Amsterdam, however, this is a quick recipe for being run over. And not just the normal culprits, oh no. I strongly advise you to not tempt fate and just walk the extra 10 feet to the crosswalk. You have (from either direction) cars, tramways, bikes and pedestrians to worry about. Bikes being the most scary because 1) The bike lanes look eerily similar to the sidewalks 2) Bikes are fast (and silent) and come up on you OUT OF NOWHERE and 3) Some Dutch bikers are not so pleasant! I understand. I know how annoying tourists can be. Especially when they're walking in your bike lane. But mannnn they are not kidding around! If you hear a bell ringing, quickly! Look around all sides of you; check the left side first! You are probably 3.2 seconds from death. And hey, if the cyclist happens to have lost his bell, he will not hesitate to MIMIC THE BELL SOUND. No joke. You would think a city that solicits cannabis would surely make the bike lanes more distinguishable from the sidewalks?
Sunrise in the Dutch captial
I did like the city. It's small and accesible. I was a little out of the center this time, but it was a good way to see beyond just the normal tourist traps. Although the Dutch have a quite small population, they seem to have hung on to their culture pretty well. I really liked the whole feel of the city. It just felt very, very European. It's commonplace to leave most windows open, even when home. I liked that--you could walk down the canals and see real life in each window. The French are notorious for shutting up their houses with shutters at night, which I just find way too inclusive for me.

What I really liked was that they aren't as afraid as the French are of the English language. Sure, the French have hundreds, maybe thousands of English loanwords that a real purist will avoid like the plague. But the Dutch? Meh, they just throw 'em in there with their own language and hope for the best. The result? A melange of Dutch and English (and a lot of French, too) that made me think on more than one occasion that I had miraculously acquired the Dutch language out of nowhere. I'm not alone in this; I've heard the same thing from other visitors! It's hard to explain without hearing it, but although the language is very bizarre and has very strong Germanic roots, it has the same cadence as English. When you're not paying attention, with, say, a TV or radio going in the background, you'd swear they were speaking your native tongue. They speak English so well that they've practically got no accent. And since I get by a bit in German, I could recognize a lot of verbs with the same roots. If German is English's distant cousin, Dutch is at least a second cousin. Close enough to turn your head and think..did I just understand that?

My friend, Tiffany (assistant here too, from Chicago), braved the trip with me. Luckily, we were both poor, so we didn't really stop each other from doing anything! We walked a lot, drank a lot of coffees to warm up, wandered around the brick streets seeing the millions of little boutiques. I found an English bookstore and found an old(er) book (whoa, 2000 is a decade ago!) written by Liesl (Charmin Carr) of The Sound of Music (aka The Best Movie Ever Created). That was my highlight of the day! I didn't want to be totally cultureless, so we did make an attempt to see the infamous Rijksmuseum, which was conveniently 5 minutes away from our hostel. Then we saw that it cost 11€ to get in and I was all, no thanks. I prefer to eat tonight. Plus the queue was ridiculously long and it was at least -80 outside. So that was that. Cultureless Americans, I s'pose. Somebody's got to live up to the stereotype, so you're welcome!
Another canal near Rembrandtplein
New Year's was a little uneventful. It snowed, and so standing outside for a long period of time didn't seem that enticing, but we did make the trek to the central part of Amsterdam for a bit. There was supposed to be a New York-esque "ball drop," but in fact, there was no ball in sight and we didn't even know when it turned midnight. People around us were looking at their cellphones and kind of doing their own celebrations..oh well! One thing is for sure, though--we were not prepared for the Dutch and their suicidal fireworks. Firecrackers, bottle rockets, dynamite (okay, maybe not really) everywhere! Loud noises at every turn! And I'm convinced some of the them were aiming at tourists! The streets were filled with smoke and red casings all night and into the next day. I'm guessing New Year's is like their July 4th? My guess is they just like to blow things up!
The remains of New Year's
Anyway, finally got back to Paris late Saturday night and then had only one day to recuperate before another week of school. And now I'm already at the end of week 2. Le temps passe vite! Only another 35 days until the next vacation! I'm taking it easy next time--probably just a long weekend trip to Prague with my German friend that studied at uni with me last year. I might stop at her house (I'm inviting myself, Steffi!) and hang out for a day or two, but probably nothing grandiose like a full 2-week vacation. I get too tired, and more importantly, I get too poor!

Hope the rest of your week is fab. It's almost the weekend!


Monday, January 11, 2010

Oh, Berlin. You and your weiners.

So Berlin. I had high hopes before leaving because I'd heard some really good things about the city. And of course I was excited to use some of my German, or if nothing else, to listen to some real live Deutsch on the streets. Just a 'lil eavesdropping, no biggie. The 14-hour busride wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be, but stillll..riding the bus has sucked since the 2nd grade. Just because you add real seats and a light over your head doesn't make it more fun..
Anyway, got to the capital okay, although a bit tired. I took a night bus so I wouldn't lose a day to travel, but it kind of messes you up because you're exhausted from a crap bus ride and then hello! time to visit a new city! and ps. it's 9am, Guten Morgen! And one last thing, your suitcase is at least 86 pounds.
I'd forgotten what it felt like to be a tourist. I mean, I know I could say I'm kind of a long-term tourist here, but for the time being, I have my own little corner of the world, and it feels like home. I hate not knowing a city. Not knowing how the transport works, not having any reference as to where you are, not speaking the language very's frustrating. I'm so used to navigating Paris with no second thought that I forget what a pain in the ass it is in other places. I figured it out eventually, and was rewarded for my fine navigational skills. Walking up the stairs from the metro, sweaty as a mofo and desperately in need of some caffeine, I was given The Best Day-After-Christmas Present EVER. Behold: the Germans have DUNKIN' DONUTS! IN THE METRO STATIONS. That is all.

I had a really nice hostel in the former Soviet half (Eastern) of the city. It's trendy now, close to a big plaza called Alexanderplatz, but some of the buildings still have that squared-off, very..Nazi? Soviet? look. Gives it a 'lil charm. Now there are a ton of little boutiques and lots of restaurants and I think it's pretty great how the city has blended back together in just 20 years.
Berlin was smaller than I thought it was. I started out taking the metro, but after a day realized that I could just walk--it wasn't that far. Plus, I like to see where I'm going. Basically from the Brandenburg Tor (Gate) to Alexanderplatz is a straight line of monuments. I walked down the infamous Unter den Linden, which was very nicely decorated for the holidays.

Speaking of the holidays, the Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets) were everywhere! I just kept running into them on what seemed like every street corner. I ate a lot of cheap street food, but it was delicious!
On my last day there, I saw all these men in yellow selling bratwurst from these grills that were attached to their body. It was like a jetpack, but with a grill on the front, and the power source on their back. Each vendor had a little belt with mustard, ketchup and a coin-machine (think A&W). They were flippin' and squirtin' and takin' money all at the same time, with no time for hesitation. A guy was was walking around with a cooler, filling up each vendor's bratwurst, making sure they had enough supplies, and they were doing okay. I was impressed. The Germans have this weiner business figured out!
Didn't take a pic, but thank you, Google! Something like this, except that while you're waiting for the weiner, your nose hairs are freezing into icicles.
[via flickr @snowbank]
I met a friend at the hostel and we went on a rainy day to the Holocaust Memorial close to the center of the city. The rain seemed appropriate.
I was pretty pumped to see the longest stretch of what is still around of the former wall. I think it's something like 1.3km of former wall that is now painted as a sort of memorial. Not just by German artists, either. I thought it was cool and made for very color-happy photos:

Overall, I left Berlin a little bit disappointed. They have good bookstores. Always an advantage in my book (heh). But the modern and almost sterile feel sometimes left me a little..meh? I was only there for three days, so I'm sure some Berliners would swear by their city. And it was f-ing cold. I just didn't..feel it. Nice to visit, but I'm not sure I could live there. Germany felt a lot like the US sometimes, though. Same kind of customer service, same sort of big stores, a lot of them speak English incredibly well (even the homeless, which is kind of sad, huh?)...
I think I would be better off going back with someone and in the summer. Glad I saw it, though!

I left the capital and went onto Amsterdam, which I'll get to very soon. Off to bed for moi. Long day of school ahead and hey, it's 20 to 1 and I have to be up at 6am. EXCELLENT!