S A R I S H A K U R U P
We arrived in Amsterdam in the late afternoon, then took a train from the airport to Centraalstation and emerged from our journey, slightly exhausted, among a throng of people going every which way. It already felt like a different country, the smells, the voices, the air--and when we emerged into the sunlight, the city was different too, all brick and doll-like. I had never dreamed of Amsterdam the way I had dreamed of Copenhagen, and in some ways that was a good thing, because everything was new, not seeing beforehand on a laptop screen or heavily researched prior. Instead I was able to enjoy the distinct pleasure of the unexpected, starting with Amsterdam's adorably mismatched architecture. We managed to find the tram we needed and then we were on our way, up to our hostel that sat on one edge of Vondlepark.
For most of the trip we had chosen to stay in Airbnbs. It was cleaner, often cheaper, and we felt like it would provide us a greater opportunity to live in the cities we were visiting like locals. But when planning the trip, I had been intent on the idea that at least once, we should stay in a hostel. That was the stuff of legends, after all, wasn't it? Backpacking, taking trains, staying in hostels. So we split our four nights in Amsterdam into two parst: the first two nights would be in The Flying Pig Uptown Hostel, and the next two would be in an airy two bedroom apartment in Amsterdam West.
We arrived at the hostel, a blue door atop a set of steps, and perched upon those steps was a man, maybe in his late twenties, casually smoking. We could not tell if he belonged to the hostel or not, but he said nothing to us--only continued to nonchalantly puff his cigarette the way only Europeans can--as we lifted our suitcases stair by stair. Inside we found that the check-in desk was really more like one side of a bar counter. As we showed them our passports, twenty-somethings in jeans and t-shirts drank beers and laughed with each other only a few feet away. We turned around to find a separate smoking room behind a glass door, but the interior was hardly visible through the haze.
We found our way to our room--we had chosen to get a private room instead of a dormitory--and shut the door to a place that was really more of a closet than a room. I quietly thanked Airbnb for existing, and then began unpacking. We stepped out for dinner soon after, and were treated to our first on-foot glimpse of Amsterdam, and in the golden hour no less. As the sun began to set we strolled along the canals, searching for a place to eat. Finally we settled upon a restaurant called Casa di David, with white tabletops and servers that present wine bottles at tables. With our jet lag finally gone and our bodies adjusted, we felt well enough to drink for the first time on the trip, and so we ordered glasses of rose with our dinner. It was odd, being able to do it without the look of suspicion, something that I got quite used touring our travels. Needless to say, readjusting back in the States was not fun.
The next day, we had decided, was museum day, so we started with the Rijksmuseum. We had breakfast in their pristine cafe, where everything was white and elderly Dutch ladies sipped drinks and nibbled at croissants, and then we began wandering the floors. I always feel a little bit regretful when I venture into a big museum, because there is an implicit understanding that no matter how much I try, I will never be able to see everything. And here, at the Rijksmuseum, with all the Rembrandts and Vermeers to gaze at, I simply didn't have a chance. This was the first European museum I would see since my AP Art History class from the previous year, and I had been waiting a long time for this. An art museum is entirely different once you have studied art history, like seeing a country with a map instead of stubbing blindly. A favorite was "La Ville Noyee" by Constant, a rendering of an imaginary society called New Babylon, fashioned in the image of the mythical Atlantis.
We returned to our hostel afterwards to listen to the James Comey testimony live, a little piece of home that was highly entertaining and, in some ways, burst our little European bubble. I had hardly thought of home since we had left, what with every day so full. Still, it felt wrong to spend so much time in our little shoebox when an entirely new city lay out before us, so when the testimony concluded we quickly shoved on our Birkenstocks and stumbled out again. On our tram up to the hostel I had seen a neighborhood that I had thought seemed particularly storybook-like, with cobblestone streets and two bookstores right by the tram stop, so we decided to find our way back there. The neighborhood was called "Spui," and sure enough, it was all cobblestones with bookstores at every turn. The first bookstore we passed was filled with people, so many that they were spilling onto the street, and as we got closer we realized they were all listening to a woman perched on the stairs in the shop, a Dutch magazine editor with apparently quite the pull.
We ended up in another bookstore that had multiple levels but was so chock-full of books that it still seemed intimate, tiny even. To our delight, most of the books were in English, and I couldn't help but spend over an hour huddled in-between the stacks. Anahita decided to head back to the hostel to rest, but I sat there until the bookstore closed, purchased A Little Life, and then proceeded to wander the streets of Amsterdam in the fading sunset. I found my way to Vondlepark, and sat on a bench across the pathway from a trio of Dutch hipsters, playing Dutch music with their old-fashioned boom box and performing tricks on their skateboards with great whoops after every success. I alternated between reading my book and watching them until the sun had fully set and I could not see either. There was something so romantic about the whole evening, a European city, a perfect bookstore, cobblestone streets and canals, cafes overflowing. I could not help but feel incredibly lucky for it all.
The next day we awoke to pouring rain--the first, and only, time it would rain while we were in the city, and the only time we needed to entirely pack up and move locations. We bid the hostel farewell and rolled our suitcases into the streets, accepting the fact that we would inevitably end up soaked in rainwater. By the time we arrived at our Airbnb in Amsterdam West, we looked as though we had showered with our clothes on. We stood in the pristine doorway of our new apartment rather apologetically as our host greeted us.
It was a beautiful space, all white and with two bedrooms, a record player, a guitar, a TV. She had even left us a white wine with two glasses and some olives. Needless to say, it was an entirely opposite experience from the chaos of our hostel. She had left us a list of food recommendations in the neighborhood, so we headed to a little place called Bar Spek for lunch. Unlike our hostel, which was near the museums and the park and thus attracted a more touristy crowd, our Airbnb was in the middle of an unassuming neighborhood, and so we found ourselves walking through empty, winding streets and parks with Dutch children skating and swinging and laughing. The canals here were mostly empty, save for a few local boats, but never a canal cruise or anything meant for the eyes of visitors. This was the Amsterdam that excited me, the Amsterdam that was not a postcard, but a real place.
After lunch, however, it was time for postcard Amsterdam, so we purchased a butter-filled bag of poffertjes (a Dutch speciality, essentially bit-sized pancakes) and jumped onto a canal tour. To our disappointment, this canal tour had no guide, but instead an impersonal loudspeaker that explained local landmarks briefly and robotically. Eventually we found ourselves tuning out, instead choosing to simply gaze at the buildings that slipped leisurely by us. We disembarked by the Anne Frank House, but since we had not booked tickets ahead of time and the line stretched longer than our eyes could make out, we decided that we would save Amsterdam's most famous attraction for another visit. Another reason to come back, we assured ourselves.
Instead we made our way on foot to Amsterdam's Nine Streets, an neighborhood known to locals for boutiques and vintage shopping. We slipped in and out of trendy Dutch thrift stores, filled with vintage Adidas bags and 70's menswear, leather jackets and old Louis Vuitton. We found a little store of travel books and maps with a back room full of historic newspaper headlines--ending of the World Wars, elections of Presidents and Prime Ministers, all placed carefully in clear envelopes. Another store had all hand-drawn maps of the world and every place within it, and the cartographer and his son sat in the back of the store, conversing in animated Dutch. We ambled in and out of stores and along the canals.
We ended our day at the truly-vibrant Foodhallen, an enormous warehouse that has been converted into a market of sorts, where each stall is a different little restaurant, and you can order whatever you wanted from whatever restaurant you like and then pray that you find an empty table somewhere to sit. In the center of it all is an enormous bar and a DJ right beside it, playing popular music from this decade and the last at high levels, so that the entire hall fills with music and voices. It seemed like a gathering of all the young people in the city, and we heard different languages at every turn. The energy was infectious, we soon found ourselves smiling, singing along to the songs we knew, not even upset that it took us a good thirty minutes to find a place to sit. When we finally stumbled out of there, heading home, the sun was nearly set.
On our last full day in Amsterdam we headed to a place called The Breakfast Club for--you guessed it--breakfast. It was the sort of place that you might have found in an Urban Outfitters catalogue, all string lights and chalkboards and indoor plants, the decoration minimalist but bright at the same time. By the time we had finished we were enormously full, and so we decided to burn off the calories by walking through the Van Gogh Museum. I had always known Van Gogh, but never really studied him enough to fully appreciate him, which is why the Van Gogh Museum took me by surprise, and stole my breath from me entirely. There was no photography allowed, but I was too spellbound to take any photos anyway. I wandered up the floors with Bethoven's sonatas sounding in my ears and his music with the movement of Van Gogh's brushstrokes created a remarkable and indescribable experience for the senses. I cannot truly describe the awe that I felt, the knowledge that the works before me were not only historical masterpieces, but also deeply personal, both to Van Gogh himself and to any viewer that takes the time to truly see them. The explanations of each painting and exhibit were written so eloquently that Van Gogh and his thought process became a kind of poetry. They called him as "a great and desperate genius," a man with "impossible love stories," because "after all, he was devoted to his art." "How deeply Van Gogh felt the essence of life, beauty, and tragedy," one exhibit read. That, to me, is the definition of an artist.
Afterwards we made our way down to the Red Light District. On a friend's recommendation we were looking for Dignita's, a former brothel which had now been transformed into a stroopwafel shop. We spent over an hour getting there only to find that Dignita's was closed that day, but luckily stroopwafel shops were scattered all over the neighborhood. This was the Amsterdam so often advertised to young people--the brothels and the sex shops, nearly-naked women standing in windows as advertisements, American bachelor parties wandering the streets and whistling, every bar chock-full of twenty-and-thirty-somethings. It was as fascinating as it was repulsive to us, a world that was both alluring in its dark foreignness and off-putting in its commodifying of women.
When we had finished exploring the neighborhood we decided to spend some time in Nine Streets again to grab lunch, before ending the day at Spaghetteria for dinner, another recommendation from a friend. With communal wooden tables and warm, golden lamps, it was beautiful, lively dinner spot, a place where it is possible to have an intimate conversation or make a new friend. We sipped Prosecco and ate pasta, and then walked home again in the sunset, already nostalgic for the city we would soon have to leave.
As we hauled our suitcases onto the tram the next day, clattering our way back south to Centraalstation, we sat in silence, content with watching Amsterdam slip past us--canals, bridges, bicycles, people, all blurred together.