“It happened all at once: we exited the highway and there were the row houses of my imagination leaning precariously toward canals, ubiquitous bicycles, and coffee shops advertising LARGE SMOKING ROOM. We drove over a canal and from atop the bridge I could see dozens of houseboats moored along the water. It looked nothing like America. It looked like an old painting, but real – everything achingly idyllic in the morning light – and I thought about how wonderfully strange it would be to live in a place where almost everything had been built by the dead.
‘Are these houses very old?’ asked my mom.
‘Many of the canal houses date from the Golden Age, the seventeenth century,’ he said. ‘Our city has a rich history, even though many tourists are only wanting to see the Red Light District.’ He paused. ‘Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.'”
–The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
That quote is from one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. Not only does it include a good visual description of Amsterdam, but I think there’s a lot of truth in that last sentence as well.
I left Switzerland on December 29th, which was the start of my Interrail pass and the start of whirlwind trip to three cities for the remainder of Winter Break. After a full day that included three different train rides, I finally arrived in Amsterdam, at which point I made my way to my friend Mandula’s house. She (and her incredible family) offered to host a big group of UWCers for New Years… I think there were about 14 or 15 of us in all? Besides Mandula, another Dutch firstie named Ruby also lives in Amsterdam, and she helped Mandula keep us in line.
If I had to describe Amsterdam in one word, it would be fascinating. There’s this juxtaposition of old, traditional houses and the modern, progressive perspective of the citizens; the stoic brick sits next to the fluid water in the canals. I must’ve asked Ruby a thousand questions about what it’s like to live there. I wanted to know what it was like to live where bikes dominate as the main form of transportation, to grow up in a city that is synonymous for many with the Red Light District and “coffee shops.” We went for a walk the first night, and I’m so thankful that Ruby was willing to share her perspective as we wandered around.
The next morning I went with a few others to the Anne Frank House. We thought we left at a decent time to beat the long line to get in, but it turns out that we didn’t. It took an hour and a half to get through the line, all the while waiting in the freezing cold, talking and laughing (and even singing) to try to stay warm.
The museum is well put together, although to be honest, the attic they stayed in was bigger than I was anticipating. I can see how it would feel cramped if you were stuck there, but for some reason I had pictured it smaller in my head. Overall, it was a moving experience to see the storied rooms in person. After lunch, I went to an exhibition at Foam, a photography museum, featuring a photographer named William Klein.
That evening, we had dinner on the floor of the room we stayed in, which ended up happening a few times during the stay because it was hard to do much else with so many people. Looking back, I’m still not sure how we all fit in there!
The next day was New Year’s Eve. We spent the morning at a flea market, and then in the afternoon I wandered around with Marketa and Sarah. That’s become one of my favorite things to do while traveling – just exploring, seeing parts of the city where tourists usually don’t go.
That night was a New Year’s Eve celebration unlike any I have ever experienced. Usually, I hang out with a small group of girls and we have a cozy sleepover, watching some program on TV to see the ball drop in NYC and then watching a movie… Something like that. Needless to say, this was not the case in Amsterdam. We went to where the main event was going to be, sort of like their version of NYC, and there were so. many. people. It was a bit insane. We held hands to make a long chain and pushed our way through the crowd so we could be closer, and by the time we got to a decent spot we were only waiting for about a minute until the countdown started. Then there were fireworks that must’ve lasted for nearly 25 minutes! And when they finished, people still stayed, listening to the music and being generally joyful. Mandula brought sparklers, so we tried lighting those, although one thing I’ve forgotten to mention up to this point is that it was raining. It finally stopped just after the fireworks, so I was able to take a few pictures, but I was bummed that I couldn’t get more. We were all soaking from walking through the city, but I still had an amazing time; there was so much energy and excitement in the crowd and it was contagious.
The following morning (or should I say later that morning?), we woke up at 7:30am to take the train to The Hague. Some crazy people started a tradition years ago of diving into the North Sea to celebrate the new year, and then it caught on. This year was the 45th year that a major soup company has sponsored it as an official dive, and they sold out all 10,000 tickets available! When you buy a ticket, you also get an absurd hat that has the Dutch national colors – red, white, and blue which is their flag, plus orange, which is the color that represents their royalty and football (soccer) team. Then, everyone goes onto the beach and stands around, trying to stay warm by dancing to songs that have instructions (in Dutch) as the lyrics, such as “Wave your hands, jump up and down” etc. There was also this one about a helicopter…? Moral of the story: it was a truly ridiculous event, but it was also really fun! There’s something thrilling in the chaos of a mass of people running into the sea, screaming because of how cold it is, then trying to run back as your extremities start to go numb.
Following the dive, my Dutch co-year Jochem had us all over to his house for brunch. His parents made us coffee and eggs and bacon, plus there was toast and an assortment of toppings. I chose one that is very Dutch, which literally translated means ‘chocolate hail’ but is actually just chocolate sprinkles. What we put on cakes, they put on bread. I was skeptical at first, but I have to admit, it’s pretty tasty. Anyway, during that meal, I had a moment where I was reminded of how much I love my UWC family. Just sharing stories and laughter, spending time together, without pressures of school or anything, was really nice.
We took the train back to Amsterdam in the afternoon, and then most people, including myself, left the next day. I had to leave pretty early in the morning, but I was graced with this final beautiful shot of the Amsterdam Centraal station before I boarded my train to Berlin.