Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Happy Birthday Sophie

When I arrived in Amsterdam for the second time (and yes, there will be a third), I spent the day doing things that I didn’t get to do during my last visit, but were very important to me: I looked for a hat.

My Green Beanie was lying in the grubby, unappreciative hands of some lost-and-found shopper and my head was suffering the consequences. For those of you who have hair, you really can’t understand a bald man’s need for head covering. It’s constantly on my mind (pun intended). And I typically have a few hats on-hand for various temperatures and weather conditions. Frankly, I want to return to those days when a man didn’t go anywhere without a nice looking hat. Like one that matched the suit you were expected to wear. Not so far back that we all had to sport thick, waxed and curled mustaches (though something tells me my father would enjoy that), but maybe in that Mad Men era where everyone looks as good as Don Draper, cigarettes don’t kill you and alcohol was called “creativity juice”.

There was a small suggestion in my mind that I should visit the Anne Frank museum, but that was soon replaced with memories of the 8 or 9 other Holocaust-related sites I had seen on the trip so far. I mean, most of them are places I feel every single person in the world be required to visit, but come on, I’m on vacation here, quit bumming me out.

One of Amsterdam’s main shopping areas is between Leidseplein and Koningsplein (say Lie-dz-pl-eye-n and K-oh-nings-pl-eye-n), home to one of the oldest and most famous frites shops in the city. I asked Sophie and other Dutch people about this later, but no one was able to explain it: there are a staggering number of french fry shops in Amsterdam(“freedom fry vendors” for you uber-patriots, “chippies” for you poms). Not only that, but they’re famous for it. At the most popular one that I frequented twice — hey, I’m not saying they’re not friggin’ delicious — there was a line at least 15 – 20 people deep each time, even when it was raining! And the Dutch love a nice large dollop of mayonnaise with their fries.

Most of the shops in that area came in the variety and style of H&M. They had beanies, but none of the color, quality and awesomeness of Green Beanie. I had debated with myself about which color to go with, since I had an entire palette before me to choose from, but I couldn’t decide and had tentatively settled on a neutral one like brown or blue.

But even after visiting several shops in the area, I had made no progress. Some incidental wandering had put me at a used book market, in the area known as Spui, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I was a backpacker who couldn’t read Dutch, I would’ve certainly picked up a few items.

My intention was to walk around Haarlemstraat, gateway to the original Harlem … without the reputation, and I thought I’d take a very indirect approach. I swung around the far west side of the Centrum (central part of Amsterdam), passing through the small quiet neighbourhoods that most tourists miss (much, I presume, to the delight of their residents). I even passed a window, on a very unassuming and hidden street, with Obama stickers lining one side of the sill. It brought me back into focus. Traveling has a certain effect on you: cities, countries, neighbourhoods and people stop being unique, and your experiences tend to get filed under the same heading, “my trip to ____”. Each stop blurs into a set of objectives: find lodging, find the nearest supermarket, consult guidebook, execute. Suddenly, you’re reminded of where you are, who you are, and everything comes into focus. The date, the country, the politics, the culture. It’s important to ground yourself every now and then, at least to remind yourself why you’re even doing any of this.

Haarlemstraat didn’t give me any new hat or baked good ideas. I walked across into Nieuwstraat and some other shopping districts, but didn’t find much else. Sophie had finally called me back and told me to meet her at Amsterdam Rai station that night.

I still had time to kill though, and at long last I consulted my LP. So far I had only used it to guide myself around on the first day and then again for a quick abstract on which of the many museums were actually worthwhile. I had found lately that I enjoyed just walking around cities. I didn’t need to do touristy things like smoke weed or get a hooker to enjoy the town (by the way, love how those are tourist things to do in Amsterdam). Often, I prefer to just walk the streets, stop for a long lunch, take pictures of funny signs and beautiful-even-if-unknown buildings, and just feel like I’ve lived there for years. Isn’t that the real experience? I can see modern art anywhere in the world, but where else can I eat french fries and shop at H&M?

The LP said there was a schnapps distillery nearby, famous for its countless flavors and varieties of home brewed liqueurs, cozy atmosphere and its long history. Something about being one of the oldest distilleries in Europe … or the Northern Hemisphere …

But before I could even walk in, I was barred by that very same coziness: the place was packed. Though, 10 people in that place would make it cramped. I think it was a tour group, because shortly thereafter the entire room emptied out and I was finally free to approach the counter. The lobby/bar/main room was, it seemed, the tasting room and basically the whole visitor’s center. I think tours either have to be booked or I was entirely too late, but the staff was friendly and helpful in walking me through the various menu items. I sampled a couple of the liqueurs and had a beer. A young woman who worked there chatted me up about my travels and what I had seen so far. If I wasn’t a backpacker I would’ve easily bought 4 or 5 bottles of their brews, they were delicious. And for a place to visit on a night out or after a light meal, it doesn’t get much better. It really is a remarkable little place and well worth a visit if you’re in the area. The name is Wynand Fockink, and if you don’t believe me, check it out here.

I had earned myself a pretty decent buzz off my “tastings,” and rather than jump off the train I decided to keep riding. After all, that night was Sophie’s birthday party, and I figure it was only going to escalate.

I stopped by a small pub near the Red Light District and had a beer while watching the barwoman bounced from one end of the bar to the other, singing, whistling and engaging everyone else — from regulars to fellow backpackers — as if they were old friends.

I love markets. I don’t know what it is, the fresh produce, the ethnic foods, cheap and useless merchandise, it’s a connection to the communities of our past. The Albert Cuypmarket is one of the most popular in Amsterdam. It occupies an entire street — Albert Cuypstraat, in fact — and I arrived just as it was closing. Still, I walked the length of Albert Cypstraat, checking out the various merchandise, produce and food stalls, most of which were empty or starting to pull down the shutters. A few were trying to get rid of those last fake Hello Kitty backpacks and those pieces of fish that could take down an elephant if left for another day.

I stopped by the hostel and picked up my stuff, then took the train to Amsterdam Rai station. By then I had become relatively adept at using Amsterdam’s public transportation system. Sophie met me at the station, brunette, but still the same old Sophie. It was good to see her, and it surprised both of us when we realized it had been more than a year and a half since we parted ways in Adelaide. As we waited for a few of her friends who were arriving from her home town of Utrecht, and as we walked from the station to her dorm, we caught up on everything that happened since that day, like driving into the Center, getting a job in a bar Cairns, and then joining school to study hotel management.

(By the way, isn’t it amazing that I’ve written about saying goodbye to Sophie, and then seeing her again 1 1/2 years later, all in the same blog? Has it really been that long?)

Sophie was staying in a dorm, but it was run as a hotel management training center for the school, so in many ways it resembled a hotel or hostel. She shared her room with 3 other girls, and it came with a large bedroom, a living room, kitchen and bathroom. Considering the state and size of my 4-person suite at Michigan, I was impressed.

More of her friends arrived, and they all sat, stood and walked around the living room, eating food and talking feverishly … in Dutch. From the limited conversations I tried to have with people, which was hard since everyone was engaged in a chat with at least one other person in Dutch, other than Sophie most of the people there weren’t very good with English. I felt very left out. Finally, some guys arrived — until then I was the sole male — and I started talking to one of her childhood friends, who was incredibly nice, but for the life of me I can’t remember his name. It was very unique too …

I told Sophie I was going to the Hague the next day and she immediately talking up her hometown Utrecht. She said she having dinner with her mom at home the next day and that I should come with her. I told her I didn’t want to impose, but she insisted, and said that some of her friends and her mom’s friends would also be there. I thanked her and graciously accepted. Otherwise I would’ve only had half a day to spend in the hague before my train to Frankfurt on Sunday.

One of Sophie’s friends, a girl who had also spent time in Australia (not with Sophie), was on the guest list at “the best club in Amsterdam,” and supposed Yakuza hangout, Jimmy Woo’s in Leidseplein. We took a cab in to the city and moved through the crime-scene mob of people standing outside, trying deperately to get in. I gave compassionate looks at the suckers who would have to wait, at the mercy of the bouncers, as I made my way towards the line for people who were on the list. What just happened?

After standing in line for a while, we finally got let in, but were still charged the door cover. OK, why do we even have a guest list? The club was … it was a club. I hate clubs. Even when I was at that age where I was supposed to like clubs, I only pretended to since all my friends did. I like bars and pubs. I like comfy couches, good beer and spirits, and music that’s both enjoyable and quiet enough that you can have a conversation.

The one “gimmick” that this club had was a basement dancefloor with a ceiling of bulbs. The entire space above you was covered in a grid of lights, hundreds of them, and they would light up in time with the rhythm of the music. It was the one pro. Some other cons were a smoking area like the inside of a cloud and severely overpriced drinks.

But the night was still alot of fun and we got back to Sophie’s dorm exhausted. It had been a very long day for me, and I fell softly in to a drunken stupor on Sophie’s couch.

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One comment

  1. Yes, caps are good. Mustache and beard is also good. What I am waiting for is the walking cane with a nice silver handle to make its reappearance!

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