Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Amsterdam: a taste of pragmatic tolerance and alternative social policies that would scare the hell out of most Americans

Apologies in advance for the political sounding title; I'm not going to make any dissident claims about my home country's laws, but after thinking about my time in Amsterdam for quite a few weeks, the polarizing difference from the US in terms of attitude to some social issues is the one thing about the city that really stuck with me.   We arrived in Amsterdam on the evening of May 5 and left only 24 hours later, saying our farewells to Kyle and Emily as they had a 2nd night in this great town.  

An Amsterdam canal at night
Reflecting back on the short trip, I can't really pin any "must-see" sight in Amsterdam.  Yes it has some very high quality museums that I did not go in, such as the newly remodeled Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum.  We did tour the Ann Frank's House museum - easily the highlight of the trip.  I was able to appreciate this much more after seeing Auschwitz last year.  At the end of the day [literally], I told Kerry that Amsterdam is not really a tourist destination like the other big Euro cities we've seen.  It's more like a town that I'd like to spend 3 months to discover.  I see myself getting a short-term work assignment and a single speed bicycle with curved handle bars and trying to exist like the locals to really enjoy the city.  Would this ever happen in reality? No, not unless I make some massive changes in the near term future.  But through observation, it's evident to me that it would be a rich, worthwhile experience to live in this city with it's open-minded laws and pragmatic solutions toward contentious social issues. 

As a midwestern American, I grew up ingrained to know that smoking tobacco is for 18+ only, drinking is for 21+ only, prostitution is clearly illegal and immoral, and cannabis is not only illegal but also the path to wasted life.  And then there's the ongoing issues of the legality of homosexual marriage and abortion which will really spark some controversy in mixed company.  My point is - in the worldview of an American, the Dutch take a very "out-of-the-box" approach to these controversial topics.  It doesn't stop there however.  The Netherlands has some very cool ideas for more mundane things, as well.  

All that said, I'm fairly sure what works for the Dutch does not work for the Americans.  Put simply we're different, even as some might lean more one way or another.  I do think we prideful Americans could stand to observe and learn with an open mind to find ways to improve in small ways.  As an example, (keeping in mind I'm writing this 3 weeks late), the Indy 500 race weekend arrest report was published by the Indy Star.   14 people were arrested for either furnishing tobacco to minors or being minors in possession of tobacco.  Is this really worth the trouble - resources and time - to process these infractions?  And does it really change anything?  I would bet all 14 of the above will grow up to be life-long smokers.  What can I do about it?  Besides warning them of the health detriments, nothing.  So why bother wasting my time?  I've rambled on too long already, but I'm just trying to give you all a flavor of the pragmatic approach to some issues that could end up saving us Americans a lot of money.  

Finally, before I move on, I just want to say Schiphol airport is the coolest, most beautiful, and efficient airport I've ever had the pleasure of passing through.  It is exactly the opposite of the Ciampino airport, easily the worst, ugliest, and wasteful airport in the south of Rome (you'll have to wait about 3 posts before I get to that one...).  To give you an idea of the level of zen Schiphol is at - they invented the idea of etching flies in the bowls of the urinals.  This was after a psychology study stated that men tend to prefer having something to "aim" at to avoid splatter and messy public bathrooms.  In other words - aim for the fly, less cost to janitorial cleanup of the public toilets, and I don't have to step in it. Mind blown.

Since I went off on a tangent up there, the rest of this post will simply be captioned photos from our stay.  Enjoy.

Yeah I booked us 1st class tickets to Amsterdam from Paris without realizing it. Worth Every Penny.

Livin' large with free drinks and snacks after every major stop . Oh and we brought our own bottle of wine too.

The bunting was for the recent holiday.  Also they recently had a change in the royalty.  And the Amsterdam football team (Ajax) won some big final game that night.  It got a little crazy, like riot crazy.  I saw an armored vehicle.  Kyle and Emily's apartment was in the thick of it.

Chilling at a nearby bar after an eye-opening wander through the red light district (no photos allowed, duh). We opted for a much tamer environment.

Good times and conversation with friends.  The beer was good, too.

I think this is typical Amsterdam, you're welcome.

Kerry was asking if we needed a new salt shaker.

The Dutch would wear painted, oversized wooden shoes because they thought it was funny.

More classic Amsterdam on our walks, cycling is very popular . As a pedestrian, keep your head on a swivel - these bikes are silent.

I gave this guy some money for his cool contraption of a music machine. He also sang.

The national WWII remembrance monument

Kerry and Emily fitting in just fine

At the garden shop - the unexpected sun required some covering on the head . Man I love sun.

Beautiful flowers and tulips on display at the flower market - a great stop

I read you can grow up to 5 plants before facing illegal prosecution - it's all about managing the amount available

Colorful cactus for sale

A wonderful cactus arrangement - I got yelled at for taking pictures after this one. Not sure why she cared?

The full scale letters - so crowded (at the time) and big that you can't dare to fit the whole sign in one go.  The little letters actually make a better picture...

While Kyle and Emily went to see the Van Gogh museum, Kerry and I learned about historical pornography of different cultures dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Stay classy!

While the Keukenhof gardens were in bloom, our short stay did not allow us to visit. We did relax in Vondelpark for a while with some stroopwafel (delicious crispy waffle with a caramel filling) and admired the tulips.  The 24 hr metro card came in very handy.

More views of locals relaxing in the park on a beautiful day

Kerry at the mouth of the canal - we tried to see a fleamarket but it was wrapping up by the time we got there.

We had a great time wandering the city, using the tram, and learning about the culture with help from the Rick Steves guidebook (courtesy of fellow expat Steve, thanks!).  After reading, I found out Rick Steves is very into the legalization of marijuanna.  His argument shouldn't be dismissed immediately; in the book he offers guidance for the novice on how to order some from a coffeeshop (for the record I did not - for heath and fitness reasons).  He is also very fascinated with van Gogh.  His background on van Gogh for the museum, which I read on the plane without actually looking at the paintings, was superb.

Well there you go, if you're an American visiting Europe, to do so without the Holy Testament of Our Father Rick Steves would be sinful.

There were a lot of things we did which did not allow pictures or I'd rather not take and publish on the internet.  Also, I must thank Kyle and Emily for helping us pull the trigger to visit Amsterdam, as it was a city I was prepared to skip for budgeting.  It was worth it, even if it was for a short while.

Finally, the people of the city were some of the friendliest I've come across.  And they are taller, fitter, dress better, and speak more languages than most of us Americans.  It's tough to live up to that, but Kerry and I are just happy to have the experience.

A weekend in Paris - Love, Lights, and Crepes

Author's note:  The blog continues to be published with significant delay.  However, the CrossFit 2013 season has ended and we have the next weekend travel-free, so I'll do my best to catch up.

May 6 was a bank holiday in the UK.  A bank holiday is a general term for a public, government-observed holiday which celebrates nothing in particular, but is marked by the closure of banks.  The tradition is for everyone to get out of the house and sit in gridlock traffic jams.

We booked 6 am flights on the Friday (May 3) out of East Midlands to meet our friends  Kyle and Emily in Paris.  Kyle and I sat next to each other at my old job in Phoenix, and we had a lot of fun together with our wives during that time.   We've both moved on, and when we found out they were booking a Euro-trip, we were able to work out meeting up and hanging out together!  

The trip into Paris was easy enough.  The queue at departures was going out the door due to understaffed security personnel, which caused some elevated cortisol as we arrived at the gate with less than 10 minutes to spare.  Immigration at CDG took a long time - we landed with a lot of flights from America apparently.  Finally, we found Kyle and Emily at our predetermined meeting point, got some train/metro tickets, and headed toward city center!

We couldn't check our luggage at our flat until 3; the plan was to find a luggage locker at the train station, but we couldn't find a sign or the location anywhere.  I just did a quick internet search:  
The entrance (down an escalator) is near platform 3 on the concourse. Look for the sign "Consigne".
 Oh well.  Since the delays at the airport put us into city center a few hours later than planned anyway, and since it takes a lot of time to check the luggage, go somewhere fun, come back, pick up luggage, and then go to the flat, we decided just to take a leisurely route with our luggage in hand.

First stop - crepes and wine

Me and Kyle enjoying some warm weather streetside

First look at the River Siene, reminds me a lot of the River Thames. They're both brown and they both have a lot of extra letters that are not pronounced.
Nothing particularly interesting about this picture above, but it does mark the moment Emily was pickpocketed by gypsy children.  With our luggage in tow, we were standing out as targets.  We stopped by the Pont Neuf bridge to take in the view, and Emily took out her iPhone to snap a picture.  She put it in her jacket pocket and zipped it up.  The group started to hassle us, the distraction is a clipboard asking for signatures to benefit deaf and dumb children.  I shooed them off but the distraction (and the commotion caused by the small group) was enough for one of them to get close enough to unzip the pocket and snatch the phone.  They were gone instantly down the metro stairs before we could realize what happened.  It was a seriously bad way to start our weekend, but fortunately  Emily had trip insurance which covered stolen property.  Additionally she had an app which allows her to remotely access her phone and issue a command to delete all her personal data the next time someone tries to connect the phone to the internet.  While we were all a bit deflated, worse things have happened, so we kept it positive.

The glass pyramid at the Louve - the Louve would have to wait for another trip to give it due credit, just no time in this itinerary.  I was blown away by the architecture and statues, I felt rushed just trying to take that in!

We strolled through the Tuileries garden at the front of the Louve, admiring the flowers in bloom and statues.   England has had piss poor weather up to this point, so I was just soaking up all the sun and greenery.  The garden was simply amazing, even  with all the tourists out and about, it didn't feel too crowded.  Poor Emily is also recovering from a fracture in her heel so she's in a boot still.  She was a real trooper as we had planned a very walk heavy weekend (and they planned on continuing their euro trip beyond the weekend).  We took short breaks to make sure she didn't overdo it and delay healing.

Putting on a smile even after a tough start to the day in Tuileries Garden

Upon arriving at our flat, we found out the place wasn't quite ready for us.  So, we dropped off the bags and walked down the street to a nearby cafe to order some 1664.  We were asked "Small, Medium, or Large?", and I just went with large by unconcious reflex.  Well, that's 1 liter!  More than I bargained for, but my language skills were poor.  I did attempt a few phrases however.  I do notice the French tourist sites are less multi-lingual than other European cities I've visited.  While I was in the city, I got a real urge to learn French.  Not sure if it will stick or not.

Paris, je t'aime!

Baguettes... err, for fueling my CrossFit Regional training (?)

The wee lift to our flat
Kyle now works with on a joint venture with a French aerospace company, so we ran into one of his colleagues at a trendy bar and then on for dinner.  It was quite nice to have a local connection.  He and his wife were very helpful to pick a place outside of the touristy area and with the waitstaff translation.

Kerry and Emily with some ciders and polka-dots

I found out the Entree in French is actually a starter. I would have been ordering in the dark  if it wasn't for our translating dinner guest.  I ended up getting the duck terrine and the casoulette with scallops.  I was content for the price.

After dinner we said our farewells and headed straight for the Eiffel tower.  We turned the corner to see the tower at 10:58 pm, just in time to see it set off in sparkles (it does this on the hour at night). As we tried to get closer, something was amiss and official-looking folks were preventing people from walking up to it.

The sparkling tower from a distance
 Since we couldn't hang out at the tower, we hit up a nearby crepe stand.

Nutella is a popular topping, but the options are many.  I enjoyed ham and cheese with pepper.

Toasting the tower on our way back to the flat.
We were pretty beat, having to wake up at 5 am for our flight that morning, and it now past midnight.  Poor Emily and Kyle did not get much sleep on their overseas flight, so they were working on quite a sleep deficit.  We crashed pretty hard.

The next morning we woke up relatively early and walked out the door before eating to get out to the Catacombs.  This place forms a queue pretty quickly, and it didn't open until 10:30.  We showed up at 9:30 while the line was quite short.  The plan was to find another crepe stand on the way (assuming Paris is just littered with them at any given place or time).  But as the Catacombs was right at the location of the metro entry, there was no chance to even look.

Glad we queued up when we did - I always find it humorous when I take a crowd picture and then find out someone was staring right back at me.  Lately I've been doing that too, except I smile.

The catacombs are pretty fascinating.  There are a maze of old limestone mines underneath Paris that were long abandoned (even considered old in the late 1700's).  At the time Paris had a bit of a sanitation dilemma concerning the mortuary practices and well-water   The Christian thing to do is to bury the body by the church, but the cemeteries were beyond capacity.  They'd use lime to accelerate decomposition and reuse the grave sites  but the ground was already saturated with decomposing human remains and lime was getting into the water supply and making people sick.  It was a viscous cycle...

The decree was made to convert a portion of the old mine into an ossuary - now a mass grave for some six million Parisians.  They exhumed the first batch of bones in 1786 and went along cemetery by cemetery over the next 28 odd years.  What a career some must have made out of that... At first they just started dumping the bones in piles.  But then workers started getting creative with their macabre career - organizing the bones by stacking femurs and humeri into containment walls, decorated with skull features.  The ossuary then turned into a tourist attraction in the 1800's.  The more I think about it, the more crazy it seems to me how this whole thing came into being.  Regardless, it's a very cool, goth experience - Kyle and I hummed Slayer's "Raining Blood" as we strolled through the halls.  On to the pictures!

Stop!  Here lies the empire of death.

Morbid sense of interior design

Got some help from a guide's flashlight for a cool effect

We saw something move behind the photographer as this was being taken, 

Kyle is so metal...

Lots of femurs and craniums, all the smaller bones were in piles behind the bone walls

Since we skipped breakfast to get in line, we were all getting ravenous.  Luckily we happened upon a nice market street selling all sorts of French goodies like baguettes and cheese.  So we bought up some picnic supplies and headed toward the Jardin du Luxembourg to relax.

I found a wonderful seafood spread - but none of this will do for a picnic in the park!

Luckily they sold prepared pallea too!  I  bought one kilo worth; it was cold but still delicious.  I meant to share with the group, but everyone else was weirded out by the temperature.  Oh well, more for me - a very satisfying meal.

Nude statues prancing among the tulips in Luxembourg Gardens 
After a good rest, we continued on to check Notre Dame Cathedral off the list.  We didn't bother going up to the balconies or anything, but we did make a nice lap around the interior and exterior.  The more striking views were actually from far away when I can see the steeple and flying buttresses. When I stood in front of it, it looked pretty typical, but then I started to notice the gargoyles and figurines adorning the exterior.  The cool Gothic architecture emerged, and the church took on a very distinct personality.

Side view with the animal gutter spouts

The front facade, before noticing the details

The cool gargoyles

Kerry and Emily sat and listened to a Rick Steves audio tour while us men held the spot in queue (was only about 6 minutes)

Reminds me of Ducky from The Land Before Time

The small garden on the backside of the cathedral had these cool frilly tulips
Next we hopped on the metro and went north to the Montmartre neighborhood, famous for all the well-known impressionist painters who hung out here.

Another nice break at a cafe on a sunny afternoon.  Kerry is the only one in our group with French speaking experience, but it is a bit rusty.  There were a few awkward moments trying to interact with the waitstaff, but we always seem to manage in the end.

The Sacre Coeur on the hillside overlooking Paris - we also did a quick lap in this spacious church

Panorama of our Paris views

Wandering amongst the modern painters set up out in the square - they're all trying to soak up the lingering creativity ether that was maybe left behind by the likes of Monet and van Gogh 

Cool pic on our way down the hill with, you guessed it, more crepes

I have no idea who we're posing with, but Kyle is owning the sweater over the shoulder look 
We ran into some produce and meat markets near the bottom of the hill.  Since we had the little kitchen, I decided to use it to save some euros.

The French produce stand where I picked up some in-season white asparagus
Sneak peak of what white asparagus looks like

Yet another awkward/embarassing moment trying to order from the butcher in French. He said "You know, I speak English..." Hah.
We dropped off our groceries and decided to walk up the Champs Elysees to the Arc De Triomphe.  Kyle and Emily were going to go out to eat so they stayed back to get ready - don't worry we're going to meet up again after dinner.

Champs Elysees is a big road with a lot of high end shopping and tourists.  OK to walk along once, similar to Regent Street in London.  But I thought the Arc was a very cool monument.

Kerry with a dynamic pose in front of the Arc

Back at home base it was tight quarters - you had to maintain cleanliness and organization to get anything done in the kitchenette.

Voila!  Bon Apetit!  Rocket salad with a shallot vinaigrette, white asparagus with lemon, and pan-seared entrecote (rib eye steak)
Well, as it goes, European dinners take a long time (home cooked or out in a restaurant), but are always enjoyable.  We met back up with Kyle and Emily and headed to the Eiffel tower again.   Kerry could not get enough of it lit up at night!

Oh Alexander, I see you beneath the archway of aerodynamics!
We arrived arround 10:05 PM, and the public pay toilets shut at 10... right as all the vin from dinner was starting to pass through.  Good thing a nearby construction porta-toilet was around with a quick hop over a barrier.   Also good thing we brough a bottle of wine and plastic cups with us.

Dazzling exposure (not twinkling yet)

The crew in lawn enjoying the view

Requisite handstand pic

And finally, the reason we came...


The street vendors in were really getting on my nerves as we were enjoying the show.  Guys go around selling bottles of wine ("good price!") but we had clearly brought our own.  If you tell them to buzz off, they seem to feed on that negative energy and annoy you even more.  One of them eyed our spare plastic cups and asked if he could have a few.  I shot back - "Sure! 4 euro". That got him to leave in a hurry!

The next morning, all the museums were free.  We were anticipating a long waits, but didn't get out the door as early as we should have to beat the queues.  We didn't have loads of time, since we needed to get back to the room to get our bags and then head to the train station to get to Amsterdam.  Since I am of the opinion I need to make a separate trip to Paris to do the Louve properly, and since we can all appreciate impressionist art, we decided on the Musee d'Orsay.

Uh oh...
But, as all things work together for good, Emily requested a wheelchair.  The authoritative-looking person eyed Emily's boot and pointed us to the much much shorter group entrance.  We skipped all the people above and we were in the door as the museum opened.

Thanks Emily!

Kerry and I listened to the Rick Steves audio tour of the museum while Kyle and Emily did their own thing (looking for ramps instead of stairs mostly, haha).  There were some very nice exhibits, and as always, I truly appreciate understanding the history and story behind the artist to get a full experience.  That said, I don't tend to have any self motivation on these topics, so the Rick Steve's tour is perfect.  And it's highly entertaining to boot.  

One of the more surprising facts for me was how edgy some of the paintings on display were in their time.  Now we revere these works of art, and when I look at them they seem pretty mild.  I guess I could understand how the non-offensive, non-explicit nudity would be a bit more shocking 130 years ago when the church had a lot of control.  Anyway, to understand the context of the art is really what makes it interesting for me.  Otherwise I struggle to appreciate it over what I saw on the streets of Montmartre.  I can see the talent in both cases, but to be museum-worthy you need to stand out in your field.

We hit the highlights in about 90 minutes, and then we were off on our merry little way.

I don't tend to post every meal we have, but this was a delicious salad at a cafe near the train station, called Salade Perigourdine, made with duck giblets.

Part 2 of our trip continues next time as we arrive in Amsterdam.