Sunday, December 20, 2009

If only Adam was here.

Mid October, and I found a way to ace nearly all of my midterms. So, I thought it would be appropriate to embark on an hors Paris exploration. You know, set my feet out into the real world a bit.

Now, admittedly, my entire European travel agenda was not a product of extensive thought or planning. I had originally anticipated visiting as many countries as time and money allowed for, but what countries I actually ended up visiting were chosen at pure random (except for Munich; Oktoberfest was a given). Imagine spinning a globe blindfolded and materializing a decision with the stroke of an index finger-- my first finger landed on what would prove to be one of the best places in the world. What other way to start off my Euroventures than by officially transcending adolescence on an overnight party bus to Amsterdam? I understand why one would ask such a question, because really, there is no other way.

Destination #1 : The Netherlands

Or Holland. Or Nederland.

In French, the name is none of these--a fact that would've proven helpful during my 3-hour online search for a bus ticket.


*Note to self, cursing at a computer screen makes the computer less likely to want to help you buy a bus ticket to a name-less country.

The French name, that was so kindly introduced to me by Frederic during a family dinner, is translated as Pays-Bas, which means literally “the country below.”


What I learned later is that the country is situated significantly below sea level (think the bowl that is New Orleans), so they had to build a barricade of dams around the city (amsterDAM, originally Amstellerdam, indicative of the city’s origin: a dam in the river of Amstel). Hence, the canals.

Pays-Bas kindly and eagerly welcomed about 20 IES Paris American students over Halloween weekend--a weekend that, by the end, made every one of these 20 IES Paris American students boast about future plans to live there permanently. I shared a part in this consensus--it really was and still is the most beautiful, charming, and friendliest place on the planet.

But as I said, upon my decision to travel to this country in the first place, I had no idea what I was doing. Well, I did have an idea. An idea that is shared by probably the majority of people who have not been to Pays-Bas: legal and excessive pot-smoking. And stripper girls. This, of course, was not the motivating factor to venture north. The pictures on the tourist website just looked cool.

Amsterdam, Euroventure #1:

After a tumultuous bus ride, during which one of our girl friends nearly escaped aggravated assault by a large Arab man, and someone (Dru Attkinson) projectile vomitted on the stairs and almost got our entire group thrown off the bus and possibly into jail, we arrived safely in Amsterdam at around 6am. It was still dark outside.

While the other students huddled in the train station, floundering in a haze of confusion, sleep deprivation, and possible intoxication, I began my Amsterdam adventure, packet of guides, tickets, maps, and paperwork in hand. And yet, despite my mountainous progress in map-reading, Bridget and I absolutely could not find the hostel for the life of us. (But if you, dear reader, can navigate your way through a foreign country following a map with no street names, my hat is off to you.)

So we stopped for coffee. The barista was from San Diego. Go figure. His coworker unloaded boxes and smiled at us.

We resumed our search, to no avail, until a large white windowless vehicle honked at us, a vehicle one might term as a “raper van.” I don’t blame the raper van man; we looked like tourists. He pulled over.

Oh, fantastic, I’m about to be kidnapped. And I didn't even get to see the stripper girls.

It was the barista’s coworker, who in fact was not the barista’s coworker, but "the delivery boy," he said through the window. He exited his vehicle and kindly turned our map rightside up, and after many English and Dutch words were butchered and battered back and forth, he invited us into his raper/delivery van to "take us directly to our destination."

Now, I suppose the “taken” theme is an inevitable reoccurence for two young, American, broke, relatively attractive females traveling Europe by foot. I discriminated between the pros and cons quickly in my head, which were evident: it was cold outside, our backpacks were as heavy as lead, and I hadn’t eaten in over 12 hours. On the flip side, I was seriously contemplating supressing my universal distrust of strangers driving large white vans because my intuition said so; there was something so honest and safe about this man. I opened the back door of the van and inspected for weapons, victims, or whatever evidence of criminality I could find. He was, in fact, a delivery boy.

We were dropped off at the hostel door step within 3 minutes.

Lesson #10: Trust Dutch delivery boys (but probably be careful trusting all white windowless van drivers, just to be safe).

Lesson #11: Actually, trust all Dutch people, especially ones who you meet at the grocery store and invite you and your friends to their house in Rotterdam and cook you a 3-course dinner.

And on a more metaphysical note, have faith in the power of your instincts.


A friend recommended that I go on a bike tour in Amsterdam; I’ve always wanted to go on a bike tour. There are many reasons for this: 1) you don’t have to walk, 2) you see twice as much in half the time, 3) you get to ride bikes, 4) you get to ride bikes.

It was either that, or sit at a coffee shop and pass the time smoking weed with a bunch of Santa Clara boys, whose mission it was to become as lazy, quiet, paranoid, and unresponsive as possible--one of whom, after hearing me express my frustration with the choices of certain individuals, informed me that I am "in the wrong city, babe."

But then I remembered that I live by my own rules, and that,

It is our personal duty to actively pursue what we want in life.

Amsterdam, Euroventure #2:

Less than 24 hours into my Amsterdam journey, now 20-year old Rachel was mounted on a bright red bike, handle breaks and everything, followed by Bridget on her bright red bike, and Jamie on his bright red bike. I found a better map—a map with words—secured my backpack and camera strap, and embarked on a bike route.

You know those hand signals they teach you in driver’s ed? The one’s you never use and always forget? Well, people use them in Amsterdam because EVERYBODY rides bikes in Amsterdam. In fact, it is estimated that more people in the city ride bikes than drive cars, which I imagine does wonders to the environment, and to the collective well-being of the population.

We had a pretty good system going: I rode in front, and Bridget and Jamie followed, single-file style. At times, I would stop and ask,

"Where do you guys want to go now?" To which Bridget would respond,

"Just keep doing your thing, Rach."

So in between directing myself and two others with my right/left/stop hand signals, manning the map-navigation and street name pronunciation (like "we're gonna head straight down Klaveniersburgwal until we hit Binnengasthuisstraat), steering, breaking, and taking pictures, it is a wonder that I didn’t crash into something, or that something didn’t crash into me.

We passed bridges and museums and landmarks and windmills and I pointed to things listed in my guide book. For hours, we traced our way through the major sight-sees with the wind in our hair and air in our lungs, not paying mind to the numbness in our fingers.

It wasn’t until we wound our way around the tip of the city near Central Station and stopped to look out into the harbor that opened up to the rest of the world that I realized not only was I taking a bike tour,

I was leading one.