Amsterdam

14 November 2016

Amsterdam

Amsterdam was a whirlwind. I’m writing this sadly late, since I went on October 29th, but better late than never. I just find myself pushing off writing new posts, forever having something else to do. Even though it was a while ago, though, I find myself remembering every detail so clearly.

Amsterdam was always a place I had wanted to go. I’d only ever seen pictures of the confusing canals, blooming tulips, and majestic museums. The moment we stepped off the plane, I was immediately struck by the disconcerting quiet, way too quiet for an airport. I’ve always loved noise and chaos and confusion, and coming straight from London, I was a little put off. We naturally had a little trouble locating the train into Amsterdam Central, and then we embarrassingly had a lot of trouble finding the rental bicycles; we walked through the train station three times, took a ferry across the canal, and then came back before finally noticing that it was right next to where we started.

Once we rented our bikes however, everything was smooth sailing. When we came across our first picturesque canal, I felt a few moments of awe that we actually made it to a different country (I had my doubts). The weather was my idea of perfect, breezy and sunny, and as I biked under the shade of the trees with the gentle trickle of rippling water in my ears, I felt blissful peace, I felt unbelievably lucky to be where I was.

We passed the time, leisurely strolling and biking along the canals with no agenda, no purpose to our wandering. We had agreed to just let Amsterdam happen to us, rather than planning everything; it sounds like a romantic notion, but we were definitely just too lazy to look up things to do. It all worked out though, since for all our wandering we ended up in the extremely popular tourist trap of the Van Gogh museum park.

We sat there for hours, basking in the too-perfect sunny day next to the too-green lawn and the too-picturesque fountain, discussing why everything there was so beautiful. I had the eerie feeling that everything was controlled, moderated. Having just obsessively binge-watched Black Mirror on Netflix, I was having thoughts of a dystopian reality taking over Amsterdam. And the scary part is, Black Mirror-like ideas such as a city being privately controlled by a company doesn’t seem too far-fetched or too far in the future. Coming from the Silicon Valley, I know firsthand what behemoths like Google and Facebook are capable of, creating a whole world within the company campus so that you may never need or want to leave. How was it such a beautiful day in Amsterdam in October, unless someone was controlling the weather for the tourists? Why are the only people I see tourists, biking around in packs of brightly colored Google-esqe bikes? Why do the buildings lining the canals have fake fronts with nothing behind, like movie sets? At first glance, everything seemed so ideal, but I realized that I was uncomfortable because there were no imperfections, there was nothing to relate to. There didn’t seem to be any tangible history, because everything looked so new. Tourism had taken over the city, and it has pulled Amsterdam’s authenticity into question.

After having all these slightly disturbing thoughts, we decided to go on an all-you-can-eat pancake cruise; watching the sun set while shoving pancakes in my mouth eased my mind considerably. Because the Dutch language is actually impossible to figure out to both the untrained and trained eye, we struggled a lot to get back to the hotel; we ended up taking the cute little bikes meant for leisurely rides along the canals, and biking furiously across open highway in the pouring rain.

Sunday brought more surprises. We stayed a considerable distance from the center of the city, so we weren’t too surprised to find a beautiful expanse of a park right next to the hotel. We biked through the dreamlike walking paths shrouded in early morning fog, weaving in and out of trees and flower shrubs. We came across this weeping willow tree, and as soon as I stepped inside, it felt like a natural safe haven, a private space completely sheltered from danger. We continued down the paths, taking random turns, and serendipitously came across a magnificent lake. We sat right at the edge, just observing the morning sun rising over the undisturbed surface. There was something almost otherworldly about it, an undisturbed piece of nature, vastly different from the pseudo-beauty we observed in the central city the day before.

Still reeling from our breathtaking stroll through nature, we stopped for breakfast at a small food cart next to the hotel. We were just sitting down to eat at the rickety tables when a man in a wheelchair sat himself next to us. At first we were taken aback, but then he started to talking to us in the most genuinely friendly, unassuming voice. We slowly started talking, and found that this man’s story was incredible. He was in a wheelchair because he was injured in war, but when he saw pity in our eyes he immediately cheerfully exclaimed that he can’t walk anymore, but that also means he didn’t have to work anymore, so it was in fact in a blessing in disguise! His optimism and good humor was captivating. He went on to tell us that he was in jail for dealing cocaine and lost everything he owned, finding the strength to rebuild his life for his wife- all with the most neutral of expressions. This man who has been coming to that exact spot every morning for the past 15 years poured out his life story to us, two complete strangers, and I was shown a little perspective on privilege, happiness, and success.

The two days in Amsterdam passed by so fast. From walking down brilliantly lit roads to forming conspiracy theories about a privatized profit-mongering government to being humbled by the power of nature to having eye-opening conversations with random drug-dealers to discovering that you have to pay for every single bathroom in the entire damn city, I would say a lot of important revelations were made. It was our imperfect experience in a too-perfect city.