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Sunday night a week ago I was running through EWR. My flight from Austin was delayed because of stormy weather in the northeast. I barely caught my flight to Amsterdam, I was the last person on the plane before it pulled away. I only caught a few hours of sleep on the flight over.

Schipol airport is by far the nicest airport I’ve ever been in. It’s practically a shopping mall and has a nice architecture. Everything is well labeled in Dutch and English. All sorts of stores both in the secure area and the unsecured area, like for electronics, perfume, flowers, souviners, clothes, bags and purses, small grocery store, along with the usual newsstands. It also has a train station for the InterCity train, one way takes you to Amsterdam and the other takes you to Belgium. Tons of ticket kiosks so you don’t have to stand in line to buy train tickets.

The most amazing thing to me at the airport was all the cashiers, agents, and service workers spoke perfectly clear, almost accent-less (maybe some with a bit of British), English. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if many spoke other languages such as French or German. Try finding that in airports in California or Virginia, where there’s usually some ebonics thrown in.

I picked up my car and headed off to work at Sciencepark. The first thing I did was overshoot my turnoff and wound up way up north on A10 past Schellingwoude. Pretty countryside, it’s worth exploring more I think. I finally got back around and found my exit to Watergraafsmeer. I was warned that there’s no street signs like you’d see in the US, and quickly found out it’s true. Instead, there’s blue signs on the sides of buildings; if you’re lucky, you can read them before you’re already in the intersection.

After work and dinner, I headed back to Oud Zuid to find my hotel by Vondelpark and this is where the fun began. I had directions on where I should go, but I missed lanes and had to backtrack several times. Then there was a traffic circle a lane for cars, a lane for buses, a lane for bicycles, and tram rails running right through the center of it. Streets, sidewalks, parking spots aren’t made of concrete or asphault, they’re usually all brick. This along with no US-style street signs makes it at first very difficult to figure out what’s really a drivable road and what’s a sidewalk. I missed many of my turnoffs before I realized they were really streets and not some alley. I wound up driving into Vondlepark at one point before backtracking. Relieved, I finally found my hotel. Did I mention this was all at night?

A *lot* of people ride bicycles in Amsterdam, both in the city center and the “rest” of the city. All kinds of people commuting on a bike; impeccably dressed professionals, people carrying their groceries, kids riding two at a time. There are seperate bicycle traffic signals and lanes along almost all of the rodes and sidewalks. If you’re a pedestrian that wanders into a bike lane thinking it’s a sidewalk, angry ringing of bells and horns of cyclists will scold you for your error. On mornings going to work, I usually had to wait more on bicycle traffic than I did car rush-hour traffic.

My hotel was very euro, an old elegant three story building that appeared to be converted to a hotel. My room was on the top floor under the gables of the roof. Roof joists ran through my room, providing angled walls. The room was very small by US standards, with a twin-sized bed, but very cozy and provided just enough space for one person.

Driving in Amsterdam was unnerving, and I wasn’t even driving around in the center of the city. Watching out for cyclists, trams, buses, signals, lack of clear street signs kept me on my toes. By Wednesday I could find my hotel without any problem, but I was ready to ditch the car and figure out the tram system. Parking was very expensive, usually 12 euro a day, so I had to make sure I left the hotel by 9:00 AM to avoid having to pay. Fortunately after that I had watched enough to see how others drove, learned what road signs meant, and had no reservations about buzzing alongside cyclists or taking off down the middle of the road over tram rails.

During the week, I didn’t explore very much. I always went directly from the hotel to work, return and sleep. One night I drove completely around the A10 ring to see the area around the city. I found a McDonalds there and also found the only person on the whole trip who couldn’t understand English. It took a bit of pointing and picking out the Dutch I knew, but I finally had food. This was my first exposure to fritessaus — mayonnaise for french fries. It complimented the taste of fried food very well and wasn’t the same stinky concoction you get out a Hellmann’s jar in the states.

For lunch I started walking down to Middenweg from Sciencepark. A colleague told me about a small market area there with a snack bar, grocery store, tobacco shop, a bakery and other little stores. My first trip to the snack bar was somewhat humbling. Being hungry, not understanding what anything on href=”/i/t-hoekje-menu.jpg”>the menu is, it’s sort of pitiful. I went with a safe hamburger (no buns) with frites, with a heaping glob of fritessaus. The next day was a shoarmarol, which best I can describe is a deep fried enchilada.

Home of Nationaal Instituut voor Kernfysica en Hoge-Energiefysica (National Institute for Nuclear Physics and High Energy Physics, NIKHEF), Foundation for Fundamenal Research on Matter, and an arm of the Universiteit van Amsterdam (Univ of Amsterdam), a good amount of high-end scientific computing and nuclear physics research happens at the Sciencepark. I found out the building I was working in was previously home to a linear particle accelerator, which explained why the building was so ridiculously long and skinny. There was a chicken running around the campus, I fully expected some old woman to come by on a bike to shoo it along, but I’m told it was a pet of a researcher at NIKHEF. The other story I heard was that it was a leftover from the accelerator days and if the chicken died, it would be the end of the world.

I had a bad experience at a grocery store which makes me wonder if I was singled out for being a foreigner. My total came to like 29,00 euro, so I gave the girl a 50 euro note. Expecting to get back 20 euro in change, she only handed me my receipt and PIN info for a prepaid mobile card I bought. I caught this, got back in line and asked where my change was. She claims she gave it to me, which did not happen. I got the manager involved, who tells me they’ll have to wait until they count down the registers to see if they’re long. The manager offered to call and tell me the results, but by then I fully lost any expectation to get my money back. To her credit, she did call me the next day, but of no good purpose. Later I went back two times to get my receipt back so I could at least claim part of my expenses, but the same manager wasn’t working and nobody else had any clue what I was talking about. Now I’m not only out 20 euro, I’m out the whole 50 euro. grrrr, anger!

On Wednesday while Austin was getting pelted with an ice storm and snow flurries, apparently the mother of all wind storms hit Europe. Something like 20+ people were killed across the continent from falling/flying debris. At lunch it was extremely windy and it was a workout walking to lunch, but I didn’t think anything about it. The lack of cyclists, blown down trees and shattered telephone booth should’ve clued me in. When I got back I made smalltalk with the security guard who told me that this was a bad storm, winds of 120+ km/h were clocked, and chunks of noise walls along A10 had been blown into the road. I later found out that police were actually urging people to not go outside because of falling tree branches and clay roof tiles flying off roofs. The television news that night showed countless cars crushed by fallen trees, a crane that had collapsed, a big industrial smokestack that toppled over, and destroyed boats. Bus and train service was totally shut down for the first time in decades. I couldn’t understand the people being interviewed, but it looked very similar to post-tornado interviews in Oklahoma so I had a good idea of what they were probably saying. The next day’s newspaper headlines read “Winds flatten Netherlands”.

I worked long hours to try getting ahead to be able to finish work on Friday afternoon, but it didn’t happen. Saturday morning I dropped my car off at the airport and took the train to Centraal Station. This put me at the center of the city (“Centrum”). It was cold, windy, and rainy, but I wasn’t about to let that stop my only free day. Centrum was so much different than the rest of the city I was now familiar with, many sections were totally geared for tourists. All manner of fast food was available, cheesy souiviners and t-shirts, and no shortage of people with cameras taking pictures of buildings. For 10 AM on a rainy day, there was quite a few people out.

Now as a pedestrian, I had a whole new perspective of the city. The street signs on buildings were really easy to read from the sidewalk and made it pretty unambiguous what went where. The old grey-brown brick alleyways and streets made the city look much more attractive than ugly old plain white concrete or black asphalt would. The rest of the city was nice in its own quaint way, but Centrum was really nice. There was a great variety, no two buildings looked the same, they were all relatively old. Lots of canals and bridges to break up the monotony. I’m very thankful there was virtually no car traffic clogging up the city; parking is very hard to find or is very expensive. All traffic downtown was either trams, bicycles, or pedestrians on foot. Centrum wasn’t horribly big, I think one could walk across it in less than 30 minutes.

There were a considerable number of attractive females wandering around. I’d say half were what I would say above-average in attractiveness. No fat American girls here, these were all in decent shape. Most seemed to be Dutch, although I picked out a few French and British based on hearing conversations. I could spend hours listening to a girl ramble on in Dutch. I hear I need to visit NYC and Manhattan to see how the girls there compare.

I wandered around the shopping district, Chinatown, and part of the University. Some snackbar I stopped at had the best damned milkshake ever, along with frites and friessaus. By afternoon the sun was out and I was tired of walking, so I walked back to the hotel and discovered yet more new parts of the city. I had bought a strippenkaard for the trams but never figured out how to work them. Between the Leidsplein and the hotel was the Reiksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and curiously the British General Counsulate (behind a temporary high fence with a police trailer outpost out front). I took a nap for a few hours and headed back out to Centrum.

This time it was dark and there were more people. Centrum was fully lit and a hopping night spot. I stopped by a street restaurant and ordered a shawarma, basically chicken shoved into pitabread with onions, curry, and peppers. It was a tasty meal and was surprisingly filling. Drunk or stoned young people were out in force. I was offered coke and extacy three times, two of which were in broad daylight. If I had a tripod I could’ve taken some great nighttime building and canal pictures, maybe next time.

I wandered over to the red light district to check that out. The buildings along the canal lit up the place and it was a crowded place. Down narrow alleys were the girls in their windows/doorways trying to lure in guys. There were some real hotties there and some real skanks in the mix. The police were definately present in the area. I hear the RLD is really one of the safer parts of the city because of the concentration of police, but pickpocketing is common because of the crowds. As I was walking along I heard an alarm go off in a girl’s room and the police entering to help; some drunk asshole causing trouble I assume.

By midnight:30 I was all Amsterdammed out. I walked back to the hotel. Leidseplein was really alive now and the last trams were running.

I took several photos in Centrum, but between the lack of not knowing what stuff was, the overcast skies and rain, not to mention being zapped by the xray machines at the airport, I don’t know if I have anything useful. I would’ve liked to have gone out to the country, hit some of the museums and older buildings, Vondelpark to take pictures, but I just did not have the time.

Sunday I flew back to the US. The 12 hour flight from AMS to IAH was a bear. Seven hours into the flight we had just reached the Labrador coast, I had read all my books, my throat was very dry (stupid fucking no-liquids-on-plane rules) and I was getting anxious to get off the plane. Listening to somebody go sideways on a poor Continental agent and other people bickering about the most inane things in the gate area, and people engrossed in football reminded me I was in the US again. I drove a Volvo S40 all week in Amsterdam, it took a bit of getting used to my truck again. Part of me misses Netherlands, but it’s wonderful to be back in my own comfort zone again. I want to go back and visit other countries now.

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