First Days in Amsterdam
Arriving in Amsterdam was like being dropped into the largest and most overwhelming sleep away camp in existence. After paying too much for a taxi from Schiphol Airport to the housing office I had a non-stop day of miscommunications, lines and an unexpected visit to Centraal Station. Luckily a super nice young guy helped me on my way and gave me an impromptu tram tour in flawless English. Nice introduction. Finally I received my key and determined that I had a conveniently located dorm, though nothing is convenient with two 40 lb suitcases.
The next morning, orientation hit hard. Not like New School orientation or any orientation in the states. We spent all day wandering the city, taking canal tours, visiting the royal palace, watching dutch romantic comedies in tiny movie theaters, drinking the occasional beer and making connections. The first night we arrived for “dinner” at a giant oil factory turned club outside the city center. There we ate traditional dutch foods and drank free drinks, courtesy of the International Student Network, while being bombarded by house music and strobe lights. From there, we moved on to the Borrel a weekly party held at a local bar.
The next night we partied at Club 8, a grungy dive bar and concert venue with graffiti everywhere. I was digging the old school hip hop for a bit until, like always, the techno hit. The last night our International Student Network Orientation final party held at Bungalow 8. In New York, the same club is a super exclusive celeb spot, and not my usual scene. We made the most of it, despite the 10 euro entrance, and 4 euro beer.
In Amsterdam, traffic rules seem to have little or no meaning, yet the city functions smoother than New York at 4 in the morning. There are generally red brick bike lanes on every street. But sometimes sidewalks function as bike lanes, and even as roads. Occasionally I hear the faint tinkling of a bike bell behind me, reminding me that I'm in the wrong lane. Even the ambulances have a slight sing-song quality that doesn't make me want to cover my ears until they're five blocks away.
In fact, it seems like a lot of things here just work. The system is so much more practical here, even though it feels foreign to me. Toilets flush until you hit stop, you have to buy plastic bags at the grocery store if you forget yours. Public transportation is expensive, and taxis are out of the question. To someone who's used to easy access this can be frustrating, but it's definitely one way to save the planet!
There are some downsides to being an English speaker. Contrary to what you might think, Dutch and English are not that similar. Pronunciation is so varied that when I hear a word spoken, I am absolutely incapable of picturing it written. The same goes in reverse, most street signs are nearly unpronounceable. I live on Sarphatistraat 153, Weesperbuurt en Plantage. (But make sure not to type Sarphatistraat 153, De Weteringschans into Google, or it will direct you 750 meters down the block.) The grocery store, Albert Heijn, is conveniently two doors down, but not so conveniently, all the products and signs are labeled exclusively in dutch. I found myself buying cheese because it looked average, eating salami that somehow tasted like mystery meat, and being disappointed by a not so classic cheeseburger. That's what happens when you can only guess the meaning of plantaardige.
I have dietary restrictions because I have food allergies which hold me back from gluten, eggs, and milk. For the luckier ones, almost all the food here is a pastry. Chocolate croissants, flaky pastry filled with ground meat, french bread pizzas. This is what every other place in Dam Square, the most crowded neighborhood, is selling. For the late night crowd, try out a hot dog, hamburger, or chicken patty from the walk-in vending machine locale – FEBO. The one street food I have willingly jumped on is the fries. They taste like they have been fried in lamb fat and taken a plunge in a salt cellar. The average Dutch person will ask for a heap of mayo on top.
The city has a very genial attitude. This new atmosphere is stark contrast to my normally panicked and rushed New York/New England self. Aside from a rude tram driver refusing to speak English here and there, people actually smile when they pass by. Mostly I see tall, smiling people, biking with their children straddled on back, or pleasantly munching on sandwiches and croissants. While walking towards Waterlooplein, almost daily, I pass ducks and swans in the Amstel River, as in any given canal. I am constantly reminded that I am in Amsterdam as distinctive smells waft down from coffee-shop terraces, and cobblestone streets wind past houseboats.