I arrive in Amsterdam a day late. After checking into the hostel, I struggle with the insanely horrible wifi while trying to upload my blog post for week one. It takes forever. It’s pretty late by the time I accomplish this so I don’t bother to go out and explore the city. I’ll leave that for tomorrow.
The next day I wander out into Amsterdam. First thing I do is buy a prepaid SIM card for my phone. I find a 10GB data package for ten euros. The clerk helps me install and activate it. Success. I was pretty sure my phone was unlocked now, but I was still a little concerned.
I hit the streets armed with a capable iPhone. I wander up to city center and weave through tight streets, over gorgeous bridges and numerous canals. At some point, I realize I’m in the red light district. It’s ten in the morning so I don’t think much of it until I start passing the glass doors under those crimson lights. The red curtains are pulled back and the ladies of the evening are there already, dressed in the most revealing attire. I am surprised, but business must not be that great in the morning, because every girl I pass begins tapping loudly on the glass, trying to beckon me over. I just smile, enjoy the brief show, and shuffle on down the road.
I end up in what must be the shopping district. Stores like Sunglass Hut, H&M, Forever 21 and tons of other chains that you find in every other town line the streets. I am disappointed for some reason. I walk on and finally find some cool little alleys with pubs. Randomly, I get a whiff of that old and familiar smell. Wow. That brings back memories. That odor comes very often as I kick down the cobblestone streets. Coffee shop after coffee shop. That’s what Amsterdam is all about, right? I contemplate stepping in one of them, but decide against it.
Later that night I go back and the city center is packed, but packed with what is obviously tourists. Even strolling back down through the red light district there are tons of tourists, even old couples in shorts, polo shirts and boat shoes carrying big old shopping bags and strolling down the alleys of prostitutes - Like it was Disney World or some shit. I was once again a little dismayed, a little disappointed.
On Friday I attend a walking tour of Amsterdam led by a local named Tim. I don’t know if it’s going to be worth a shit, but it’s free, so what the hell. It’s great. Tim is very knowledgable about the city and its history. Plus he has a good sense of humor. I decide walking tours are a great way to get a better feel for a city and to learn your way around.
On the tour I meet a fellow couch-surfer, named Ryan, who tells me about a couch-surfer meet up that was happening that night. I tell him I’ll try to make it out there.
That night about 9pm I roll up to the Cotton Club and meet a bunch of couch-surfers and some local hosts. I meet a couple from Israel who offer to put me up when I come to their country. I meet two guys from Germany who are hitchhiking through Europe; an actor from LA named Reagan; a guy named Rodolfo, from Mexico, studying in Europe; a girl from Berlin named Frankie; and two locals - Willem and Maarten. About midnight, we all decide to start bar hopping. Flash forward to 4 am, countless bars and beers later and we stumble out of the last club - one that was packed like a can of sardines, packed like I had never experienced, something that would have violated so many fire laws had this been back in the States. In the street the group starts to disperse. I find out from someone that the Metro doesn't run after 1am but I can grab a night bus to my hostel. I download the app for the bus schedule, but there is no option for English, so I have no idea how or where to catch the bus. Everyone else is pretty drunk so they can’t help me. Luckily Maarten, who is already hosting the two hitchhikers and the actor, offers to let me crash at his place until the Metro re-opens.
So the five of us head to his place which, it turns out, is right next to the Anne Frank house. I finally get to sleep around 6am.
I awake around 10am and quietly leave Maarten’s place. Reagan is on his way out too. I help him locate a McDonald’s so he can get some Wifi. After that, I stumble through the cobblestone streets and find some breakfast. I get a pancake, or the Dutch equivalent, and a cup of coffee - I think I might still be a little drunk.
On the way back to the Metro I stop at the Market at Nieuwmarket Square. I walk around admiring all the fruits and vegetables; all the cheeses for sale. One booth has a sign up on the counter - “No photos, just buy the cheese”. I chuckle and then think about it. Man, tourism is so out of control this guy had to put a sign up. So many people come buy, gawking at the display of cheese, snapping photos - hell, probably even taking selfies with the cheese - and never actually buy anything. It’s so bad, this guy had a fucking sign made. It makes me think of the red light district with the ladies behind glass and the little signs begging “No photos”. The simple fact that the sign exists means there are people who stroll down those alleys and try to snap photos of the women and take home to gawk at - but never actually do any business there. A neutered Disney World of sex and cheese…
I finally grab the metro, head back to the hostel and take a very long shower. I lay down thinking I could use some more sleep. That doesn’t happen. I get a text from my sister, Kelly, about my grandfather - For the past few days I have been debating whether I should put my trip on hold and head back to the States. My grandfather fell unconscious on Tuesday and was taken to the hospital. He came to but they are not sure what is wrong with him. His health has been declining rather rapidly since. I have been on the fence about what to do, constantly thinking: I should go back; no, I should press on. I know I’m going to lose momentum if I return home so quickly - it’s only been two weeks for god-sake - but, on the other hand, I feel I need to be there for the family.
My grandfather was checked out of the hospital and returned to his home on Saturday. It’s only a matter of time. The doctors say maybe weeks, but probably days. I talk to my sister for nearly an hour. We discuss the inevitability; the strangeness of the situation; how she and I have been very fortunate - we have gotten this far in life and never really had to deal with a close family member passing. We talk about a lot of things. After that I determine I need to press on, to continue with my trip.
After the crazy night that was Friday, I decide to go out for only one beer and call it an early night. That doesn’t exactly happen. I hit up Gollem cafe, at the suggestion of a friend. It’s a very cool, cramped, old bar and have said one beer. On the way out of the city center, one of those coffee shops calls to me again. The Abraxas. I walk inside and purchase one of Amsterdam’s famous Space Cakes. I get it to go and walk down the street. I eat half of it and start to wander. Almost two hours later I’m about to call it a dud and go back to the hostel, when it finally kicks in. I don’t have any real clear idea what transpired the next few hours but I do recall a moment when I’m walking down this alley that shoots right between the red right district and the old church (the one where, in days of yore, the sailors would go immediately to repent for what they just did across the alley). I’m following two Asian businessmen. The cobblestone alley starts to curve, keeps curving, and keeps curving, and curving… and curving. I’m stuck in some time loop. These two businessmen and I are on this weird medieval treadmill, not making any progress. On the right: the gray stone church wall keeps going and going, forever curving. On the left: scantily clad women on display behind glass keep flying by like spokes in a bike wheel. Church walls and prostitutes churning and swirling, rolling and grinding, heaving and hoeing. Finally, somehow, we break free from the Church-Sex-Trade-Mobius-Strip. The two businessmen didn't even seem to notice. Strange.
Sunday, I check in to another hostel. This one is closer to the bus station that I need to be at Monday morning to catch my ride to Brussels. That night I go into the city center to have dinner and one last beer in Amsterdam. It’s a pretty uneventful evening. That is until I get back to the hostel, go to sleep and I am awakened by my five Irish room-mates coming in drunk and wrestling each other. I mean really wrestling. Knocking furniture around, putting choke holds on one anther till they almost pass out. They keep calling out to our other roommate, a Canadian named Landon, to come referee. Landon just lays in his bed and keeps declining their requests. I just lay in my bed, not even really mad at the situation at all, but actually quite amused at how absurd it all was.
Later I get up and catch my bus to Brussels. I realize as the bus pulls out of Amsterdam that I still have the keycard for my hostel room. Shit. I forgot to check out. I email the hostel and ask if there is a penalty for not checking out. They write me back later and tell me that usually they charge you if you take the key card, but they weren’t going to charge me. They say “have a great trip and enjoy our beautiful keycard.” I write back “Thank you. I will cherish it always”.
That afternoon I get to Brussels and it’s raining its ass off. I pull out my shitty grocery store umbrella and try to find the metro. Finally I making it to my host’s house. Christina invites me in, shows me around and lets me get settled in. I make a phone call to my dad and talk about how things are with my grandfather. I can hear it in his voice. He’s beat. Long hours, driving back and forth from Williamsburg to Hampton to take care of my grandfather, and no sleep, is taking its toll. I realize I need to go home. I need to carry some of that burden. It’s not fair for me to be out here roaming around, when my family is back home dealing with all that. I decide right then. After I get off the phone I book two plane tickets for the next day. One from Brussels to Miami and one for Miami to Norfolk.
I explain to Christina, and tell her I will only be staying one night. I then reach out to my other hosts for Bruges and London and inform them that I will not be able to make it. Then Christina takes me around Brussels and shows me the fountain with the peeing boy statue (that apparently Brussels is famous for), some really great vistas of the cities and some of the famous chocolate shops. We have some Belgian beer at a pub and then have some mussels at a local’s spot. It’s a good, albeit brief, taste of Belgium.
The next morning I head to the airport and thus begins a great fiasco - but that’s another blog post all together I feel…