Journey to the Netherlands

Every time I said “I’m going to Amsterdam this weekend,” I was met with a knowing “ohhh, Amsterdam?” I think there was an implied “capital of sex and drugs?” on the end of that sentence almost every time. I promise, that isn’t what we went for!

This trip was originally my friend from Whitman’s idea, and she invited me to tag along, and then my housemate Laura joined us. These ladies were lovely travel company! I arrived a little earlier than both of them, checked into my hostel, and set out to explore the city. Here are my first views, one by night and one by daylight.

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My biggest fears while walking were getting crushed by a tram or hit by a bicycle. Everything is fast and furious on the streets there, and the big groups of sauntering (and often stoned) tourists made it hard for everyone to get around. That said, walking was my favorite thing to do.

It was on my walk that I had the most magnificent pastry I’ve ever encountered: the kwartzbollen. It’s essentially a large donut hole covered in vanilla sugar.


My Whitman friend had decided to couchsurf, so we met her lovely host for dinner when she got in. It was great to have a Dutch perspective on the city. He taught us some Dutch and fed us pasta. Then, I picked up Laura and we all went to bed.

Saturday was the walking tour, a three-hour excursion with Kor, of Sandeman’s New Europe tours. Sandeman’s is a new-ish company which gives “free” tours. Their business principle is to have people pay, at the end, the value that they place on the tour. It makes the tour guides work harder to entertain the crowd and it puts the burden on the tourists to decide how much they’d like to pay! And it worked just like the theory said it should; Kor was fabulously entertaining, and the tour was incredibly informative. We walked all over Amsterdam: through the Red Light district, through Dam Square (where the original Amster-Dam was built to dam up the river Amstel), past the shopping quarter, Anne Frank’s House, the museums, the cute quirky neighborhoods…I felt like we saw everything we needed to.

This is the narrowest house in Amsterdam. Anyone who is taller than 5’9″ cannot lie widthwise on the floor in this house. People built narrow houses so as not to pay as much tax, as they were taxed for canal front space! Width is proportional to wealth.


Another option in Amsterdam: houseboat life! Houseboats cost around 100,000 euros, and the permits cost 500,000 euros. Maybe if I win the lottery one day, I’ll retire to a Dutch houseboat. Life on the water sounds ideal!


Other fun facts that stuck with me:

Every house on a canal in Amsterdam has a little hook that juts out of the roof with a rope attached. Because their houses are so narrow, these pulleys are used to lift things that don’t fit through the door to the upper levels of the house. This is also why most of the houses lean forward slightly, so goods are less likely to hit the windows!

In old Amsterdam, the last names of its citizens were simply their profession, or location within the city. When Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, came to take over the city, he made all the citizens pick their own last names. That’s why, if you ever meet a Dutch person, they may have a last name which translates to something funny (like “of the trout”).

Prostitutes and freelance tour guides have the same paperwork from the Chamber of Commerce.

Despite its reputation, Amsterdam’s marijuana consumption is less than the global average! First in the world, per capita? Canada. Second and third? France and Italy.

Schiphol Airport’s name literally translates to “Ship Hole” because it’s actually a dried-up lake. As such, it’s way below sea level and thus one day could become a lake again…

I found Amsterdam to be a breath of fresh air. There’s a free-spirit vibe everywhere; people dress how they want, whizz around on bicycles, help you if you look lost on the street. They’re used to tourists, but it also seems like tolerance and creativity are deeply rooted cultural values. I was fascinated by something which fascinates me everywhere I visit: how people respond to the conditions of their environment, and how that forms their cultural and linguistic identity. Innovation in house-building to deal with the swamp life, and innovation in trade, which made the Dutch East India Company one of the most lucrative in the old world, gave way to inventiveness in the arts and sciences and an open-minded cultural mentality. If I could learn about one thing for the rest of my life, it would be this interaction between culture, language and environment. Maybe I should have been an anthropology major after all…


Journey to the Netherlands

TFH Part 3 : Bretagne, the Medieval Land of Mist & Mayhem

As promised, here are some adventure tales from my trip to Bretagne with Solena, in between the Three Christmases.

Solena picked me up with her mom and little cousins from the train station in Vannes, and we embarked straightaway for some sightseeing nearby.

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First, Arradon, which is far less desolate and rainy during the summer sailing season, when it’s home to sailing competitions and becomes a tourist destination. This was my first glimpse of the sea, though, and it felt like home!


Then, a special treat: Rochefort-en-Terre, which is a medieval village in the hills that has a fairy light display for the holidays. It was beautiful, and put me in the Christmas spirit more than anything else had. Magic, right?



After Rochefort, we went back home to Elven, which is nearby the larger city of Vannes. I asked Solena if we could tour Vannes, so after a day of watching the kids we went to walk around on the morning of Christmas Eve! I was obsessed with the ramparts and medieval architecture.



[The Porte de Vannes (the door of Vannes), and the ramparts (with a view of the cathedral in the background).] Entering the city, I could see how imposing it must have been when it was fully walled and the ramparts were still in use. I imagine it’s what much of France actually looked like back then.

Solena and I picked up a passenger for covoiturage (carpooling — extremely cheap, easy, and popular in Europe) named Claude. We showed up and she was wearing a full length fur coat, a red beret, and gold sparkly eyeliner. She looked to be in her thirties, and talking to her in the car revealed that she was a Canadian musician stationed in Vannes to go to the music school. She was quite a character — she gave me advice to deal with noisy neighbors in France, which was to be as cynical and sarcastic and creative as possible. Example: her upstairs neighbors in Paris would not stop throwing parties, so she showed up in pajamas and tried to join in once. They got the message. (Instead of taking her advice, I moved. But more on that later.)

We dropped her off and finished our journey in Port-Louis, Riantec, etc., the towns where Solena grew up. This is where all the Christmas parties happened. I was blown away by the beauty of this old port city.

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Our beach walk at sunset….it was amazing. Standing by the sea, I instantly felt calmer. Something about water soothes me like nothing else.

This was the endpoint of our journey, and I honestly have not seen or experienced a place quite like it. I was welcomed into Solena’s group of friends, we danced the night away, and I learned 4 or 5 Breton songs and dances, as well as just how proud the Bretons are of their regional culture. I knew that France’s regions tended to have regional pride just like we have state pride, but now I think that the North is not a great example of that. Brittany is. There’s even been talk about secession throughout history.

I also spoke in French for about 75% of the time throughout this week of adventures, and that was a victory in itself. Most of the people I met did not speak English, and every time I have a fulfilling conversation with people who don’t speak English I reaffirm my reasons for having studied French! Now I get to study it in whole new ways.

Touring the west made me want to live there. I’m exploring options for working there next year, and I’ll be super excited if that works out.

Yer’mat (cheers!), Bretagne. Until we meet again!

TFH Part 3 : Bretagne, the Medieval Land of Mist & Mayhem

Touring France for the Holidays: Part 1

I’m back!

Honestly I thought I’d have a lot more time to write on the road…silly me. I don’t think I got my computer out for more than ten minutes the whole time. That is FINE by me, though! Now I’ve got a lot of adventure stories so I’ll try to spread them out.

Part 1 : Enquête Exclusif à Rennes

My journey began on Saturday morning at 5 AM, when I woke up to catch my train from Valenciennes to Lille. In Lille, I caught my train to Rennes, for my first cross-France journey. Here’s an estimated map (because I took a train instead of a car!).

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Rennes is the capital of the Bretagne region of France, and a notorious student city. Roughly one fourth of the population is students, actually. It makes for a great night out — or so I’ve heard, but unfortunately I arrived the day all the students left for the holidays. Lise said that there was a marked difference between Rennes with students and Rennes without.

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The city wasn’t destroyed in the war like most of the North and some of the West…so there are still buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries everywhere! Historical charm: check! It was also misty and rainy and mild most of the time, which fit my image of Bretagne (I figured the west coast is the west coast everywhere…I felt right at home).

On my first full day, we did one of Lise’s favorite things — the Planetarium! There’s a science center in Rennes with a fully functional planetarium, and we watched a 3D tour of the galaxy. It was so unexpectedly meditative. I almost fell asleep, and when I got out I felt incredibly calm and peaceful inside. When you see the galaxy like that….it’s impossible not to feel like the smallest thing in the universe, and that’s a really relaxing thought. If we are small, all our problems are even smaller. Perspective!

We emerged from the pitch black peace machine to find ourselves in the Foire d’Hiver — the winter fairground. French fairs are much like American ones: total overstimulation. To go from drastic understimulation to drastic overstimulation so suddenly made us laugh. All we could do at the fair was people watch and stare at all the terrifying-looking rides…


Later, we went to another of Lise’s favorite places… A Vos Mousses, a self-serve beer bar. Stick your card on the sensor, and you can fill your glass with as much beer as there are euros of credit (and as it will hold, obviously). What a genius idea for a bar, was my thought — you can imagine the money to be made when a bunch of intoxicated people get their hands on a self-serve beer card. We only had one, this time ;).


We stumbled across a light show on the way home. This is one of the things France does during the holiday season: they have light shows projected onto buildings, usually the city hall, that are strikingly realistic. Lyon has a famous Fête des Lumières which I eventually hope to see, but apparently Rennes has one as well! They’re quite a spectacle.


The next day, we went to the park! I love French parks. This one has been around for ages, and used to be the leisure activity scene for the bourgeois elite of Rennes. Its elegantly groomed grass and gardens and fancy fountains betray its high-class past. It was a lovely escape from the city!

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Now for the Enquête Exclusif  reference: one of the nights, Lise and I watched a TV program that was discussing American universities and the hazing, alcohol, and prostitution which characterize them. It went on for almost an hour on the seedy sides of university life, interviewing an idiot kid on spring break and numerous women who’d chosen to become escorts to pay for school. At the very end, it said “the university system has some positive aspects as well,” talked for 15 minutes about research, and ended.

I have two conflicting reactions to things like this: “wow, some things that happen in my country really make us look bad,” and “how dare they only look at the negative.” News is biased, but that doesn’t mean that these things don’t happen. It’s one of the challenges of being in a foreign country: you see your own with brand new eyes. My goal is to never become too critical of one or the other. All countries are extremely diverse and have good and bad aspects…and I don’t ever want to dislike the U.S. or dislike France. They’re just different.

I had a BLAST catching up with Lise! It’s been about a year since I’d seen her, but for foreign friends…we’ve seen each other once a year since we’ve met, which is pretty great. Sending our love to the former French house and friends, we missed you! And a big THANKS from me to Lise for being such a great hostess!

Next up is Part 2, concerning two friends and three Christmases in my new favorite region.

Touring France for the Holidays: Part 1