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