Friday, June 22, 2007
Vacation 10: Amsterdam to London
(Mostly non-germane pictures, just stuff from our last day or so in Amsterdam.)
Saturday. We're sitting in the Brussels Midi train station, waiting on our connection to the Eurostar thru the Chunnel to Swinging London. We left the fabulous Hotel Vondel this morning about 11:am, and caught our only Amsterdam tram ride to the Centraal Station, where we caught a 12:26 to Brussels (we never did ride the subways in Amsterdam, as our guide book said they were useless for tourists. The trams are surface trains that mingle with road and foot traffic and are more suitable for sightseeing, but the town is so walker-friendly that we didn't try them until our last moment in the city). This was an hour earlier than scheduled, but since our ticket was open, we decided to catch the first thing we could. We inadvertently sat in the very comfortable first class car when we got on (it was the car that stopped in front of us and opened its door), and the conductor half an hour later very kindly informed us we'd need to move a couple cars ahead. The first class car was empty, but of course the second class car was full, with only a few single seats. We slogged our way thru that car to the next one, and found an open seating area by the door where that car connected with the next--noisy, but able to accommodate both of us and our growing and awkward pile of luggage.
We brought our two biggest Travelpro bags, and they've become so full we've had to use the little expanders on them. And we acquired another suitcase as well, at the Cuypstraat Market, to carry our extras, including a full-size cowskin we got from a dealer there (an odd acquisition, but we're going to try it on the floor of the piano room, which needs something).
So Susan has a delicate carryon sack with fragile stuff in it and her huge rollaboard, and I've got my overstuffed computer backpack on, plus two suitcases, a huge one ahead and a smaller one behind. Try getting down the aisle of a crowded, swaying train car that way! Luckily, there were a number of other people on a diaspora from the first class car, so we were not alone for everyone already properly seated to hate as we banged and bruised our way thru.
It's a three hour train ride to Brussels, and we disembarked onto an old and very soviet-era-looking rail platform, which was the environment I was afraid we'd need to spend the next two and a half hours in. The concrete was crumbling and everything needed paint and there wasn't a passenger convenience in sight. Luckily, once underground, things became much more civilized, and there's a veritable underground city in the terminal, with markets and restaurants and all the usual stuff. Not as picturesque as Paris's Gare du Nord or the Amsterdam station, but what one would expect in a major European city and very functional.
All of Europe is a melting pot, I suppose, but you really see it here in Belgium, which is a small, tweener country surrounded by strong, distinct cultures. All the signs and placards in the station--and all the ATMs and ticketing machines and so on--have to have four languages: Dutch, French, German, English. Even the Shrek the Third billboards around us scroll between four languages. I wonder how languages remain distinct in this environment, to say nothing of there being so many other languages in the compact area of Europe. Maybe they don't; maybe that's the reason for the French uproar in trying to protect their language from the influx of American and internet terms. It could be that there is no stasis in languages at all, except on the timescale of a human life. (Maybe the more germane question is how America has kept from splintering off into dialects which then become distinct languages. Maybe that too is happening, but it's just too slow a process to record in our 250 short years.)
We noticed that in Amsterdam, everybody spoke pretty good English, and the kids especially spoke American English without an accent, even. It turns out that about 2/3 of their television is from America, and they tend to put subtitles on it and leave the soundtracks intact. So the kids grow up learning English in school, and hearing it spoken American-style on TV. And, lo and behold, it was often difficult to tell whether the person talking to you was an American expat or a native.
Much as we loved Amsterdam--and it really seemed a warm and friendly and vibrant place that one could settle into and manage--it was harder to gain a sense of Dutch culture than of French. The Dutch seem more welcoming, and the fact that everybody speaks English makes less accommodating necessary for an American traveler. In that sense, there seemed less foreign culture for we unschooled to butt up against. But it also makes Dutch culture seem less distinct, and indeed my trip to the Rijksmuseum seemed to reinforce that Holland has always been a melting pot culture. They seem to have little distinct cuisine (of course, I must relate to the world via food--"Waffles," Susan says dreamily; "chocolate-covered waffles." But I suspect those, delicious tho they be, are of Belgian origin), choosing instead to let the melting pot bring their native cuisines with them. There are the canals and bicycles--unique and distinctive things--but these seem more Amsterdam than Holland, at least so much as we saw. So the whole place feels like an amalgamation--in a good way, surely, but there's just not the protective chauvinism one senses in Paris. (And I noticed that not a single person was wearing the wooden shoes that everybody sells, so that screws that little idea as a coup for native culture).
We both felt Amsterdam was a fabulous place. Every time we went outside, including our trip thru town on the tram this morning, we were simply riveted by the compact uniqueness of it. I thought at first that I was not so stiff after my days of walking in Amsterdam because I was gaining fitness and acclimation where we were continually stressing things. But now I think we simply weren't walking as far as we thought. The tram ride thru town shows that it's really just a stone's throw from one end to the other, and the amount of stuff to gawk at and explore is very densely packed; so we did indeed see a lot, but we didn't have to go very far to do it. Every canal and bridge and curved street and public square--each one is like something you've never seen anywhere else. In that sense, Amsterdam is an assault on the senses. I had to stop myself from just saying continuously to Susan "Look!" "Look!" "Look!" because it's all so remarkable. But it's an assault from a very laid-back and relaxed culture.
Personally, I love the vibe of general permissiveness, that sense that anything goes so long as it does not infringe on others' rights. This seems a very sensibly democratic way to live. One's sense is that people of very diverse characters could live normal lives in Amsterdam, which is not the case everywhere (say, being gay in Appleton). But there's a flip side of that which would maybe grate on me. There seem an inordinate number of people--men, mostly, but not exclusively--who are in town to give vent to things made ugly by their inability to make peace with them in their normal lives. This just makes for a whole lot of people I don't need particularly to have much to do with. The Red Light District, and the fervor with which it seems to operate, takes normal sexual impulses and makes them seem crass and ugly. Maybe that's prostitution generally, and not Amsterdam's prostitution. But the fact that men will travel great distances to where it is legal seems depressing, and in some way this catering characterizes the whole town.
The fact that they've had to put up little permanent outdoor pissers for the men to try and curb public urination is a case in point--and bunches more temporary ones are added to the public squares on busy weekends. It's sensible to accommodate what can't be avoided, but it can be depressing as well. Personally, I couldn't see myself standing in a public square peeing into a plastic funnel, but I wouldn't have used the middle of the sidewalk to find relief to begin with, so I guess I don't represent the problem they're trying, by whatever blunt method will do the trick, to solve. One of these four-holers (basically a pylon with minimal privacy sheltering and four holes in it) simply had a garden hose from the holding tank running across the square to a storm drain (why not just put up a 4-language sign: Please urinate in the storm drains?). How much of this relates to prostitution is an open question. But there are a whole lot of guys in town to drink and whore in a way that depresses me a bit.
And the whole drug thing. I don't know that I think of smoking pot or hash as being such a terrible thing. Certainly, it seems no worse than our cultural acceptance of alcohol. But then again, I generally despise alcohol consumption, and we can certainly add alcohol to the list of things undertaken with abandon in Amsterdam (a bunch of guys were right outside our ground-floor hotel room window last nite about 11:pm talking and singing drunkenly in a way that made you wish a safe would fall on them). People sitting around a hash bar getting high and talking harm no one, except for whatever health considerations attach to smoking anything. Maybe I'd come to feel this is the wholly superior way to leave reality behind.
In a way, Amsterdam's laissez-faire vibe reminds me of Vegas, both good and bad. For the most part, Vegas seems a place of harmless excess, a place where people blow off steam and where things occasionally run awry when unchecked. As a person not characterized by iron-clad self control, I must be careful in judging others' excesses, especially when they involve overindulging in things I don't even dabble in. Perhaps my judgment of these things has limited utility.
On the Eurostar from Brussels to London now. It's a grade nicer than the train from Amsterdam to Brussels (at least after we were booted out of the first class carriage). The Thalys train from Paris to Amsterdam was nice as well, like the Eurostar (and both are very high speed). We've just emerged from the Chunnel, which was characterized only by 20 minutes of darkness. Somehow I expected the Chunnel to be lighted and tiled and like riding continuously along a subway boarding platform. Not so. In retrospect, it might have been better to take a ferry across and a train over land. Oh well. Here we are approaching London.