Monday, June 20, 2005


Last stop: Amsterdam

We dropped off our rental car in Schipole airport in the Netherlands – I was more emotionally attached to that Mercedes than I thought I could be to a car – and took the commuter train into the Central train station to begin our 2-day, 3-night stay in Amsterdam.

Leaving a foreign airport always reminds me of the movie “The Great Escape.” You’ve been trapped with a bunch of (fellow) foreign tourists for several hours in check-in lines, on the plane, at passport control, and at baggage claim. On the commuter train, you recognize some people from the airport and you hear others speaking English, but the percentage of tourists has thinned out (kind of like the scene in the movie where a number of separate escapees are trying to get away on the same train). You know that quickly after you arrive downtown, you’ll be blending into the local populace. Well, not exactly blending in – you stick out like a red, white and blue thumb – but you find yourself suddenly surrounded by Germans, or French, or Germans and Turks, or French, North Africans, people from the middle east – not Americans is the point. (Or if you’re traveling on the continent, not Americans, Brits and Aussies.)

Well, that never happens in Amsterdam. You’re in a crowd of English-speaking tourists at the airport. On the train. On the streetcar to your hotel. Everywhere you go – crowds of Americans, Brits and Aussies.

You all know Amsterdam: jawdropping 17th-century charm, the canals – and a motley world-beat of unwashed 20somethings swirling around you like flies.

The problem with Amsterdam is that it’s a port of entry to Europe – meaning that most of the English-speaking tourists there are either beginning their European adventure (in which case they have yet to molt their ugly American or Brit or Aussie ways) – or they’re wrapping up their tour, in which case they’re tired and cranky and want-it-here-and-want-it- now... like me and B. What I wanted was coffee.

Well, it turns out that Amsterdam has the strangest coffee shops in any of the six countries B and I visited on this trip. We walked into one for a late afternoon cup, and almost nobody was drinking coffee. Never mind “au lait” versus “latte.” I wittily asked the barista (a la Monty Python’s famous “Cheese shop” sketch): “I assume you serve coffee here ... this is a coffee shop!” The barista replied “Yes, we do sell coffee here if that is what you want.” Something about the way he said it made B and me feel kind of funny, so we left. Which was just as well, because it was at least twice as smokey as German, French and Belgian cafes, and there seemed to be a lot of strange-smelling Eurotrash cigarettes.

Tired after a long day’s drive, and having heard that food in Amsterdam is nothing to write home about, we decided just to pick up a few groceries around 7 p.m. and “dine” in our hotel room. The grocery store was a scene, and in describing it, I exaggerate not one jot:

The store was jam packed with shoppers, yet it seemed like there were hardly a half dozen people over 30. Shoppers were jostling and bumping other shoppers and pulling stuff off the shelves like the Dutch were going to institute rationing tomorrow. What’s more, the stuff people were buying was straight out of a Cheech and Chong grocery-shopping-for-the-munchies routine: lots of ready-to-eat food, lots of impulse items, and lots of multiple items, like a guy with five huge, identical chocolate bars. The shelves of the store were half empty, and there were only two individual cans of beer in the whole place. I’ve never before been in a place where I felt like everybody around me was stoned out of his mind.

By the way, the groceries were astonishingly cheap. We bought two ready-made salads, a small loaf of black bread, four crusty bread rolls, liverwurst, salami, eight sushi-sized disks of goat cheese wrapped in prosciutto, a jar of olives, potato salad, two chocolate bars, a package of honey-filled waffle-wafers, and a package of chocolate digestive biscuits. Total cost: 18 euros (about $22).

I realize that a picnic in the hotel room is kind of a lame way to introduce oneself to a new city, but I have to say, the food tasted AMAZING.


Eighteen Euros? Woah. Duuude.
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