Last Friday, I traveled with five other people on three different trains for seven and a half hours. We were speeding toward the Netherlands to spend a Saturday in Amsterdam.
We did not stay in the city, but about 20 minutes away with a friend. This city was called Haarlem, and it was small, old and downright lovely. That first night, we went to one of the city’s main attractions: an old church that is now a bar. All of us still had our backpacks on, which were especially cumbersome in the crowded bar. It felt good, though, to be in a loud place after the cold and quiet of the train. People were smiling, laughing, drinking, happy to be exactly where they were. This church, being old and Gothic, had enormous ceilings; somehow, even the empty space above our heads felt stuffed with warmth.
The next day, we woke up early to take a train into the city. Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, as well as its most populous city. What began as a small fishing town centuries ago is now one of the most famous cities in the world. Like all great cities, Amsterdam is so many things at once. It is hectic and still, ancient and modern, beautiful and trying. A few times, it felt completely alien.
Amsterdam is full of water and bridges. These canals date back to the seventeenth century, and are a part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. They are almost as important as they are beautiful. I could’ve stopped and stared at the top of every single bridge. Lining the canals are buildings of typical Dutch architecture — lots of brick with white molding, and an equal amount of curves and edges. Most of these buildings are painted somber grays and blacks. Somehow, though, they are still very warm and inviting. At night, city lights reflect on the water to make it a warm and shiny black.
In between these canals and buildings were lots of people, and even more bikes — literally. It is fact that there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam. They line the sidewalks, the bridges, the houses, layered one on top of the other. And, of course, people use them all the time. Walking through the streets, I was more worried about getting hit by a bike than a car.
Dutch people are some of the healthiest in the world, which is not surprising, considering how much they bike. However, I am in awe of this fact after seeing and tasting their delicious food. In the morning, we walked through the market, crammed with fresh fish and bread, local meats and sugary cakes and cookies. For lunch, we sat down to traditional Dutch pancakes. These were as big as the plates they were served on (which were quite large), and heaped with toppings. After, we stopped by cheese shops for samples, of course.
These parts of Amsterdam made me feel as though I could live there. I pictured myself biking to the market for bread, drinking coffee by the canals and going to the museums on weekends. But some parts of the city made me feel strange, one of them being the Red Light District, where legalized prostitution is a highly controversial issue; I will not attempt to discuss its politics, only some of what I saw and felt while walking through this area. We went in the afternoon while the sun was shining. I was nervous, which I was not expecting to be. The prostitutes sat in windows on red pleather stools. Some were on their phones; one was eating a sandwich. One happened to meet my gaze — her eyes quickly flashed down; mine did, too.
We spent the rest of the evening simply walking around. The warm-black water glimmered while the warm-black buildings smiled. Amsterdam was a lot of things; too many not to go back.