Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Summer Saturday in Amsterdam (Part 1)

(Note: This one turned out pretty long, so I broke it into two posts. The second half/the fun part will be up here tomorrow.)

For a day that started out rather inauspiciously (and ended on a bit of a down note), this first Saturday of September was just about perfect.

Laziness kept us in bed past the point of reasonable hunger, and we both ended up getting stressed about the late start, due entirely to crankiness from lack of food. The forecast called for 78 and sunny (25-26, as I try to use this clumsy Celsius scale), and somehow we moved past excitement and into “oh crap, we better take advantage of this perfect weekend before it’s over!” We should’ve recognized the first sign of a lucky day when our favorite Saturday Market baker had just removed warm croissants from the oven when we walked up to buy our customary appelflappen. Buttery fingers and a stray flake in the beard were the only evidence of either purchase by the time we crossed the second canal.

Sated, we confidently boarded a train for Amsterdam... and ended up in Haarlem. Panicked that we’d get busted for using the wrong ticket, we waited half an hour to sneak onto the next train back to Leiden, where we boarded another train to Amsterdam... that took the same route! Again we ended up in Haarlem, though at least this time there was a train conductor we could talk to who explained that there was a bus to Amsterdam Sloterdijk (not the main station), and from there we could catch the train to Amsterdam Centraal.

I initially felt like a fool for somehow making this mistake, but then realized that there were tons of Dutch people coming up to ask the same questions, and in fact we recognized several of them from our first train to Haarlem - evidently the same stupid forth, back, and forth was made by lots of people. When we asked why the monitor next to the train platform still read “Amsterdam Centraal” if that wasn’t the train’s destination, the conductor informed us that the change was only for a few trains that specific weekend, so they couldn’t change what automatically displays on the monitor. Right... At least there were more than enough buses to re-route everybody, and the Dutch all seemed to handle the news quite calmly. Somehow this rubbed off on us enough that we held in the urge to explain just how stupid it is to change the train schedule without putting up any signs or making any announcements. Zen lesson learned: what the hell good would whining have done me anyway?

Our confusion continued when we arrived in Amsterdam. On previous visits we have usually traveled on foot. On the occasions when we took the tram, we were actually quite pleased that you can just buy a single-use ticket from the driver when you board. €2.60 seemed expensive, but roughly consistent with New York or Boston; we tried to avoid wasting the money, but figured sometimes it was worth saving the feet.

But then I realized (i.e. learned from internet sleuthing) that the reason you check-in and check-out on Amsterdam transport (they have ticket sensors at every door) is that you don’t have to pay a flat fee! It’s €7.50 to purchase an “OV-chipkaart,” but then you can put a balance on the card and quickly make back your money - the 2 rides we took Saturday added up to €2.20, vs. €5.20 if we’d purchased the single-use cards. The local transport information center at Centraal Station was a madhouse, however, and while you can add money on a card at automated machines in the building, you can’t actually buy the cards from a machine - to acquire the cards, you must wait in a long line of frustrated people.

What’s not made quite clear anywhere is that you can buy those same “OV-chipkaarts” from the train kiosks and use them on the bus system! I still don’t know how the different transit companies figure out who owns what money on which cards, but in the end we completely legally skipped the lines, got everything sorted, and headed out for our first stop of the day: Amsterdam’s famous Albert Cuypmarkt.

Albert Cuypmarkt, running 6 days a week (all but Sunday) for over one hundred years, is a famous tourist draw and is alleged (by somebody on Wikipedia at least) to be the busiest daytime market in Europe. We’d heard that it had a lot of ethnic flavor owing to the neighborhood in which it sits, and in general we’re eager to visit places that suggest unique and/or local stuff, as the word ‘market’ really should.

Not this one. A Times Square t-shirt vendor would feel right at home here, sandwiched between the sitting-on-ice-but-not-actually-cold-juice stand and the lacy underwear tables. To be fair, there were some cool housewares and some interesting bolts of cloth, but nothing that compels us to go back.

But isn’t this supposed to be about a wonderful day?

Well, it was still 76 and sunny, so could we really complain about a few missteps? On a day like that the entire city was a celebration, and we decided there was no better way to enjoy it all than to be still, warm, and relaxed. We grabbed a bottle of Fanta Orange and walked the few blocks back to a canal-side park we’d seen earlier from the tram. You might think we’d tire of sitting next to water after living next to it for weeks now, but I’m always mesmerized by the dancing light off moving reflections. Besides, the whole canal was a good-natured party, and even the guys who foolishly rented the self-pedaled “canal bike” instead of a more relaxing electric boat seemed to be intent on enjoying their situation thoroughly.

We sat together in the grass, watched a man finish his joint and attempt to cycle one-handed, and saw a tubby dog paddle across the lawn to silently inquire - really it looked quite polite - after the acquisition of some freshly grilled hot dogs.

All rested and at peace, we decided it was time to score some deliciousness of our own. Once again, Nisha’s uncanny ability for these things led us to the perfect place - a small outdoor food fair on Haarlemmerstraat. Many of the vendors were local restaurants serving their food in a more casual atmosphere, and we may have to go back one day to the place that sold us a perfectly spicy house-made sausage hot off the wood-smoked grill. Or the Middle Eastern restaurant that gave us their decidedly personal take on what flavors a burger can offer. Or, more widely afield, a visit may be due the mountainous vineyards of northern Italy that provided us with two crisp, smoky whites (in proper glassware no less!) perfect for a lazy walk around the neighborhood.

No comments:

Post a Comment