Amsterdam

First of all, shout out to Imagine Dragons for this song. Second of all, let me just tell you more about how magic is real.

This trip did not turn out how I expected it to at all, let me say that. I thought we would get there and have a place to live–and that was my first mistake. I thought I was really good at using public transit–that was my second mistake. My third mistake? My third mistake was thinking this would not be a life-changing weekend. Boy, was I in for surprise after surprise.

So picture Jaci, Ryan, and I going through security and customs in St. Pancras International, bantering about what the weekend would bring. Our place had a hot tub, according to Luke, but I unknowingly left my swimsuit back in the States. I could swing by an H&M (or any other clothing store, I guess) and buy one, easy, but how much would we really be back at our room? Amsterdam needed to be explored! But Luke could not get into contact with our host, but we would figure it out. There were four and a half hours before we would actually get to the Netherlands anyway. Luke could deal with it from class, and we would make do in the next time zone.

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And then we were in Amsterdam…still homeless. But we could make our way to the general area where our Airbnb was and get food. We could just camp out and wait. After buying a four-day public transit pass and getting help from a fabulous train station employee, we were off on the tram. Ryan had told us the name of our stop in very poor Dutch, but he pointed it out and was ready to get off at the right time. Jaci and I were ready, as well, only we didn’t follow Ryan out the entrance door and therefore were still on the tram when it took off for the next stop. Oops. There were exchanged glances of “Lost Boy,” “well, shit,” and “wait, what?” before Jaci and I calmed down and realized we could just get off at the next stop. Thankfully, that was right down the street. We just hoped Ryan knew to stay put until we found him, since he was the only one who had international data. Lucky us, he was right where he should be, and Jaci and I were laughing our butts off at our mix up. We didn’t quite have a place to live yet, but at least we were already having fun! Anything lighthearted to prepare us for the hell we were about to go through.

Together and in the general vicinity, we found a great little restaurant called Calf & Bloom–good club sandwiches and decent wifi–while Luke still tried to get ahold of our host and Airbnb’s customer service. A meal for each of us, a coffee for me, a tea for Jaci, and a second beer for Ryan later, we were still sitting in our circular booth. The restaurant’s atmosphere was calm, and I loved the flower centerpieces on every table, but I was ready to have a place to live. The three of us moved our camp to the Starbucks across the canal, and we did some more waiting.

Soon it was clear that our Airbnb was not going to happen tonight–probably ever. The only thing we could do was find a cheap hotel to crash in for the night, where we could drop our bags, have a bed, and continue trying to contact Airbnb. And shower. I always feel so grungy after a day of traveling , especially like the one this was turning out to be.

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After we did our waiting–twelve years of it! In Azkaban!!–we checked into our saving grace hotel: the Albus. How fitting, right? Since the room was not quite ready when we arrived (since we had booked it all of ten minutes beforehand), so we were treated to a voucher for free drinks. A beer for Ryan–shocker!–and rosé for Jaci and me. The best thing that had happened that day, hands down. The room was nice and the bed was comfy–even better once we “attached” the futon to create Super Bed. Four people (because Luke had arrived, eventually) could comfortably and easily fit, snuggling optional.

At two in the morning, we were finally on the phone with Airbnb, explaining our situation and asking for someone we had already spoken to–no point in teling our sob story to another person. We needed someone who could actually do something about it–not easy when the person on the other line was all the way in America.

“We will get you a place by tomorrow.”

Okay, that would sound great if it was not already tomorrow for us. We had all of a few waking hours to be out of the Albus and into a new (hopefully solid) place to live. They gave us two options to chose from that were around our price range, and we could be in them the next day. Our first choice turned out to be bogus–yipee!–and we could not get the second listing. Are you serious? Unfortunately so. And it only got better when the hotel tried to charge us fifty extra pounds for an “upgrade” we did not know about or consent to. What was this trip turning into?

Luckily, the hotel let us keep our luggage there while we went out for the day. So we were off with a burden on our shoulders but no luggage on our arms. Ryan had reserved tickets for us to see the Anne Frank House that afternoon, so to waste some time before that we took the tram to the Van Gough Museum, per Jaci’s request. Having taken the freeness of the museums in London for granted, paying twenty euro to get into this one was not the business. Instead, we opted for the toursit-packed “I am Amsterdam” sign and the biggest park in the city, Vondelpark. People, bikes, dogs, and more photo ops than my little heart could handle.

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The parks in London are gorgeous, and I adore them more than words can say, but this one was absolutely wonderful. The trees turning all shades of red, orange, and yellow. Off the beaten paths tunneled by trees. Huge walkways that are not for walking, just for bikes. Fun fact: there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam, with a ratio of about 1.08:1 (thanks for that one, Jaci!). It was a beautiful, sunny day in Amsterdam–it almost made me forget that we didn’t exactly have a place to live yet. Which is why we decided to take up shop in a Starbucks and figure out just where we were going to live for the next few days, since Airbnb was of no more help to us. Thankful for the boys for finding and booking a hotel and getting control of the situation while Jaci and I were at the pharmacy and drinking coffee.

So we had a place to live for the remainder of the weekend, at last. And it was off to the Anne Frank House, which let me tell you, made all of our problems seem utterly trivial. As we walked through the empty rooms, small and bare, imagining how cramped they must have been with furniture and eight people living in them, I was reminded of just how lucky I am to be living this life. How crazy it was that “being different” was such a scary thing back then–and how scary it can be today. Reading the diary entries of a young girl, fearing for her life and the lives of those like her, longing to do something as simple as see the sunlight or go outside, was a sobering experience. I wanted to take back all my complaints about Airbnb and our dilemma. It meant nothing next to the horror of the “witch hunt” that occurred so recently in history. It reminded me to take nothing for granted and to treat each day as a special one.

It had rained while we were inside–fitting for the somber experience–but the sun was shining again once we had finished the tour and were ready to leave, so we grabbed our bags from the Albus and headed for our new hotel, which we were to stay in for the rest of the weekend. The Prins Henrik was not as nice or modern as the Albus, but it was clean and big enough for us and in a great location, close to the train station and restaurants and bars. And the Red Light District. We were all curious as to what exactly the famous Red Light District was like, so after dinner and few drinks (and a game of Pizza Box), the four of us walked to the canal where all the action took place. Literally and figuratively.

The sidewalks were packed with people–some for the action and some just being tourists–and there were red lights in almost every window. That wasn’t the only thing in the windows, though. There were women dressed in all sorts of lingerie, some in costumes, posing in the glass, tapping on the windows, showing off their stuff. All a guy had to do was go up to one of the doors, have a quick chat, and either walk in or walk away (by their own accord or from rejection from the prostitute). There were peep shows and bars along the way, and the lights spread onto side streets. The District is a lot bigger than you think, and not all of it lives up to the name. There are businesses (not sex-related) and restuarants and the Stock Exchange.

But it was all so interesting. Definitely a culture shock from America–and even London. Jaci and I had so many questions. How did they get into this profession? Do they charge differently depending on the type of guy? The flat rate is 50 euro, but what does that entail? They rent the space each day or night, so how easy it is to make a profit? Are they friends? Or at least, do they banter while they are just waiting for their next client? Not that either of us had any ideas about dropping out of school and taking up shop in one of the windows, we were just curious. We joked the next afternoon that we should buy their time and eat pizza and gossip about it.

Post lap around the block, we hit a bar for a drink and then returned to the hotel to sleep. No need for Super Bed, since we all got our own.

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The next morning, we ate our complimentary breakfast and Mackenzie joined our adventure. Now that the full squad was together, we could head off to our first destination of the day: the Heineken Factory. We got to take a tour through the old factory, with a few tidbits of history, then saw the official Heineken horses. They were so cute! After that we got to do a “taste test” where we went through all the stages of drinking the perfect beer. The foam keeps in all the “great taste,” but Jaci and I wouldn’t describe it that way. Neither of us like beer at all much, but I drank my whole glass. It was only about 4 inches tall, but it was a big step for Ashley-kind. After that, we got to go on a “ride” and be a part of the beer-making process, which was pretty cool.

Our tickets came with two “free” beers at the end of the tour, so we got those and game-planned the rest of our day, which was supposed to include a canal cruise. While Luke was in the bathroom, he stumbled upon an poster for a Heineken Experience add-on: a canal cruise and then a trip to the top of the A’DAM building for about 5 euro cheaper than just a regular canal cruise. And there were five open spots at six, perfect timing for the sunset!

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To burn some time, we got dinner and discovered a street market. It reminded me so much of Farmer’s Market in SLO. But since it was closing time and a lot of the booths were getting packed up, we headed back to the canal to catch our boat. The canal was beautiful, and I fell even more in love with the city. All the house boats were so cool to look at. And then we saw the A’DAM building, with the lookout on top. Very different from the Skydeck in Chicago, this one was outdoors. I was afraid it would be windy, which is one of the reasons I was so nervous to go up there–the other is that I am absolutely terrified of heights. You know, the usual.

The view from the top was nearly enough to make me forget about being scared of how high up we were. You could see the entire city, a perfect 360 degrees of Amsterdam. At sunset. The sky was a hundred different colors above the never-ending skyline. It was getting colder as the sun disappeared, but we didn’t want to leave the view. Photos couldn’t do it justice, so we had to soak up every moment. Unfortunately, we had to make it back to the river to catch the final boat back to the Heineken Factory, so no more gorgeous view for us. Fortunately, the canal all lit up was even more beautiful than before.img_9659

Back at the hotel, we played a new drinking game called “Asshole” (a new squad favorite) before hitting drunk Chinese food. Chicken Terryaki and fried rice was quite possibly the greatest decision of the entire trip to this point. Made right in front of us and served in a classic take-out box. So good, I am still dreaming about it. And after our drunk cravings were satisfied, we showed Mackenzie the Red Light District, and this time, we stopped in front of a few of the buildings to watch the intereactions go down. Acceptions, rejections, queries, and so on. The second trip didn’t answer any of our questions–it probably gave us more of them, actually. Luke and Ryan left us for a club (to participate in the ADE festivities), while Jaci, Mackenzie, and I finished our lap, observing and gossiping more freely now that the boys were gone. Then for us, it was back to the hotel for showers and sleep. My two favorite end-of-day activities.

Our last full day in Amsterdam was probably my favorite. We were going to pretend to be locals and ride bikes around the city. And try not to die. I hadn’t riden a bike in a while (other than the stationary ones at the gym), so it could get interesting. Our loop began on the outskirts of the city, riding along the canal through the falling leaves and the shining sun. “Beautiful” is the biggest understatement of the century. It was exciting to GoPro it all, too–until we lost Luke. We waited for a while until we worried a little, then Ryan volunteered to find him. They returned together soon enough, and the squad was off again!

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It was very freeing to just ride bikes around the city, alone with my thoughts, instead of walking together and making conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking to my friends and making all our fabulous jokes, but this was peaceful. We wandered along various canals and down different streets until we ended up back at Vondelpark. It was even better from my bike seat than it was from my feet. Though we didn’t stay for too long in this location before moving on, I loved every second. A stop for coffee and snack at the Starbucks (also the same one from Friday) was due, and then it was off to the “I am Amsterdam” sign for Mackenzie to see. It was pretty much a backwards agenda of our first full day, now that I think about it…

But this time when we showed up at the sign, there was a massive street market. Aisles of trinkets and accessories and artwork, just waiting for me to spend all my money on things I fall in love with at first sight. I am a sucker for jewelry, so when I spotted a silver double-heart ring, I practically threw my credit card at the owner. The same thing happened when we walked by a booth full of notebooks and planners. I will drop money so fast on a new journal that once again, I practically threw my credit card. There was more browsing, but no more buying from me. It was getting down to the wire for when we had to return the bikes (already almost 6 pm? Where did the time go?), so one quick stop at the Hard Rock Cafe, so Ryan could get a shot glass, and then back to the shop to give the bikes back to the fabulous couple (and their adorable dog!) who rented them to us. Plus, I only almost got run over twice–a success in my book.

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With our slightly sore butts, we went to dinner at an Italian place by our hotel, then we were off to the ADE carnival for waffles. I love dessert! Plus, it was right across the street from where we were supposed to meet our guide for the Red Light District Tour. Yup, going the last two nights was not enough–we had to get the official tour. Right a nine o’clock, we met our tour guide: the incredibly cute and Dutch Matt. He was as adorable as the dog from the bike rental place. Maybe more. This was where we found out that the Red Light District encompassed a lot more than what we had originally thought, and where Matt told us about how it used to be the “ghetto” and the go-to place to buy heroin from the Chinese mafia. But now with all the regulations and everything, it was now the safest place in Amsterdam. We made stops on various streets, seeing the Old Church, the Magic Mushroom shop, and the peep shows. We actually got to go inside one of the “theaters”–but we didn’t see anything, thankfully. Our (meaning Jaci, Mackenzie, and my) interest in the Red Light District didn’t leave the street, we didn’t need to know what was inside. By the end of the tour? Curiosity satisfied (and we got more than we bargained for).

Before our group completely dispersed, we grabbed Matt for some coffeeshop-specific questions. In case you didn’t know, weed (along with quite a few other hard drugs) is legal in Amsterdam, and you can buy it at any “coffee shop” (not cafe, there is a difference). We asked Matt where we should go and if a pre-rolled joint was better than rolling it ourselves. I don’t smoke, and I don’t have any desire to, so I was just along for the ride (as was Ryan), but when in Amsterdam, do as the Dutch do, right? Another fun fact: less than 60% of the residents of Amsterdam smoke weed–a statistic that surprised us. There was coughing and laughing, and I held the joint while Jaci looked for the lid to her chapstick. Exciting for a straight-edge kid like me. But a perfect ending to what started as such a stressful trip!

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Despite the unfortante start to our vacation, this turned out to be one of the best weekends of my life. Every day I find more things about life that I love and that I am thankful for. Going to Cal Poly was a game-changer, and I finally got to see what it was like to be happy–to learn what happiness really was. But studying abroad was a life-changer. It opened my eyes to so many more opportunities that the world has to offer. So many adventures. So many places to explore. So many memories to make. I love San Luis Obispo. I adore London. I am doing backflips for Amsterdam. I can’t wait to go back (at some point in the future, but it will happen), but I also can’t wait to go on more adventures with my friends, both in London and in the rest of Europe.

December is coming too quickly! ((Maybe I shouldn’t be binge-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine right now…))

xoxo, Ash

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