People said this trip would change me. I knew they were right, but I wasn’t sure in what ways or when, or how drastically. I had no idea until I tried french fries in the Netherlands, Dutch style: a cone of golden potatoes served with so much mayo on top they give you a little fork to eat them with. Before that first thick bite of hot, oil-creamy goodness, I always hated mayonnaise. I never ate it back home unless it was overpowered by something else and completely necessary for the greater good, like in egg salad. The texture, appearance, and flavor of the sauce have disgusted me for my entire life. Until that first bite in Holland.
Things have changed back home, too, which I somehow didn’t expect. Things I should have been there for, things not to miss, yet I have missed them. I guess that’s part of what travel does. It creates a rift between what has happened with your friends and family and what you’ve witnessed, while also separating what has happened to you from what everyone else you know, or knew, has seen.
I read a quote once pointing out that both crying and laughter come from the same basic recognition: seeing the difference between what things are and what they should be. Travel creates many of those differences in a short amount of time. Differences I can’t fight or argue with, any more than I can argue with the dark slippery glimmer of Amsterdam’s brick-lined canals, or Utrecht’s Dutch houses with their curvaceous rooftop facades, or the atrocities made personal by the Anne Frank house and the sad ironies of timing revealed within it.
My first stop in the Netherlands was the city of Utrecht, to see my friend Eva, who I’d met near the beginning of my trip in June. Way back in Galway, Ireland, she and her friend Sabine couchsurfed with my host there, Nacho, at the same time I did. Now in her hometown, Eva showed me around Utrecht and a bit of Amsterdam right away, and the next day we met up with an Australian friend of hers and made an afternoon of two Amsterdam standards — a walk through the red-light district and a live sex show — before meeting up with Sabine for traditional Dutch pancakes. (I recommend one crispy on the edges with cheese and ginger.)
Later, by bizarre coincidence, we found out that Nacho was on a road trip in the area and was coming to Amsterdam. The four of us had an unlikely reunion that night and celebrated by going to another Amsterdam staple, a “coffee shop,” which was pretty much as you’d expect it: relaxed and hungry.
But as great as Amsterdam’s countercultural standards are, my favorite parts of the city were the ever-present canals (of which it has more than Venice), the bikes which seem to outnumber the people, and the architecture. I couldn’t resist the intoxicating sense of history and elegance which coursed through its 17th-century waterways while the social culture above pushed forward, modern and unrestricted. The many facets of Amsterdam came to life in surprising scenes all over as I walked around the city: I’d step around the corner from a row of fast-food restaurants to see a prostitute waving from behind neon glass, right next to a gourmet soup kitchen, across the street from a powerful church which was overlooking a majestic canal. And taking in so many differences between what I’d expect and what was clearly in front of me, I couldn’t help but laugh.
More stuff from the Netherlands:
– Leiden independence festival: “Booster” ride (like the Hammerhead but bigger, faster, and spinning upside-down) with my host Lauren; eating fair food including several types of sugary deep-fried balls of dough called oliebollen; renting rowboats with a group of her friends to drift along the canals.
– A four-hour countryside bike ride with another host, Sanne, in Utrecht, followed by a Dutch pancake dinner with poached pears, ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce and Cointreau (and a side of fries).
– More Dutch food: “hagelslag” (chocolate sprinkles they put on buttered bread for breakfast); fresh “stroopwaffles” (thin, round waffle sandwiches with warm caramel in the middle); a half-dozen more cones of fries. With mayo.