Wednesday, 30 January 2008

The History Museum, 17:33, 30/01/2008

I spent around two hours going through Amsterdam's Historisch Museum, which I'm sure you can work out to be a museum dedicated to the history of Amsterdam. Unlike the Anne Frank Huis, it felt like a proper tribute to the events of the past with some works of art from over five hundred years ago that eclipse any examples in the more modern section. Getting to the museum is easy, it's right in the centre just off Dam Square, and if you get the annual museum pass for €30 - or €17.50 for under 26 year olds - you can go as many times as you like to the museums that have partaken in the scheme (which includes the Van Gogh gallery, due for a visit tomorrow), otherwise each museum costs roughly €10 each.

In the third picture down, perhaps the most conveniently-positioned hand in history.

So yes, the History Museum was fun, interesting and took up a lot of the day. After that, food was needed, so I popped down an alleyway to a pancake-house, like a normal cafe-restaurant, except they serve pancakes. Mine looked like a pizza with chorizo, tomato and cheese on it.

Tomorrow I'll try and smuggle some Van Gogh pictures out.

The Flying Pig, 12:03, 30/01/2008

I shifted myself over to the Flying Pig Downtown Hostel last night, click the link to see more. It's full of lots of small groups of people and many like-minded and sole-travellers. The atmosphere is good, there's a circle of cushions and rugs where people congregate to get high, a bar open until late, and no lock-out time, perfect if you don't know what time you'll be back, or if you want a late-night snack/stroll. Today I'll probably head over to the Van Gogh gallery, as I feel I should do so instead of regretting not doing it when I get home - then there's the torture museum which I've heard many mention.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Anne Frank and Coffee Shops, 17:31, 28/01/2008

Sitting in another one of the many coffee shops, I've managed to pace myself so I'm not walking around all day and collapsing at the end of it all and now have a rough bearing on the place, rather than getting lost and stumbling around until I find something interesting. Certainly, there are many things to do here, the realisation that you need money to do most of them makes watching your finances pretty difficult. It is with this that I heartily recommend either budgeting for €40 per day at the minimum, or take a debit/credit card with you. With them you can withdraw money out of cash machines, or simply pay for goods with them – as with the UK, you can use them pretty much anywhere. I've been sensible enough to take out a decent amount of money before getting here, but Nationwide offer a VISA Debit Card for 0% withdrawels (although neither myself nor my father could get one as you need to have a good credit rating, and have been with them for six months, I had the latter but not the former) and the Halifax credit card I obtained has 0% on purchases, plus you can use your signature because it's a credit card, no idea why, you just can – everything else is chip and pin.

I took the humble visit to the Anne Frank Huis [house] which I'd been told is a must-see when you come to Amsterdam. Cost of entry is €7.50 for adults (and €3.50 for children I think), and allows you to walk around what was once their living and hiding area. For a “must-see” 'attraction' (inverted commas as I'm not sure it's the right term to use in such a case) it's extremely clinical, most of it is modern like the metal flooring and double glazing and barely enough remains to call it anything of significance. The literature emblazoned on the wall (quotes from Anne Frank's diary) is something anyone who has read the book will be familiar with. It's hard to have any sort of emotion for such a place and as such, have been more affected by documentaries on the portrayal of the second world war than here. A small amount of artifacts such as letters to family members and registration forms bring the quiet intimacy of the situation the Frank family to heart and provides a testament that people do remember the horrors of war and have nothing but sympathy for those that had to endure those times, but also that they acknowledge nothing has changed, The Kite Runner affirmed that for me. The only difference is we no longer live in a local area that it doesn't go through what those in troubled states in the Middle East have to live within, no thanks to those certain few in power have put upon them in an effort to standardise the way in which everbody lives, whether they want that to happen or not. Witnessing the way in which McDonalds seems to appear in the most unlikely of places is a hilariously indicative of this westernisation that occurs, just click the picture..

Here's a picture of the outside of the Anne Frank Huis so you can see how pointless it would be to have taken photos inside:

Not very Auschwitz if you ask me.

Having so many coffee shops in such a small area leads them to try to become individual so they stand out from one another, some take up green neon signs, some have flashing lights and techno inside, others play jazz and make it more like a bar. 420 Cafe, taken from the radio code the police use in America to inform of a marijuana possession charge, is my favourite so far, nice air-conditiong, friendly staff and easy jazz to relax in. I've settled here after picking up some bits and bobs like some trousers from the sweetly-named Sissy Boy store, as well as a football shirt (Netherlands' national team) - because I'm oh so predictable, I can't resist the orange – and some hats for friends (can't complain at €3 for any hat.

The idiosyncracies that exist here are in vast quantity; the kerbs are connected to one another by a small half-circle, the crossing lights have a counter beneath the red man to tell you how long (counting down in seconds) is left before you cross, the sheer quantity of people cycling around – through red lights quite often – who you have to look twice each way to avoid, how relaxed people are (in no doubt helped by the availability of weed, frequency of bars and pubs and good cuisine), the lack of bad smells (besides cigarette smoke) and a temptation to just eat fine chocolates all day instead of proper meals. I'm going back to The Amber Spyglass now (third in the His Dark Materials trilogy, of which Northern Lights – The Golden Compass as it's called in the film – is the first), my third time through and it still feels fresh and compelling as when I first started the series for the first time. Sublime.

A small store right in the centre of Amsterdam, just selling Russian dolls, packed from floor to ceiling!

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Onur's 'apartment', 13:36pm, 27/01/2008

The flight docked in at Schipol airport early, I did a brief wander of what is supposed to be one of the biggest airports around and found myself a phone kiosk so I could pick up my very own Dutch SIM card for cheap calls. Yet the guy wanted €25 for one, seemed steep so I went to the neighbouring electronics store and got one for €10 with €4 of free credit and an extremely friendly woman telling me I'm "very very clever you!" for toppping up the phone; apparently everyone in the Netherlands loves to flex their talents in the English language, so it comes off as a faux American accent more than anything else.

Getting to Amsterdam Central Station (the main train station) was but a ten minute train journey from the airport, but in a double decker bus.. a pretty decent idea but weird looking!

Update from 11:15am, 28/01/2008:

The reason I put apartment in inverted commas, is because.. well, take a look for yourself.

Yes, they look like box apartments, but that's because the powers-that-be here decided to ship loads of shipping containers to Amsterdam, put flooring, heating and sewerage systems in and call them student accommodation for €280 a month! A novel idea, but the thought that you're four floors up with nothing but metal beneath and above you is weird, and that you look like sardines, ready to be cooked inside your little metal home. Yum.

Getting to Onur's apartment isn't hard, the metro trains run very regularly and are as late running as the London Underground, it's a couple of stops from the town centre where you can walk everywhere you need. A lot of people walk, many use bicycles.. but for tourists, walking is really all you should do. There's a well-formed etiquette between pedestrian, cyclist and car that has come about since the time that all existed in the same area. You can find the tourists at once, they're the ones looking around and stopping all the time on their bikes, which causes no end of hassle and 'ring ring'-ing from Dutch people on their bike bells, those who know where they're going and want to get there quickly. It's a weird atmosphere to me though, as pollution feels non-existent, walking and cycling are the two main forms of transport rarely will you see a car that isn't a man-of-the-law or a taxi, and there don't tend to be many smokers outside of the cafes and bars.

Oh yes, the cafes. What are commonly know as 'coffee shops' do in fact sell coffee; but they also sell many different types of weed, hash, and many other forms of smokable drugs. For a person that doesn't smoke cigarettes (like me), they offer pre-rolled joints for around €3 a pop, usually they include more tobacco (cheap stuff) than anything else but will do the job if you're smoking the whole joint to yourself. What seems perplexing though, is that they all store their vast quantities of marijuana in ice-cream tubs beneath the counter, and have a price-list on top of it with the many varieties that they stock; usually around €10 per gramme for decent weed or hash, and 20% off if you buy 5g or more (not sure on any discount above that). On the flight I took, those that weren't from the Netherlands and returning home were mostly English and looking to partake in this side of Amsterdam, as well as another I'll get to soon. I do recommend checking out a few coffee shops before making an opinion on them, as out of three I've visited, one felt like an upper-class chain with welcoming peope, another was lit with bright green decor and flashing green lights (which could have made the decor green, who knows!), and another (called Cafe Ben) had huge marijuana contraptions intended to inhale the fumes without the aid of tobacco, some for up to four people at once, but those seemed to be for show than anything else. They all had a nice vibe to them, not once have I felt threatened in Amsterdam so far, the streets don't smell like piss and beer, whereas in Northampton (UK, where I usually reside), that's just the norm, no thanks to the local Carlsberg factory. Violence just doesn't appear to exist, even in the most crowded of bar areas where the drunk people usually congregate. Those in coffee shops are too stoned to care for anything else.

I also managed to find the biggest Miffy doll ever, I think Miffy originates from the Netherlands (unlike Hello Kitty, born in Japan in Sanrioland, also the place Jonathan Ross was married), and a lovely titled store.

Doesn't really tempt you to come into their store with a name like that!

So far, I've met a range of people in only a few days, an Irish man with his partner from Greece, who both live in Germany; they bestowed upon me a map of the whole place with museums located conveniently on them all, extremely helpful for trying to find my way to any, or back to Dam Centre (the epicentre of Amsterdam, from which you can locate your bearings and head to the shops, coffeehouses, red light district or the train station easily. There's also a couple of Irish pubs around, I went to the Tara the night I got in as Onur had work and I needed a sit down, they had Sky Sports on, with the Wigan/Chelsea match in full flow, plenty of Guinness and Murphy's, and filled with Irish and English people. But I did feel guilty being there, flying over to Amsterdam, just to drink in a bar with the same people I do at home; it was just the first night though..

As you may have noticed, I slipped in a mention of the red light district without a flutter of a childish giggle, that's because here, the residents don't pay attention to it as if it was a taboo or something to be giggled at, it's just here. A big vinyl sticker on a window of a 12 foot dildo is apparently what I should expect to see, nothing something to recoil in horror and start laughing at profusely. Before you even get there, there's a bridge you can walk over (there are many in Amsterdam, all which go over the canals which are a huge feature here) to get to the neon-lit area, and before it two nights ago were around fifty people, looking at the bright streets, jeering at each other and acting nervously and child-like, obviously tourists but being here only a short time makes you used to it, just like the coffee shops. I titter (no pun intended, I just needed another work for laugh or giggle) at the window displays, the women who dress in nothing but thongs and gyrate under red-lit rooms for the public to watch, it's surreal but contained. The problems we have with drugs and prostitution could be helped enormously if it were for an intervention of this kind. Coffee shops would mean that people can relax with ease and not feel pressured when buying from a dodgy dealer, they could be happy in the fact that the shops would be government-regulated, that the latest batch they buy won't be laced with glass shards (as one was around a year ago, sourced from Liverpool as far as I know). Prostitutes wouldn't have to fear if they were going to get raped, mugged or beaten to a pulp, as again, it would all be regulated by the government. It's a debate that countless people have brought to discussion, but seeing it in action here shows how repressed we can be about sex, those that aren't or feel they can't be open in their own country take the trip here to sample the delights the city (which doesn't feel like a city, but a multitude of small humble towns closely compacted) and gain the confidence they didn't have before. Those that live here seem to regard the brothels as something they wouldn't do, even if they were virgins, but that's a small sample and from guys in their twenties, I've seen many middle-aged men just browsing the DVD sections in animal and bizarre porn stores (note: the front of the shops don't have windows, it's all open plan, I have no interest in horses.

The last thing I can think to mention is the food, the variety available is astonishing. We have Chinese, Thai, Indian, Italian and Turkish (well, kebabs) in the UK, but here, there's all that, plus all the cuisine's of the neighbouring countries, and many different varieties of the ones I've just mentioned. The good restaurants are very good, there are humble cottage-esque restaurants serving up dishes of salmon with lemon, salad and potatoes, as well as onion soup and apple pie for desert (cost €20.50, modest for what they gave me), I fail to remember the name of the place, but it was warm, cosy and felt clean and welcoming. Again, the overly-friendly nature of the residents came through, an extremely enthusiastic "you're welcome" every time you say "thank you" causes me to stifle my laughter somewhat - it's nice, though.

To answer Jonny, iPods in the duty-free are minus tax, 80GB (black or silver) ones are around £120, and the 160GB models are something like £196, I think! The iPod touch is £158 for the 8GB version (usually £199) and £216 for the 16GB.

And I shall leave you with news that Hema has just set up her chain of stores here in Amsterdam.

Gatwick Airport, 12:33pm, 26/01/2008

Arrived with plenty of time to spare, enough to gather my bearings and become bemused at the scale of it all. Looking at the screens, I half expected to see train destinations, London Euston, Edinburgh etc, but instead was greeted with Budapest, Cologne, Orlando and some other far off places; surreal as I've never been on a commercial flight before, just RAF ones which went between Cagliari and various places in the UK (with a brief stop-over in Germany).

At the moment I'm in the airport lounge, after being told to remove my belt, shoes, coat, backpack and any items in my pockets, only to have to put them on ten seconds later after they'd been scanned. I do wonder if they 'catch' anything going through.. Skimping around the large duty free shopping area is something to behold, my iPod touch (8GB) which I bought the day after release in November for £199 is £158 in Dixons Tax Free, that's a pretty substantial saving, especially so if you're buying a new computer, simply buy a cheap flight out (£10 seems to be the cheapest around, although my aunt recently went with Ryanair and only spent 1p), go into the duty free zone and splurge away. You can save hundreds on a MacBook pro (£200 off the basic model), another £40+ off the latest iPods, as well as DVDs and games also taking a worthwhile knock down. I'm due to board at 12:50pm, off for now!