My beautiful and delicious birthday cake, which says something that we hope means "Happy birthday!" Apparently the workers and the bakery spoke very little English, but between their little bit of English and my friends' little bit of Czech, they managed to get this wonderful cake! I would consider that adventure a rousing success- I have such great friends!
No, I did not forget about you guys! I need to get better about this blogging business. My biggest problem? I take too many photos! And then I'm too much of a perfectionist to allow subpar, unedited photographs loose on the Internet. On top of that, it's exam week here in Prague! Not quite like exams back in the States, but still a bit stressful. I had exams in Czech and Art History, a six page paper, and a photographic portfolio. But now that's all wrapped up, and I'm going to be able to enjoy my next few days! But here I am today, with one giant update on my life.
On Friday morning, we left early for Amsterdam. Getting there was a little bit crazy: we took the Metro to catch a bus to get our plane. Once arriving at Eindhoven Airport- just outside of Amsterdam, since it was cheaper than Schiphol- we caught another bus to the train station (where we stopped for kebabs for lunch, since kebabs are delicious). Instead of taking the tram in Amsterdam, we just walked to our hostel, because it was fairly close. It was very nice! I preferred St. Christopher's in Berlin, but it was still a great place to stay. It was right near the Red Light District, and we all agreed that the next time we're in Amsterdam, we'd rather stay in another one of the main areas between Leidesplein and Rembrandstplein. It was only a fifteen minute walk, so it wasn't too far to walk, but that area was considerably classier and had better food. On the upside, though, our hostel was very close to some great shopping! By the end of our stay, we were very familiar with the city from all of our walking (and from all the time we got lost!). Amsterdam is a winding city, with lots of alleys that take you unexpected places. It's an absolutely stunning place. The canals are gorgeous, and it's surprisingly clean and safe. Yes, after dark, certain places have a sketchier feel. But honestly, I think that the general increased awareness in Amsterdam- both from visitors and from the Dutch living there- contributes greatly to safety there.
On Friday afternoon, we wandered around a little bit, and eventually grabbed dinner at this Chinese place called Wok to Walk. It is literally the greatest thing ever. I want to put one in Columbia (as well as a kebab stand, of course!). Basically, you choose your base (egg noodles, rice noodles, white rice, brown rice, etc etc), which comes with some vegetables, and sauce, and then you can add all sorts of tasty things like meat, peanuts, specific kinds of vegetables- the possibilities are endless. They cook the food in a giant wok right in front of you, and serve it in an very large orange Chinese box. I was so in love with this phenomenon that I ate dinner there Sunday night as well.
Several people went out that night, but I wasn't feeling up to it, so I headed back to the hostel. I was planning on a quiet night in when I met a girl in the lobby. She was getting directions to a variety of places around the city, and I just asked if I could join in- and that is how I met my Canadian friend Claire! We spent a few hours just exploring the city. None of the destinations on our map were really places we wanted to stop, but it was a very fun way to see a variety of places. Eventually, we started to get cold (it is quite chilly over here!) and we found this quiet little cafe and bakery to stop at. I had tea and a slice of some sort of chocolate peanut butter pie, and Claire had an apple strudel with her tea- both were delicious! The man working there was a very chatty expat from Iraq whose family owned the business. It was really cool getting to know someone who had lived in the area for so long. I had several experiences chatting with Dutch people- they are all incredibly friendly (and thankfully, most speak English!). What's interesting to me is that almost all of them are very clear that they do not do drugs. Marijuana, while technically not legal, is decriminalized, and "coffeeshops" are everywhere. Other drugs are also very easily accessible. This creates great profit for the government, from taxes on drug and food sales, but is really more part of the tourist culture than anything else. Interestingly enough, a very conservative government was recently instated, and by 2015, 95% of the windows that make the Red Light District so famous will be closed down. Seeing that whole aspect of the city was interesting, because it was so different, but also very sad. The women range in age from 18 to 83, and come in all shapes and sizes from all walks of life. Most, however, are not in fact Dutch. A lot of them are Eastern european girls who see it as a way to make a lot of money fairly quickly without needing any sort of education. People argue that it's part of the culture, that they choose this lifestyle, but I also feel like that can't possibly be entirely or universally true.
Beyond that aspect of Amsterdam. On Saturday morning, we grabbed some pastries and watched an international sand soccer competition! Afterwards, we headed to the Anne Frank House. The line was of an extremely intimidating length, but we braced ourselves and queued obediently- this was something we all wanted to do! And we left the house incredibly thankful that we did. It was a phenomenal experience- so indescribably moving. I got chills walking through there. Actually being in Anne's house... It gives the book so much more depth and meaning. Traveling Europe has made history very real for me. Suddenly you see everything coming to life, and you're no longer talking about facts and events but people and families and reality. It gives the world a very different perspective.
After that museum, I parted ways with the group and headed to the Rijksmuseum, one of Amsterdam's greatest art museums. I particularly enjoyed the way that it blended Dutch history with the artwork. It was absolutely fascinating. I'm so glad I went! And even better? Since I was 18, I got in for free! I spent a few very pleasant hours exploring the works there. Afterwards, I went to an international skateboarding competition called Amsterdam RampJam, which was a ton of fun! I (obviously) have a ton of respect for sports where crashing is just a reality of life- it happens, you get back up, and you keep on going. There were some really great skateboarders there, and I happily watched until the sun began to sink lower. I decided to meander my way back towards the hostel, since I hadn't been able to meet up with the group for dinner. The way I went was probably two or three times as long as the "right" way, but I was being stubborn and didn't want to use my map. Besides, I don't mind walking. After a detour for dinner (crepes with strawberries and tea), I made it back safe and sound... and then a friend called telling me that they were at a pub watching the USA vs England game- and how could I miss that?! So I headed over to hang out with them and their new Swiss friends that they had met earlier while touring the Heineken brewery. Fortunately, those guys speak English better than we speak French (that is to say, not at all. Scratch that, mon petit chouchou, I can count to fourteen, name my parents, and ask if you can speak French- not a particularly helpful question for me, come to think of it... Hmm. French is on the agenda, for the record. Between Belgium and my life plans, I'd like to know a smidge more than I do now!). But regardless, you'll be interested to know that despite all stereotypes, the Swiss are not neutral when it comes to football! They were pulling for England, but we forgave them, since they were quite a lot of fun to hang out with! England should have won that game anyway (but they didn't- ha!). We were more or less the only Americans there, but that's okay. There will probably be more of us at the game here in Prague tomorrow! Anyway, back to Amsterdam. We had a great night, made some awesome friends, and, while heading back, Ashley and I went entirely in the wrong direction, found the guys we had just left, and then stopped for some delicious pizza. When you're hungry, you're hungry. It tasted delicious.
Sunday morning, we slept in for a bit. Ashley, Jessalyn, and I found this adorable little cafe where we got a full English breakfast for a fairly reasonable price. It was so delicious. I love me some England! Of course, I had tea with my breakfast. I can't help myself. It was fantastic! Afterwards, Ashley and I took a free walking tour of the city, which proved to be very fascinating. Our tour guide was hilarious, as were the three Dutch kids who were along for the adventure, and it was a very enjoyable four hours. Afterwards, we headed towards a friend's hostel to meet up so we could grab food, when we heard voices calling our names behind us. We were puzzled- who knows us here in Amsterdam?! Lo and behold, it was our Swiss friends again! We were very excited to see them again! Later, Ashley and I met up with some other people from our program, as well as some other friends we met in Amsterdam. We ended up parting ways fairly quickly, and Ashley and I stumbled across a bead shop on our way to one of the main squares. I bought a bracelet for myself: thin brown cord that wraps around my wrist four times, with a white carved fish in the middle. Yes Mom, my rubber bands are finally off of my arm! We then continued to wander in the direction of food, when we found a cool looking clothing store that had some great sales. Guess who finally bought some more warm clothes?! Amsterdam was very cold, and Prague is Prague- you never know what you're going to get! But now, I have another sweatshirt, long sleeved shirt, and sweater. Hooray! We grabbed Wok to Walk on our way back to the hostel, which we promptly devoured with some very nice Americans backpacking around that we met in line. Once back at the hostel, we reorganized ourselves, and the girls headed down to Rembrantsplein to find a place to watch the Germany/Australia game. It was awesome! I really enjoyed it. We ended up meeting some British guys and going to a karaoke bar with them, which was quite the adventure. We knew we would have to leave our hostel by 6:30 the next morning, so we didn't stay very long. All in all, though, we had a wonderful time in Amsterdam.
We woke up early to catch a train to a bus to a plane to another bus to the Metro to home sweet home! It was a long day of traveling- eight hours- followed by class, yikes! But we made it! This week has been a little bit crazy, what with it being exam week (two exams, a six page paper, and a portfolio). But I have made some time for myself- between discovering a new sandwich stop near Tesco, exploring the Modern Art and Cubism museums (I love modern art. It's hands down my favorite... perhaps because it is so up to your own interpretation. It truly is what make it!), eating dinner- in Czech!- with my Czech language class, and enjoying football and the beautiful gardens of Prague, exam week isn't so bad! I survived, and made it to my birthday!
My friends surprised me with a cake and a little party before we left on our farewell cruise down the Vltava. It was so much fun- they totally fooled me!- but a little bittersweet, since most people are leaving tomorrow or Saturday. I am so thankful that I am staying two sessions. I can't imagine leaving now. I feel like I'm just settling in. There is so much that I want to see and do still! I have people to meet and places to go and food to eat (obviously a high priority of mine, in case you hadn't already noticed!). Breakfast today was- just so you know- a strawberry-orange tart with chocolate drizzled on it. It was glorious on so many levels. I adore this city, for so many reasons. It probably sounds strange to hear me call it home- but it just feels like that for me. Of course, "home" and "from" have always been sort of relative for me because of moving. I just really enjoy living here. I'm glad I have five more weeks!Walking back from class along the river
At the Amsterdam RampJam competition!
It wouldn't be Holland if there weren't tulips!
The entrance to the Anne Frank House
I inadvertently stumbled into a "Free Iran" rally. Lots of shouting in Farsi.
Looking at the Rijksmuseum and the I amsterdam sign!
Orange was EVERYWHERE. The Dutch are very proud of their team. World Cup fever doesn't even begin to describe the environment! Hup Holland Hup!
The hooks are because Dutch staircases are so narrow and steep that you had to use a pulley system to move items to upper floors. The buildings lean forward over the street so that the items don't swing and hit the lower windows. It wasn't for many years until they started building longer hooks... And buildings that leans sideways are simply crooked, the result of building on land that isn't really land. Over fifty percent of the Netherlands is reclaimed land from the sea, which, as our tour guide put it, gives the Dutch a real says that "God created the world, but we created Holland!" They are very proud of their small and beautiful country!
Graffiti and bicycles outside of one of the houses where squatters live. The Dutch cycle everywhere! There are more bikes than people in Amsterdam- and there are over 750,000 people there! They pull over 25,000 bikes out of the canals each year, and it is estimated that over half of all bikes on the streets have been stolen at least once. Regardless, virtually everyone ends with a bike one way or another.
The hammock store: such a glorious find. I loved them all!