So my first evening out and about provided a good reminder that travel can be super cool and also have its off days that make you long to be further deepening your own living room sofa’s ass groove.
My first question is, in such a civilized country, why is the train system so damned mystifying? With uncooperative American plastic, one can only pay with coins – not bills – at the ticket machines (and the tickets are not always cheap: my ticket to Leiden was 17 euros! that’s a heap of heavy coinage that would drag anyone’s non-suspendered pants off); the small electronic display boards on the exterior of the trains do not consistently indicate the train’s destination; the automatic signs that flip over above the track like a meth-fueled Rolodex only list a few select stations planned for that route; inside the cars, every five or so seats are lovely flat screen monitors that display…. precisely nothing, except their time stamp on the top banner. (Okay, on ONE train I have observed station stop info being displayed – this is out of about 15 trains so far). As a result, when one gets to a stop, one must crane one’s head wildly to try to spot the station sign and hurriedly scoot to activate the door if it’s the right one – not always an easy feat when burdened with cumbersome luggage, especially as the trains that run on the main lines are often double deckers, which means there is a tiny swinging glass door that must be squeezed through and a narrow winding staircase up or down that must be surmounted. One of the main transfer stations also is mysteriously distributed in separate, unconnected buildings over several city blocks. There is no map of this; you simply disembark at platforms 9 and 10 and see….. no apparent transfer opportunities. Peering down and out of the station you can observe exit turnstiles giving every impression you are at the End Of The Station and entering the real world again. Which you are, except that if you manage to spot the signs pointing you towards the other tracks – only visible once one has bravely/recklessly/frustratedly crossed the frontier exiting the station – you are directed to walk several hundred meters where you will once again be enfolded into the welcoming bosom of tracks 1 through 8.
Despite these informational omissions, I managed to get into Amsterdam without too much trouble – since nearly everyone speaks English, I have just taken to flagging down any helpful looking person and being my pitiful confused American self. Upon arrival at A’dam Central station I hustled to extract myself from the seedy swarms of backpackers, panhandlers, and touts, zooming as fast as my feet would take me toward town proper. (With a small pause to marvel at and photograph the station’s sea of bikes, parked with glittering handlebars as far as the eye could see, which actually choked me up a little in tree-huggy appreciation for this little country that essentially runs on human speed, people-powered, non-polluting transportation.)
I few blocks out I saw a prominent sign for the tapas restaurant John recommended I fuel up at. I had imagined it to be a hole in the wall (Spanish food in Am’dam? not the first thing one thinks of) but its people watching appeal was obvious, situated canalside at a major crossroads near the station and across from an enormous herring stand (Dutch street food = herring, yes). I settled in with a half liter of sangria on the terrace, and asked the recently seated American family next to me to snap a shot of me with my fruity beverage. The young lady who obliged me had just graduated last week from (wait for it…) Full Sail. So here I am, thousands of miles from home, and the next native English speaker who plops down at my side lives in a town about 6 miles from me. Further, after chatting with the family for a bit, I discovered the dad is, of all things, a proposal writer, which is the somewhat niche job I myself was been doing for the four-ish years prior to my current writing job for ASI.
After quaffing my sangria I headed off deeper into the snarl of canals, on a mission to meander my way to a shop which promised tasty little sammiches (“broodjes”). I planned to get one of the local specialties of either smoked eel (yes, they love their herring and eel) or liverwurst for dinner, then head back to my hotel for an early turn in.
A little dampness began spitting from the sky, not enough to inconvenience me, but enough to wet the pavement… and here’s where the intrigue begins. I was wearing nice flat sandals, good for a short evening’s touring, I thought. But the hard plastic protective heel edge of these sandals, mixed with wet, shiny (often slightly mossy) brick started to have a banana peel effect on my shoes. As the rain got worse and the canals got more confusing, necessitating backtracking, I slipped but caught myself in time – to the universal alarm of the Netherlanders all around me, who are undoubtedly used to out-of-their-minds-on-whatever-substances Americans careening dangerously around town – no fewer than three times. And then finally, I spotted eel sammich street!
A couple of bikes (which go faster than those without a death wish can imagine) were coming toward me, sure, but I had time to scoot across the street in true New Yorker, fear-no-hurtling-cab fashion….. except a New Yorker would never have a treacherous slippery sandal fling out from under her at the last second, sending her up into the air a moment before bumping hard, ass-first, onto the wet cobbles — nice swingy dress, selected specifically for what had started as a sunny warm day, flying up in all directions, displaying shiny turquoise undies for the world to see. (Please refer to artist’s reimagining below for the full humiliating effect).
The speeding cyclists, assuredly all too used to such clumsy idiocy, neatly swung around me at the last moment, shaking heads slowly in disgust. My butt was a little smooshed and certainly damp, but my ego’s cheeks [heh] were flaming red in embarrassment. I wasn’t inebriated! (much) And I wasn’t stoned! (no comment). It was literally just my homicidal sandals to blame, sigh…
I dusted myself off and got one eel broodje to go (which literally consisted of one long pale eel fillet draped over a small buttered dinner roll, extending beyond the bread’s bounds by a good 6 inches in either direction.) I headed back to Central Station, tired and irritated from my mishaps and constant attempts at conversation from homeless people and ravenously hungry. I was much farther out than I originally thought from the station – A’dam’s winding alleys and canals can confuse even a frequent visitor – but I knew the general direction I was headed and as I got closer found signs directing me as well. Except…. The massive construction around the entire station and harbor area meant that each time I followed a sign across a street or bridge, the corresponding next direction-post was often absent, removed to make way for chain link fence and piles of dirt and concrete barricades. Resourcefully (I thought) I started following highway signs for cars to get to Central – this did not work out any better. With it now dark outside, I scrutinized the buildings for one that looked, well, station-y. I realized I actually didn’t know WHAT that station looked like – I didn’t recall from my decades-prior visits, and I had made such a hasty flight into the city after arriving this afternoon that I hadn’t even looked behind my at the building I issued from.
Many false starts and waylaid direction-obliging Dutch people later (the first couple I asked actually laughed sympathetically to discover I was so far off course) I finally got to the station and asked the ‘Informatie’ booth woman for the next train to my suburban hotel. Following her instructions, I got onto the next train on Track 5 and tried to stay awake in my seat, laid low with exhaustion (remember, this is now about two days with under an hour’s rest), low blood sugar (I really wanted to take a photo of the hilarious eel sammich in an unmunched state, plus my hands were far too filthy to even think about touching anything aimed for my mouth), a bruised bottom, and nefarious sandals. All I wanted was a shower, snack, and to sink into those fluffy duvets back at the hotel. Besides, I had to be up at 5:30am to be sure I arrived promptly at the cat sitting house the next morning.
The conductor came by and asked for my ticket, then looked at me curiously, asking a question in Dutch. Switching to English in response to my puzzled “I’m sorry?” he confirmed my destination as Zaandam, and informed me I had been directed to the wrong train. I nearly burst into tears – it was already pushing 11pm, the trains stop running around midnight-ish, and I was knackered beyond belief. But one must do what one must do, so I pulled up my (turquoise colored) big girl pants, got off at the next stop, headed BACK where I’d come from.
After a few more false starts, including locating a train platform whose number changes as one walks waaaaaaay down along it, I got on the right train to the connecting stop for my final destination, and at long last staggered into my hotel room at about 12:30. The eel sammich didn’t make it to its photo op – I rolled the carrying bag over my hand like a glove and gnawed it until I could start to feel my brain sputtering to life once more. A hot shower and arranged wake up call for 5:15 am later, I collapsed into blissful unconsciousness, enveloped in the comforting embrace of not just one but BOTH fluffy duvets – I figured I deserved to sleep in a happy cloud, after a such a long and trying day.