Sometimes when you travel, there’s a little window of in-between-places, a bit that gets suspended in time, not touching the points on either side of it. I got one of these bubbles a couple of weeks ago.
When I’m traveling to Hull to visit Phil, I fly through Amsterdam, and a couple of times I’ve had a really long layover. If you have to be at an airport for 8 hours, Schiphol is one of the best in the world (it’s won awards for best airport to be stuck in, dubious contest though that is). There’s a museum, and a lounge with a piano for anyone to play (in a room with spectacular acoustics), there are restaurants and bars and free showers and a hotel and two spas and lots of shopping and little pod rooms you can rent if you want to grab four hours of sleep. I’ve done most of that, though (I have actually got the Schiphol Airport app on my phone. I’m that person now.). On my most recent trip I found myself with nearly 9 hours to kill, starting at 8 in the morning. Clearly, venturing out into the city was the thing to do.
As I handed my coffee cup back over the cafe counter and picked up my carry-on, I realized that I’ve never had to find my way anywhere in a strange country by myself before. I knew I had this layover, so I’d done a little research about what to see and how to get there, but until I was about to step out through customs, I didn’t really grasp that I was *by myself with no smart phone use possible in a country I’ve never seen before*. Excited! Nervous! If you’re going to do that kind of thing, though, you want to try it out in a small, friendly, English-speaking country. So I had that in my favor.
I needed to get to Amsterdam Centraal Station, so I trickled my way out of the airport to the train station on the lower level. There was a bit of a false start while I played with automated ticket machines that ultimately wouldn’t sell me a ticket due to the American-ness of my credit card. But I got a ticket from a proper old school ticket window, and then I was on a platform in that billowing current of air that seems always to be moving in large city train stations, waiting for a train to take me on an adventure. I love trains. There is always the whiff of adventure and possibility about even the smallest of train journeys.
Three quick stops later, I was in the middle of Amsterdam on a rainy morning, and being jostled down Damrak in an elbow-to-elbow crowd of people. All my reading insisted on first-time visitors taking a city tour via boat through the canals, so that was my plan. But first, I just wanted to wander a little bit, so I kept walking up Damrak. The Sex Museum is also frequently recommended, but there was a line out the door so I skipped it. Next time. (I had planned to put a link to their website here, but they’ve got horrible auto-play music on it and I like you too much to do that to you. Just Google it.) There are plenty of dim and tippy side streets to poke about in, and I wove my way through them for an hour or so, staring at enormous wheels of cheese and mystifying piles of carved wooden tulips (not one single real tulip did I see all morning), debating whether it was too early to drink a beer (it was), and eventually ending up at the top of the street in the large plaza in front of the Royal Palace. There’s a row of low stone benches all along one side of the plaza, with chess boards set into them. No one was playing – no one but me was even sitting, in the rain – but I liked the sight of them.
In fact, I liked everything about Amsterdam, in the four hours I was there. The six-deep racks of bicycles everywhere; the dolls’ house narrowness of the streets and buildings and watercraft on the canals; the cheerful potted gardens on brightly colored houseboats; the contrast between the medieval buildings and the sleekly modern streetlights on Damrak. I took photographs all morning, but none of them are very good. I was bewilderingly tired, and most of my pictures were taken while I was sitting – either on a bench or on a boat. So they’re low down and in grey light and with window and water reflections. Some of them are of places and things I can’t name, in spite of wandering through Google street-view for a couple of hours last weekend searching for them. But here they are anyway, to remind me of my four hours’ adventure in a beautiful and unfamiliar city.