Rudy Schreiber is one of our St Christopher’s Innsiders. Read all about his time experiencing the magic of Amsterdam as a solo traveller, meeting new people and making incredible friends along the way, and be sure to read the first part of his European adventure where he spends six days in Paris ahead of landing in the Netherlands. From experiencing Dutch coffeeshops to discovering a passion for historical art, here is Rudy’s account of a solo trip to Amsterdam.
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Arriving in Amsterdam
After eight hours of fitful sleep, I’m awakened in Dutch to the news that the bus has stopped. We were just on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Half-asleep from a poor night’s rest across two bus seats, I figured out a new railway system and made it into Central Station. The second I stepped out of the station I was bombarded with hordes of bikes everywhere. Right outside the station, I made the mistake of trying to cross the double bike lane of bikes zooming about and almost got run over. I was amazed and delighted. I love bikes. Biking was a common family outing as a child, and one of the constant hobbies I kept up no matter where I have lived.
I walked into town and to the Red Light District where my was. During the day, the Red Light District is pretty tame; it just looks very commercial and touristy. It seems comparable to Times Square in New York City. I checked into my hostel and ate their complimentary breakfast while I schemed what I would do for the day. I saw on the free map the desk had given me that there was a free tour leaving soon, so I hustled out to meet it just in time. My tour guide, Mars, took us on a lovely tour showing us around the city in detail. He explained the pragmatic mindset of the Dutch and showed us examples of it. If people were going to do something anyway, why not make it easier to do that thing in a better way? If drunks kept dying from pissing in the canal, tripping and then drowning, why not make little covered simple urinals available next to the canal? If sailors were going to visit prostitutes when they came into port anyway, why not make sex work legal so things can be done to mitigate STDs? That pragmatism could also be seen in the city’s architecture. In the heyday of Amsterdam’s economic power, most buildings were set up so that the bottom floor was a storefront, the middle floor was housing, and the top floor was the stockroom. Merchandise was hoisted up by pulley to the top floor. To ensure the merchandise didn’t knock into the building on its way up, the buildings were purposely built with a forward lean. Another example of practicality was the construction of very narrow houses to avoid a luxury tax on glass windows. Mars also explained the difference between a coffeeshop and a café. A café sold coffee and a coffeeshop sold you pre-wrapped blunts.
The tour ended at a cheese shop that Mars had recommended so I dropped in just in time for their cheese tasting. I was given six cheeses, three wines, and a sheet of paper to score each combination. A tasting guide told us about each cheese and the process by which it was made. I have a deep burning love for cheese (it was my first word), so I was in heaven. When we had finished, I was feeling the three glasses of wine and thought it was best to walk around. I walked for four hours just simply taking in the city walking over bridges and along canals.
I learned that Dutch is actually very similar to English. To translate Dutch to English, you just pretend that you’re drunk with a mouthful of marbles then guess what it is you are saying. For example, “Noord” can be guessed as “North” and “Kirk” is “Church” “Oude” is “Old” and “Straat” is “Street” “Huis” is “House” and so forth.
As I got back to my hostel, it was the same time that the other people checked into the room, so I got to meet the people I shared a room with. There was Lorenzo, an Australian on a gap year, and three twenty-something American flight attendants using their time off and access to free airfare to party in Amsterdam. As we got to know each other, we decided we would party together tonight. The girls needed time to primp and get dolled up, so Lorenzo and I pre-gamed with a pack of Heinekens and four spliffs. Emboldened by the chemicals we walked through the Red Light District and rendezvoused with the girls before bar-hopping until late in the morning.
The Heineken Experience & Rijksmuseum
I had made loose plans to hang out with Lorenzo in the morning. But when I woke up he was snoring loudly, dead to the world, so I got breakfast from a café inside the Oude Kirk (Old Church) just outside the gold prostitute statue. When I got back to the hostel, Lorenzo was still sleeping so I headed towards the Rijksmuseum. On the way, I figured “What the hell!” and bought a ticket to the “Heineken Experience”. Some of the experience was learning how the beer is made with water in large vats and heated with barley and hops for 28 days. We got to see the iconic Shire horses from their classic ad. Most of the “Experience” was a self-congratulatory “We make beer, Go us!” amusement park with tacky theme park kind of activities. There was a large foosball room and I got to kick this English couple’s ass in foosball. The end of the tour is a demonstration of how to properly pour a Heineken so that there is the perfect amount of head (the foam at the top). When you enter, you get a rubber bracelet with two plastic chits inside. You exchange those chits for a drink you pour yourself using your newly acquired skill. During the tour, I found an extra bracelet on the stairs so I traded in four tokens for four tall glasses of Heineken.
I left the museum and stumbled over to the Rijksmuseum. In the museum, I stared at many paintings while the audio guide expert provided background on each painting. I saw some Vermeer, Van Gogh’s self-portrait, and the famous “Dutch masters”. The painting was commissioned by a group of Dutch businessmen who wished to be depicted. I thought it was interesting that, like the Mona Lisa, it was just a commissioned portrait and yet has gained such notoriety. These weren’t paintings made for the purpose of being on display for all to see. These were just business transactions. Wealthy persons wanted to see their likenesses in their homes. They had no idea that people would come from all over the world hundreds of years later to gather in front of these paintings.
I walked back to the hostel and got some Asian fusion food with Lorenzo and some new Aussie roommates (the Dutch colonization is still present in Amsterdam in all of the ethnic food from places they colonized. The need for world spices continues). We headed back to the hostel to play cards over a half pack of Heineken.
Amsterdam by bike
Right after breakfast, I went straight to the bike rental place. I biked to the outskirts of the city to one of the few remaining windmills in Amsterdam. I stopped to stare at all the narrow houseboats along the canal. Then I kept on biking until I arrived at the dapper market. It was an open-air farmer’s and fish market with booths and you could buy anything from handmade scarves to plastic crocs knockoffs. I bought some fried cock (a type of fish) in garlic sauce for lunch. I continued biking to the Vondelpark, and when I got there, I kept on biking laps in the park. It was such a beautiful day for a bike ride. There was a man playing guitar in the park, but instead of facing the people looking for tips, he was facing the pond serenading the ducks. I stopped my bike for a listen. When he noticed me watching we struck up a conversation. Among other things we talked about, he claimed he once worked for B.B. King (he didn’t say what he did for him) and that he used to be a punk singer. Now he just plays for the ducks.
I biked further and pulled into the maritime museum. I have always had a fascination with boats (heck, I’m typing this from the Fo’c’sle of a 96-year-old schooner) so I was enthralled to see these magnificent intricate ships that went around the world bringing the Netherlands to such prominence. Although the Netherlands is a small country, it became a great world power through its shipping industry and commerce. Its success in foreign trade is evident in the gold that glitters all over the city and the influence it still has on today’s maritime words (the word “Yacht” is Dutch). Big beautiful brigantines were everywhere the eye could see, all embellished with gold fancywork.
It was getting late, so I went to this bar that advertised trivia night in English. I joined a group of regulars as part of their team. For the most part, they were American expatriates who moved to the Amsterdam branch of the company they worked for when it opened up. The other guy also worked for the company but immigrated to the Netherlands from Romania. “Why is it if you come from a rich country, they call you an expatriate, but if you come from a poor country, they call you an immigrant?” he inquired. Three rounds of trivia and five rounds of beer later, we found ourselves in third place (out of ten groups) and I found myself some new friends.
More history of Amsterdam & NDSM Wharf
I started the day with chocolate waffles. Always a good decision. I returned my rented bike and walked to the Amsterdam Museum. There I learned all about the city and its history. I learned that the three x’s that make up the Amsterdam flag are for the three catastrophes that hit the city: flood, fire, and the black death and that the city is basically built on a series of stilts that are submerged in the ground. Once again, I was amazed at the Dutch pragmatism and how they turned a small industrious country into a global empire by being really good sailors and really good traders.
It was a busy day for museums because after the Amsterdam museum I went on a Red Light District walk, and visited the “Homomonument” (a memorial to gays and lesbians killed in the holocaust), the boathouse museum (although it was closed), and finally, the tulip museum. There I learned about the process of tulip farming, the fruitful tulip craze and the subsequent market crash after everyone invested in the craze. It was like a 1600’s Beanie Baby crash.
After the museum, I stopped into an art gallery whose owner recommended that I check out NDSM across the water. It was a giant art collective in an old shipyard. I took the commuter ferry across packed like pickled sardines with commuters and their bikes. The warehouse that housed them was enormous and each had a shipping container-sized compartment for each artist. The artwork that stood out to me was the “Barbie Peep Show.” All over the place, I saw signs adverting “Barbie peep show, this way” which would lead to another and another, until finally, you got to a hole in the wall with a lens. If you put a coin in the slot, the shutter opens up to see barbie dolls posed in sexual positions without any clothes on, Suddenly, the shutter closes. I thought it was hysterical. It delivered exactly what it promised to be and yet was so curiosity-inspiring that I didn’t think it would be what I was expecting.
On the way out of NDSM, I clocked a fancy restaurant hidden in shipping containers and a neon sign advertising “Sexyland”, a dance club my tour book said was owned by 365 owners who each get a day of the year to make the club their own. I saw someone drawing a figure just inside the door and they urged me to come back later that night. I promised I would. It was still light out so I headed back to the hostel to take a nap before going out for the evening.
Meeting Zet & Gilda
When I got back to the hostel there were two new travellers who had just arrived in the city and into my room. As I was settling in for a nap someone asked the room in general for the wifi password. I had been at the hostel for three days and was the longest resident of room 105 so I felt an obligation to answer. As an afterthought, I extended an invitation to the two newcomers to join me after my nap for dinner and dancing at the places I discovered. They both agreed, and so it was decided.
Zet (short for Suszet) is originally from the Philippines and has been living and working in Dublin for the last two years. She is working towards getting her Irish citizenship. She works 3 days a week and can move around her days off so that she gets 8-day vacations every six days. She often uses those mini-vacations to explore Europe as her temporary Irish citizenship allows before she commits herself to live all year round in Ireland as a condition of her citizenship. She was very cheery and had an affection for Paris even though she has never been there before. Paris is her next stop after Amsterdam. She maintains a travel blog and takes great pride in where she has gone in the world.
Gilda, (originally spelt “Xhilda”) is originally from Albania. She moved to Italy as a child for political reasons and has moved around since then with her family to several European countries. She has been living and working in Dublin for the last year and a half. She is using her two weeks of vacation to do a short tour of Europe. Compared to Zet and myself, she is the soft-spoken one of the bunch.
Both Gilda and Zet had not met each other before I invited them both to dinner even though they were both 29 years old and both nurses in the same Dublin hospital for the last year or so.
We took a commemorative selfie as we walked to Centraal Station for the ferry across the water. We ate at the very nice restaurant hidden in the shipping containers. I was very underdressed in a t-shirt and jeans (but that is all I had) which was only made more obvious by how well-dressed the ladies were. We ordered nice food. I had Duck Confit and a glass of nice Rosé. We talked and talked over dinner. We talked about travel plans, things to do in Amsterdam, childhood traumas, life goals for the future and even the theoretical existence of true love.
Sealing friendships with a night out
When our food was eaten and the bill was paid, we stepped outside and walked to “Sexyland” with the big neon sign to lure us in like moths to a flame. We paid our cover of seven and a half Euros and received a Jell-O shot. At first, there was nobody on the dance floor except a man wearing a fanny pack walking laps by pacing the floor. There were at least five drag queens, including the DJ for the night. Everyone had complicated hairstyles and mixed colourful clothing. It was everything you would expect in a gay European dance club. For the second time tonight I felt severely underdressed, but this time I had more drinks in me and I was dancing, so I didn’t care. The drag queen emcee announced they were playing “Bingo” but really it was just a raffle for some handbags. None of the three of us won, unfortunately. The next event of the night was a drag queen with a moustache who sang “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones in Dutch over the English version. A woman complimented my dance moves and bought me a beer telling me I should dance with her friend. I had to oblige, but then circled back to Gilda and Zet and danced some more. At thirty minutes to midnight, we had to head back on the last ferry ride.
The night was far from over. Gilda wanted to see the Red Light District at night and smoke in the coffee shops so we headed in that direction. I played the role of tour guide, sharing what I had picked up from my four days being in Amsterdam. I played it safe and took them to the iconic “Bulldog Coffeeshop,” I ordered a Gram of Indica weed from the bar. I forgot to ask for it pre-rolled, so I took their complimentary rolling paper and rolled the structural worst joint known to man. It was a busy night so we had to share a table with strangers. We were in a festive mood so we just made friends with our tablemates: a Moroccan and a Swede who went to grad school together before one of them dropped out and were now rendezvousing in Amsterdam to smoke all week. They were the pot heroes we needed to fix our unfortunate rolling situation. As soon as the joint was smoked it was closing time and so the stoned and drunks were forced out onto the street to run amok and try not to fall into the canals. Just as we left it hit me how high I was. I was the one who led the other two to where we were, but I had lost all sense of direction. Zet was our designated walker who linked arms with Gilda and I and used Google maps to walk us past the intoxicated gap-year students to our destination.
Meanwhile, I was very busy reflecting on what a great night I was having and how it wouldn’t have come together like this with my new friends if someone hadn’t asked for the wifi password. We stopped for chocolate-covered pastries at a pastry stand and I think that might have been the best food I have ever put into my mouth. The Red Light District was overrun with drunks and stoned tourists. A bunch of English schoolboys asked everyone they passed if they were going to the “White Tool” (a pun they made for the hostel next to ours called the “White Tulip”). One guy rode his bike straight into a wall. He just got up off his overturned bike and walked away without skipping a beat. Zet was our fearless leader safely guiding us back to our hostel and putting us to bed.
Van Gogh Museum & Anne Frank's House
I woke up feeling surprisingly well. Gilda was already out and about. I asked Zet if she wanted to continue hanging out exploring, she said yes. First, we went to the Van Gogh Museum. I feel like I am starting to understand art more. I always thought I was cultured. I went to all the art museums in my hometown of Washington D.C frequently, but it wasn’t until this trip to Europe that I felt like, not only did I have a solid understanding of the art, but I also developed an appreciation for the context and the impact of the art after it was made. Reading his letters to his brother, I felt like I understood Van Gogh more and understood his art better. Knowing that he only sold one painting ever, and that to his brother, and now just his sketches are worth millions posthumously both gave me hope and terrified me as it relates to my own art I create.
When we had seen all the paintings, Zet and I made our reservations at the Anne Frank house and ate pickled herring from a cart near the Homomonument. I really enjoyed them.
After lunch, it was our time for our reserved tickets at the Anne Frank Museum. It was amazing to see how so many people spent so much time all cramped in so little space in order to survive. The story of her time in hiding during the holocaust and her astute reflections of her time were awe-inspiring. I thought I could hold it together and not shed a tear the entire museum, but what finally got me was a clipping of a newspaper of an ad her dad had posted looking for his daughters and wife after they were taken to concentration camps. It brought me to tears and shook me that this father didn’t even know if his family was alive.
Zet and I walked out of the museum with downcast eyes with thoughts of the atrocities that humans can inflict on one another. We needed something to cheer us up, so we went to the cheese museum and bought Stroopwaffles. We headed back to the hostel to rest our legs and freshen up before dinner.
We got happy hour drinks at bar Langendijk under Amsterdam’s only still standing windmills before going out to a small kitschy restaurant tucked far away from the rest of the city. I had magnificent goat sausage and elderberry wine. We walked back to the hostel enjoying the city at night far away from the boisterous red light District.
I spent the whole day with Zet. I had never spent 24 hours with someone who I had just met before. I had enjoyed travelling by myself, not waiting on someone else’s schedule, not having to compromise choices about where to go and what to eat, but I did really enjoy spending this time with Gilda and Zet. I felt more adventurous and was willing to take more risks when I was with others. I know for sure I wouldn’t have had as much fun at Sexyland by myself. When travelling solo, remember that the point isn’t to travel by yourself, it is to arrive alone so that you are open to making new friends along the way.
When we got back to the hostel and to room 105 it was ten minutes to midnight. That meant two things: in ten minutes I was turning 21, and that this was my last night in Amsterdam before moving on to Brussels. Zet made everyone in Room 105 - Gilda and a pair of siblings - sing me a happy birthday. I thanked them very much not only for the song but for sharing time with me in Amsterdam and said my goodbyes knowing that I was leaving early in the morning.
Happy birthday to me & farewell Amsterdam
Zet was off to Paris but I convinced her to take a detour to Brussels where we celebrated my birthday with chocolate Belgian waffles at Maison Dan Doy, Belgium’s oldest waffle establishment from 1829. I swore I would never eat waffles again because they would never taste as good as the ones on that day. Every other waffle would just be a faint reminder of how good those waffles were and pale in comparison, only bringing me sadness.
After breakfast, Zet departed for Paris and I departed to Bruges. I had two lovely days spent in the medieval city admiring the gold and canals, but all things must end; so it came time for me to fly back home out of Paris. On my last night in Europe, I reached out to Zet and invited her to dinner. We met outside the opera house and walked until we found a good restaurant. I ordered foie gras, escargot, and a glass of Chardonet. We talked about our time travelling and the highlights. She talked about her time in Paris by herself and how excited she was to finally see the Eiffel Tower in person. I told her about Bruges and how it was a fairytale city. After we got our checks when the maitre d’ wasn’t cussing at Macron on the TV, we walked along the Seine.
At midnight, we walked over to the Trocadéro to see the tower one last time, lit up at the start of the new day. It was a spectacular sight and the perfect way to end the night. We said our final goodbyes and parted ways. As I walked to the hostel one last time, I realized that it isn’t all about how many museums and cultural landmarks you can fit into your travels: it’s about the little things, like a nice meal with a friend you met asking for the wifi password and then travelled with to three different countries.
Did you enjoy this piece written by Rudy? Head to part one to read all about his time .
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