Connecting with Amsterdam

My expectations about Amsterdam paralleled the representations projected by film and popular culture, which made me believe that I was about to encounter A LOT of explicit behavior. In all honesty, my greatest worry was walking down the wrong alleyway and being robbed. My burgundy fanny pack and triple-layered look didn’t exactly scream “local.”

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Luckily, my fearless companion Dayna has traveled across Europe with a great sense of direction. Although she’s about to graduate after the trip, she’s using this time to teach me the combined skills she’s acquired during her adventures. She stresses being attentive, resourceful, fiscally responsible and above all, safe and smart.

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After getting off the plane, we located the correct train and headed to the center of the city. We had some issues purchasing train tickets because the automated machine was confusing and the instructions were only written in Dutch. Then we realized that the machine couldn’t accept our credit cards! In Europe, some places will only take credit cards with silver tracking chips embedded in the plastic. If you’re going abroad, complete the application for a travel credit card early, because the shipping takes about two weeks.

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Another fun fact: many European trains have Wi-Fi. During the ride, I was able to call my parents using the Viber App, which became a travel necessity. Although Wi-Fi does exist ubiquitously in Europe, never count on it. It’s not always accessible, and the connection is often poor and finicky. With AT&T, I purchased an international plan giving me 120 MB of data for 30$. I’m able to turn the data on and off to use Google maps or communicative applications to find my friends in emergency situations.

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Dayna and I arrived at The Flying Pig Downtown, a top hostel recommended by famoushostels.com. I was happy to see that individuals could only gain access through the turnstile if they had a room key, as the level of security in the hostel was my mothers’ original concern. We checked into a four-person room for a pretty good price. My two night stay only cost about 80$ total, and also included a free breakfast. The breakfast was good, aside from the one hard boiled egg per person rule. I’m a two egg kinda girl, but I managed.

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The hostel décor was unique and comforting. A colorful glass mural at the entrance and the dark wood furniture created a relaxing feel in the reception area. There was a collection of thrifted chandeliers, a pool table, an intimate bar featuring pictures of previous “piggies,” high-top tables, maps of varying sizes, and everything else adorned with a mixture of contemporary graphic art and vintage wallpapering. One framed quote stood out the most, which read, “Home is in your Head.” You take your home with you wherever you go, because you are your own home. I really liked that idea. The vibes at The Flying Pig were right on point from the start. Everyone was welcoming and friendly, but I was still hesitant about some things. It was clear that the hostel catered to the youth, but I had no doubt that it had a long and interesting historical past.

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Dayna and I headed to our room and found two blue metal bunk beds, a gray carpet, and a white tiled bathroom. The bathrooms in Europe are very different. The flusher for the toilet actually has two buttons: a small one for liquids and a large one for solids. There is less water in European toilets, which is why the differing buttons make sense. As in Copenhagen, there was no separate platform in the shower to catch the water, but only a curtain which left the floor wet and slippery. The sink and shower needed to be constantly re-pushed or they would shut off after about 30 seconds. The lights would also turn off unless I frequently waved my hands or made some kind of motion. This was really annoying, but I understood that it was to conserve water and energy. Props to Europe for being environmentally conscious! Also, the bunk beds had small cages underneath for us to lock our stuff and keep important items safe. Here’s another tip when staying in hostels: don’t forget to bring your own lock and flip-flops for the shower!

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Our roommates for the next two nights had not yet arrived, and I hoped that they weren’t obnoxious, gross or completely insane. If I let my mind wander, I would’ve come up with every possible situation that could make this hostel a regrettable choice. But it ended up being one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who likes to meet people, compare cultural differences, and make lasting friendships with individuals from all over the world. Our roommates were a Portuguese couple in their early thirties, and were very kind, considerate and communicative. Although their English was not perfect, they established a connection and we both realized that we were in a respectful and nonthreatening situation. Also, they gave me a Snickers bar, which was really sweet. Food is a definite way to my heart.

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Dayna and I walked around the area near the hostel, and I realized that there is a sizeable presence of American commercialism in Amsterdam. I saw chains like Forever 21 and fast food like McDonalds and Subway. In fact, I even heard Drake blaring from the speakers at some of the stores. We did some shopping for souvenirs and I got to know the area a bit better, but it was touristy and didn’t feel much like a foreign country visually. I did however see mostly Dutch words instead of English, and a melting pot of languages could be heard throughout the city. I spent some time in Vondel Park, a beautiful and very large recreation area. Because it was so populated, I get the idea that it’s more common for Europeans to spend the day relaxing outside than for Americans. I haven’t watched T.V. in weeks, and no, I don’t miss it!

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There were some things that make up the iconic idea of Amsterdam, such as the coffee shops, canals, the red light district, and food items like topped waffles, fancy cheese, and ice cream. Europeans love ice cream; it’s everywhere despite the cold weather. There are always a lot of people riding bikes, which caused chaos when combined with the foot traffic from tourists who don’t understand the crosswalk system. I also noticed differences like carbonated iced tea (carbonated everything, actually), outdoor urinals, a stick of chocolate served with hot milk (hot chocolate), and a woman dressed as a condom giving away free protection. Hilarious, yet a totally effective way to spread contraception.

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I took a stroll through the red light district but really didn’t like the feeling of the area. Although prostitution is legal and even unionized, I couldn’t help but sense exploitation and unhappiness. Women of all different colors, shapes and sizes were on display in tall lengthy windows for passerby’s purchase, like products at a store. On one street, women were scantily clad selling their bodies directly facing a church. This coexistence is both fascinating and mindboggling. A lot of the people hanging around were creeps, and the women’s expressions were almost confrontational. I was unsettled but was fortunately with my British and French male friends from the hostel. We ditched the red light district and headed back to The Flying Pig, which meant more than just home base. The Flying Pig was my vessel, my tool, my main way of connecting with people, and it wouldn’t have been the same without it.

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The most wonderful part of my experience in Amsterdam was getting to meet so many distinctly different people. I got to converse with someone from almost every continent in three days, and that is undoubtedly unique. I met Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Moroccans, Brazilians, Canadians, Australians, a few fellow Americans, and so on and so forth. I spent the majority of my time in Amsterdam in the hostel learning about other cultures and sharing my own. I was amazed by how much interest these people had in my United States lifestyle. For example, my Australian friend Dan and I compared some youth slang in our respective countries. Australians refer to French fries as chips, and use the stressor word “heaps” cool versus the American “mad” cool. They call their college “uni” and fanny packs are referred to as “butt bags.” Apparently in Australila, the word fanny refers to the female genitals. We had a good laugh about that one.

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Another EXTREMELY important travel tip: Do not skip out on your sleep. The day I arrived in Copenhagen, my friends had already planned for us to spend the night out on the town. Because of the delay, I was never able to adjust to the time change. I woke up exhausted even when I went to bed early. It took me almost five days to feel normal again. Sleep is so crucial. Without it, traveling can be miserable.

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As I was leaving Amsterdam, I couldn’t help but feel lucky to have such a positive, eye-opening experience. Almost everyone spoke fluent English, and if they didn’t, they were in the process of learning it. They made the effort to communicate with me in other ways, by using hand gestures and sharing food, drinks and what ever little bit they had. This helped me see how truly beneficial it is to be an English speaker. English is without a doubt one of the most important international languages. A Canadian kid with a lot of knowledge about American film surprised me by saying that American culture is comparable to popularity in high school. Everyone knows all about the popular kids, doesn’t necessarily love them, but still can’t stop talking about them. In regards to continuing my foreign friendships, I know that if I ever need to couch surf, I would be welcome with open arms.

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When it comes to making connections with people, you get out what you put in. If you emanate kindness and truly want to create friendships, it’s that simple. Enter these new situations with an open mind and an open heart, and withhold your judgments. You will attract the same kind of people; people who want to expand their circle and enlighten themselves.People who are rewarded by more than material things. Humanities universals and differences are fascinating, and you will never be able to see them so clearly without traveling. Accompanied by our new French friend Vincent, Dayna and I walked to the station to take a Thalys train to Paris. It was finally time to meet our study abroad group and start a whole new kind of adventure!

As I struggled with my oversize suitcase, Vincent fondly expressed an American stereotype that seems to be a common European perception. He laughed, helping me with my bag and saying, “Hah, you Americans, you are so… so… excessive!” As I learned more and more about the minimalist European lifestyle, I guess I started to agree with him.

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