Brown and white geese filled a spacious verdant meadow, green grass damp and marshy from the canals that were etched into the field. What I presumed was a cloud factory, since that sort of thing must exist in any utopia like the one we were in, bellowed white puffs through a tall, narrow stack on the horizon. Dutch homes bordered the green land, which for the next couple of days would basically be our backyard. It was two days before the New Year, and we had just arrived in Amsterdam.
The train that morning had taken us from Brussels to Amsterdam, a short, enjoyable passage with the sun rising over pastoral Belgian and Dutch towns. Our Amsterdam home was another AirBnB booking, but this time we were sharing a room in a house rather than having the entire place to ourselves. For some, this invitation into a stranger’s home could be understandably weird and uncomfortable, but our room in Amsterdam was probably the best place that we stayed. Our host, Edmee, was incredible and probably helped push Amsterdam to the top of our list as our favorite European destination.
We arrived at Amsterdam’s central station sometime in the early afternoon. The IJ, which is a lake in Amsterdam that fills the city’s iconic canals, has a free ferry that connects the northern part of the city with central Amsterdam. Amsterdam-Noord, as the borough is named, was our destination; just outside that part of the city was where our Dutch dwelling would be. Edmee offered to meet us across the IJ, the first of many extraordinary gestures that our gracious host would offer. She drove a tiny van; our bags were packed into the back, and Kierstin rode in the front seat while I was instructed to sit with the bags and duck if we saw the police. It was a short drive to Edmee’s charming Dutch home, tall and narrow with a steep staircase, just like I had read about before arriving. Our room was pristine: painted white wooden floors, white walls, a white bed with a white comforter on white sheets, and all so clean that my eyes could have been blinded from the shimmer.
Edmee offered us coffee and tea and invited us downstairs after we dropped off our luggage in our room. We met her three dogs, a rambunctious black lab, Beer (Dutch for bear) and two other friendly little dogs, Mug (Dutch for mosquito) and Joe (a near homophone to the Dutch word for flea). Edmee gave us a city map, recommendations for restaurants, and suggestions on sights. That first afternoon, we headed straight for central Amsterdam. The free ferry floated across the IJ and landed us back near the central station. We decided that the best way to discover Amsterdam was as the Dutch experience it every day: on bikes. So, after searching near the train station, we managed to find a bicycle rental shop and checked out two bright red bicycles that would be our transportation for the next day or so.
Our stomachs steered the bikes toward some local cafes. We found a small sandwich shop and ordered hot sandwiches and giant mugs of steaming cocoa. It wasn’t snowing in Amsterdam, but the city was still frigid, and our frothy hot chocolate warmed us right up. After we ate, we rode through the narrow roads of Amsterdam. Canals reflected the grey sky above. Brown and white and blue houses, much taller than they were wide, abutted one another without a gap in between. We even rode by the Anne Frank house, one of Amsterdam’s historical gems. Riding through Amsterdam was not a bad idea; the city accommodates for bikes so well, with over 100,000 km of bike paths throughout the city. Plus, seated atop cushiony leather saddles, we had a great view of Dutch buildings, old and new, and the famous and stunning canals filled with long covered boats.
We had dinner in central Amsterdam that night. I couldn’t help but feel that the restaurants that we found were duping us in some way. When I was maybe twelve or thirteen, I went to a small symposium on substance abuse and gang violence. It was mostly a warning for the overcautious, one that influenced my feebleminded, 85-pound, white thirteen-year-old-self into never wearing only red or blue in fear that someone would mistake me for a gang member. The seminar also featured an insight into the amoral city of Amsterdam, where prostitution and drugs were not only legal but rampant to the point where addicts so desperate for a high would sniff cow dung from a Ziploc bag. Even if the veracity of these videos that I watched over a decade ago is accurate, manure druggies don’t comprise a significant portion of the Amsterdam population, and I can say this now with firsthand experience. However, there are numerous “coffee shops” in Amsterdam, where tourists frequent to smoke and get high. One side effect of marijuana indulgence might be a case of the munchies, where any combination of food might sound delicious and so tourists might not be so finicky in their food selection.
Now, to get to the point, Kierstin and I were used to food cooked right on the street, where French and Belgian locals prepared the food right and front of you and the authenticity was unquestionable. In Amsterdam, we had a tough time finding excellent places to eat since many businesses were just preparing food for tourists, who might have been high and thus unselective. Our first dinner in Amsterdam was at a small pub, but the food lacked any Amsterdam golden touch. My English breakfast was not quite what I expected, but I don’t think I even want to waste the energy complaining much more than this, considering the awesome experience we had in this beautiful city. After dinner, we ferried to the other side of the IJ and biked back to our B&B. It wasn’t too late, and so we asked Edmee where we could find a market to buy a bottle of wine. Our excellent host insisted that we stay inside where it was warm and offered a delicious red wine that Kierstin and I polished off before slipping under the warm covers in our gorgeous room.
The sun shone bright overhead on the morning of New Year’s Eve as we slowly and reluctantly arose from our deep slumber. The other B&B’s that we stayed at weren’t really true to their name; the second “B” was always missing. But Edmee was committed to providing a genuine B&B experience and had breakfast ready for us when we awoke. Breakfast was bound to be good when her first words were apologies that the chickens in the backyard weren’t laying eggs, and so the eggs were store-bought rather than fresh. I think the warm whole-grain loaves, accompanied with different meats and cheeses as well as Nutella and butter and jam, along with two perfect brown-shelled hard-boiled eggs and fresh orange juice was more than sufficient as an authentic European countryside breakfast.
The bikes proved their worth even more that day as we hopped on and rode through our neighborhood. Lush fields were not an uncommon sight in Amsterdam, and the bright greens, trees barren by the cold winter, and skinny canals were picturesque, amazing sights from atop the seats of our shiny red bikes. Unobscured landscapes were our cycling partners, zooming by next to us as we rode down paved roads and over tiny bridges. It was impossible to tell that we were in Amsterdam; the outskirts of the large city were more like a quaint small town. There were tiny schools with hand-painted murals on the walls, multiple-story homes barely one-room wide basically surrounded by moats and connected to the street by bridges, and Dutch children in the street, shooting off fireworks and shouting what we could only guess was some version of “Happy New Year!” to cars driving by. We stumbled upon a small grocery store and stocked up on strange-looking Dutch candies: chocolates with long names with too many g’s and l’s and z’s and a’s next to a’s and e’s next to e’s and gummy licorice that would be left forgotten on the shelves in the US. We also grabbed a bottle of wine to pay back our host and a bottle of champagne for ourselves to celebrate the New Year.
It was back to the city center, but first, we found another great free thing to do. On our side of the IJ, a modern structure that looks like it might have broken off of the Death Star and fallen to Earth sits overlooking the large body of water. The sleek off-white structure bent and curved and twisted so that it nearly looked aerodynamic and a wide window opened like shining dark-blue teeth grinning at the IJ. It is the EYE Film Institute, a museum, film archive, and theater all in one. Before we found the EYE, we spent a little more time “exploring” Amsterdam (i.e., getting lost) and ended up in a courtyard that hosted a small flea market. There were fresh fruits and vegetables, some strange and foreign to us; buckets of fresh herring, a specialty of the Netherlands; potted tulips with New Year wishes; and various stalls selling cheap goods, like the one Euro gloves that Kierstin bought and soon discovered the reason for the low, low price (fuzzy pieces of the gloves fell off and stuck to the rest of her clothes). Nearly starving from skipping lunch, and not really craving any of the fried fish that was more common than anything else in the market, our only other option was a small stand where a Vietnamese man was making lumpia. My aunt makes lumpia sometimes, and it is delicious, but being cold and really hungry made the hot and fried meat and vegetable pastry feel like one of the best rolled-up dishes I ever had. We eventually made it to the EYE, where we moseyed through free exhibits showing the evolution of film capture devices and playing clips of celebrated favorites; we even starred in our own green-screen short!
Since we were leaving Amsterdam early the next morning, the bikes had to be returned before sundown that day. After that quick stop, it was off to find somewhere for dinner. I had read that the crowds turn out for Amsterdam New Year’s, and bars and restaurants are crowded – standing room only – unless you have a dinner reservation or you make it there before 8 PM. So, we staked a spot at a cozy little tavern just outside the main square where the main firework show was supposed to be. After a couple of beers and a dinner of sandwiches and breaded, fried meat and potato mash called croquettes, our fancies changed, now preferring to head back to our B&B rather than waiting in that bar for six hours. We walked back toward the free ferry with the sound of crackling fireworks already filling the air as night fell and a red confetti of wrappers littered the street as the strangely-pleasant smell of burnt paper and sulfur filled the air.
After more difficulties navigating, again taking a more scenic route to get to our final destination, we managed to locate the canal-side path that would take us home. On this side of the IJ, the streets weren’t bustling with tourists but were scattered with families, some creating their own firework shows as the city in the horizon popped and flashed with the sounds and lights of exploding rockets. Curtains are almost non-existent in Amsterdam, and we caught short glimpses of Dutch life through the clear panes. There was a group of boys in the street, probably no older than 11 or 12, shooting off rockets unsupervised. I think it’s sort of funny to compare this scene to one, say, where the police are called after two kids were seen walking home from school alone (a walk of about a mile), but even the teacher in Kierstin was saying, “Where are their parents?” as we walked past.
Craving the feeling of fitting in like locals, we stopped at a bar that was nowhere near any tourist destinations. It sat right on the outside of our host’s neighborhood, a local dive that we imagined as a Dutch version of Cheers, and it didn’t fall too short of our expectations. Kierstin took off her “Amsterdam” beanie, and I slung my camera around my back before we entered, hoping to grasp any semblance of people who belonged in this country, in this city, in this bar. It was a dimly light bar with a small row of stools near the bar, each one filled by chatty locals who may have glanced our way but continued their lively conversations with each other and the bartenders. The bartender greeted us, I tried to speak a little Dutch (“two” and “beer” were not difficult to learn), and cash was exchanged for beer. Being in Amsterdam, we had to order bright green bottles of Heineken. We found seats near a table that was filled with freshly-baked treats and other delicious looking food. After our first round, the bartender came by and to check up on us and also to probably satisfy his own curiosity, asking if we were staying in the houseboats on the canal and offering us some of Holland’s favorite New Year’s pastries. I had hoped to find a place to order oliebollen, an oily fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar and ground cinnamon, and appelflappen, a warm donut stuffed with hot caramelized cinnamon apples, but I had expected to order from a street vendor or a restaurant, not be offered home-cooked versions at a local bar. It seemed like we made the right choice to stop; it was, as the Dutch say, gezellig.
Fireworks were shooting off in every direction, short whistles and loud bangs erupting as bouquets of light blossomed in the dark sky. We were sitting in the window sill of our bedroom, the large white window cracked open so that we could enjoy the feeling of the cold breeze and so that we could hear the celebrations of the city. Our bottle of champagne was uncorked, and we sat in the frigid window overlooking the green meadow in the dark, reminiscing about our trip in the last few weeks, our lives with each other in the last few years, and our prehistories that didn’t include “us”, even learning a new thing or two about each other. But the feelings of nostalgia couldn’t compare with how we felt at the time; it was surreal to be there, and it was amazing to just be able to enjoy it.
We were about to walk back to the ferry and catch a ride back to the city center when our superhost swooped in again. She and her friend were taking a cab to the city, and she offered to share it with us, even insisting that she pay for our ride. It was another gesture that induced a B&B swoon, if such an equivalent exists, as we thanked her again for being such an exceptional host. It was well into the evening, and it turned out to be true that the bars and restaurants were overflowing with partiers as the New Year approached. We walked far enough and found a place with open outdoor seating; it was nearly freezing outside, our breath steamed in the air, but we were desperate enough to sit outside. As it turned out, there were spots inside for people who wanted to order food, and so Kierstin and I split a couple of appetizers and enjoyed a little warmth. Seats were packed inside the tiny restaurant, and our neighbors were friendly locals, a Dutch serviceman in the Navy and a high school teacher, who spent the next hour or so chatting with us about traveling, the differences between Holland and America, and life in general.
Eventually the clock in the city square approached midnight, and so we left the bar and headed to see the fireworks. It seemed like there were no official organizers, but the crowd had formed a natural barricade around the city square, and people started lighting their own air bombs and crackling stars. The countdown began, and Kierstin and I shared the first New Year’s kiss as a bombardment of booms filled the night, people cheered and whistled for the New Year, and the sky filled with a fiery confetti of white, gold, red, blue, and purple. Firework shows in the US are always interesting to watch, but it’s incomparable to when the blasts are vibrating your chest, exploding close enough to draw out reflexive gasps of “Woah!” I started cheering, a barbaric yawp like a South Pole-exploring Norwegian re-discovering his food cache after almost three months of Antarctic traveling and finding that he had hidden chocolate and cheese doodles. I was ecstatic and not ready to move on from Amsterdam. But we were leaving early that morning, and after a long walk back to our room, we had a short sleep and an early-morning train ride – one that we would discover was unnecessarily early but not until it was too late.