Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam - the land of waffles, tulips, and Heineken - was the first real trip that my friends and I planned on our own, and it started as early as 4 AM Friday morning. Tickets tended to be cheaper earlier in the morning and from smaller airports. We ordered a car service to take us to London Stansted, which was about 2 hours away from South Kensington. Really important to know about flights within the UK and Europe, airlines charge for just about anything. It is extremely beneficial to meet the baggage restrictions, check-in early and print-out your ticket before heading to the airport; otherwise, you will be stuck paying a hefty fine. Thankfully, none of us had to learn the hard way.

The flight from London was short – we landed in Amsterdam around 10 AM. Getting from the airport to central station was not bad at all. The public transportation system is easily accessible and you can make out where to go even if you cannot necessarily read the words. The first thing we decided to do after making it to central station was to walk to our hostel, but of course we desperately needed to find some food.

We came across a very cozy café, which was owned by the cutest couple. That was our first experience with the Amsterdam waffle - freshly made, drizzled with chocolate and powdered with sugar. We would have many more of those before returning to London. From there, we walked to our hostel, The Flying Pig Uptown, which came highly recommended. Our experience was great. The area was safe and we met some incredible back-packing travelers. We realized that it was booked for two people and not three, and since the other Marissa joined us last minute, it was worrisome to know that two people would have to be snuck in. But, we decided to think about that later. Instead we went to a coffee shop – The Dolphins, the beginning of our full Amsterdam experience.

After we got settled in our hostel, we decided to walk around the city and stumbled upon the Waterlooplein Markt. The market was nice but didn’t hold up to par with Camden Town, though that could be because we reached there when they were closing. Close by however, was a little French pastry shop where we all succumbed to trying the profiterole, kind of like a cream puff. We were addicted. For the rest of the semester, we looked out for profiteroles - London, Lisbon, Italy.

As we headed back to central area of the city, Rissa and I really needed to use the bathroom. We eventually found free bathrooms (almost all public bathrooms required €1 per use) in an office building, except we didn’t know what the distinction between male and female was. With our luck, we ended up in the men’s bathroom only to have a middle-aged white-haired man come and tell us in Danish that we were not in the ladies’ room. "Dame" means lady, by the way.

After bonding over shared embarrassment, we headed for dinner. Unfortunately, Kirsten learned that Amsterdam was popular for its Middle Eastern food, especially the falafel, only after we headed back to London. So for dinner on our first night, we found a tapas place, which was a little expensive. In Amsterdam, you also pay for water even if it is from the tap (some waiters didn't even allow us to drink tap water).

Right next door, however, I got my own waffle with chocolate sauce and powdered sugar for dessert. All those calories - so worth it. I looked like an innocent misplaced girl slowly eating my waffle while we walked through the Red Light District. It was not what I expected. All of a sudden there was a big window in the side of building and a half-naked women in risqué clothing attracting the attention of every kind of man. I felt sad and a little robbed of the innocence I hoped existed in all women.

We walked up and down the district, passing more windows and adult pleasure shops and small theaters that showcased live porn. It was unbelievable that for forty euros, you could go in for hours and watch multiple couples have sex on a stage. And you wouldn’t feel as bad because it’s legal, the normal, or a tourist attraction – whichever description made you feel better about yourself.

The next morning, we all woke up early to get breakfast and make our way to the Anne Frank house and the Van Gogh museum (make sure to learn the correct pronunciation, otherwise the Dutch will laugh at you). The Anne Frank house was by far one of my favorite memories of the entire trip. The way her story was set up – it felt like her spirit was talking to me as I walked through her home. I felt amazed to wonder what this exact spot must have felt like just five or six decades ago. Knowing that right outside was the beautiful Amsterdam we came to visit, it felt wrong, but also inspirational. So much of the world has grown since then, and even though some areas are still finding their way, we are blessed to live in a society where acceptance is celebrated by the majority.

On our last day, we decided to rent bicycles and ride them around the city for a truly exhilarating Amsterdam experience. Those two hours were the most frighting, yet freeing. Multiples time, I rode into oncoming traffic. Rissa and I were constantly cursed at by Dutch elders, who were really just fearing for their lives because half the time we did not know what we were doing. It was incredible. I encourage everyone to ride through on their visit to Amsterdam. The city is beautiful, and the culture like no other. You feel it in the atmosphere, that your in some place with a lot of history, some place special.