I hear or read a lot of stories of people who “did Italy in two weeks” or “saw France in a week.” I understand Americans just can't get up and live in another country, and my hat’s off to anyone who has the drive to get on a plane to another country for two weeks or two years. It’s never too late to travel somewhere.
Back in my days of extensive travel and adventure, I decided (along with my very good buddy, Jesse) to pack up a backpack, two pairs of everything a person wears daily, my trusty guitar, a meek $2000 and a one-way ticket to the promised land – Europe, where beer and women were plentiful!
Traveling to a new place can widen your eyes for the brief time you’re there, but if you want to live the full experience, stay for as long as you can and not only your eyes will widen, but your mind will, tenfold.
I always explain to people, “Put everything you know in your hand.” And now turn it upside-down. That’s what it’s like living in another country, and I did it for four, glorious years in various countries. I felt a sixth sense that heightened all my other senses while living and traveling abroad. Not to say that I didn't endure any struggles (see previous post), but the upsides of all these experiences are priceless memories to share forever.
In starting our European escapades, we learned to exploit every contact we had in any country we went to. Seasoned travelers advised me that if you knew of anybody living anywhere you planned on traveling to, contact them. If your cousin’s buddy’s Italian pen pal lives in Rome, contact them! You have nothing to lose! They’re a stranger to you, but when you get off a train in a faraway country that you’ve never been to before and don’t know which way to go, this Italian writer could be your best amico. Knowing people and visiting areas with a local can extend your visit because your chances of experiencing different and new grow.
Jesse and I were lucky, because I had a very good Dutch friend who lived in downtown Amsterdam. Sander was an exchange student who lived with me in America for two years in high school. He got us a place centrally located in the heart of the Dam. It wasn’t just a hotel or hostel. It was an abandoned school circa 1600.
At that time in the summer of 2000 in Holland, squatting was legal. Sander went to film school with the “landlord” of this fine establishment, and he charged us only $25 a month. The classroom where we slept had a 30-foot ceiling, two mattresses on the floor and large 12-foot windows that looked out onto our 17th century neighborhood. On the wall was written “Manhole” so that’s what we called it...man. We used the boys’ room at the end of the hall and a makeshift shower that stood alone in the middle of another classroom. It was the best place in Amsterdam!
We lived there for over a month and a half, then somebody bought the property and we had a huge party! We had bands play in the auditorium, and in our room we showed old Dutch movies from an movie projector Sander had. Hundreds of people who attended the Netherlands Film and Television Academy came to celebrate the closing of our beloved squatted abode.
Living in the Manhole was the best precursor and definitely a major ingredient for debauchery for us to begin our unknown European adventures. We were able to set up shop at “the hole” and not feel like we had to “do” Amsterdam in a few days.
Many people go to Amsterdam for the sex and drugs. Rightfully so, but the best part about the Bicycling Capital of Europe is her unique qualities that one can find sitting on the seat of a bike that resembles the one the Wicked Witch of the West rode to see Dorothy. They may look funny, but they are quite comfortable.
You might have heard there are a lot of bikes in Holland. Pedestrians don’t have the right of way here. A person has to be extremely cautious when crossing the street. You first have to look out for bikes in the bike lane, then cars in the car lane, then buses in the bus lane, then trolleys on the tracks, then cars again, bikes again – and if you make it, you’re on the other side of the street.
And oh yeah, there are those bicycle tourists who are there to “do” Amsterdam in two days, all banged up on drugs trying not to get their ridiculously skinny tires caught in the gaping trolley tracks. (Jesse and I managed to do that a coupla times riding on one bike together, laughing like schoolgirls at 4 a.m. coming back from various city districts “in the fog.”)
We would hop on our one-geared bicycles and pedal hard enough to get over the half-dome-shaped gracht bridges, almost coming to a natural stop but having enough power to slowly glide down the other side of the bridge, gracefully and without rush. The streets would even out to a relatively flat cobblestone surface, so we could glide and chat about how the surrounding buildings are all tilted from being built on top of water. Then Jesse would gleefully ring his bell, peddle hard once, and off we were up the next canal bridge to lazily gaze down the 13th-century network of canal systems.
This laid-back roller coaster ride is what Amsterdam is when you’re living there and not “doing” Amsterdam. By letting ourselves absorb into the culture, we were able to see and feel the uniqueness and pulse of the city.
Thanks to Sander, we learned that exploiting our acquaintances throughout Europe was the best rule to abide by. We “lived” Amsterdam and other parts of Holland, and we were lucky to have that experience. This immersion of our lives into a foreign culture was mind-blowing, awe-inspiring, and just plain scary, all rolled up into one big fatty.
Amsterdam gave me what I needed to experience. However, our exploitative desire to feed off the natural buzz of living in Europe drove us on to Prague to see my American college friend who lived there. But Prague is another story!