Last summer, a good friend and I visited Amsterdam for a long weekend. It is one of those cities that it seems most people who have lived in Western Europe, even for half a year, have traveled to. I hadn’t yet, and it was only a three-hour train ride from Paris.
My friend and I met up at Gare du Nord on a Friday morning, early for our 6:25 train. Upon arrival in Amsterdam, we figured out how to take the bus to the neighborhood we’d be staying in, Amsterdam-West. Bus stations across the globe tend to be confusing for visitors because buses depart from multiple floors inside and several stops outside. In this case, to reach our departure stop, we had to exit the station and cross a small bridge. It was a bit cloudy, and I wondered where this beautiful city was that I had heard about.
We had breakfast at a large and largely empty café in the Amsterdam-West area. The server told us that she didn’t have any English menus but to please let her know if we had any questions. I wanted to ask, “Can you tell us what the whole menu says?” Neither my French friend nor I could speak or read Dutch. This wasn’t a problem, however, as everyone we encountered could speak English. A resident later explained to us that since The Netherlands was a small country, it was necessary for them to speak English as well, so they were required to learn it in school.
My friend ended up with a sort of apple pie, and I with coffee, which was served in a glass, and a thin toasted ham and cheese sandwich, which was accompanied by a small dish of ketchup (!). Let the food education begin.
I had paid for our lodging online a few weeks prior. Instead of paying me back in a lump sum, my friend paid me back little by little by paying for our food that weekend. This led to the pleasure of me feeling like he was paying for everything (and him feeling like he was emptying his wallet continuously).
We headed out to find the “snack bar” where we could pick up our apartment key from at noon, according to the apartment owner’s instructions. It felt a bit like a scavenger hunt. We asked a person for directions, then ventured off the main road and around a corner to find the snack bar on a quiet street. I told the man behind the counter why I was there, and he handed me an envelope with my first name and the date in Dutch written on it, along with the apartment owner’s name and phone number.
Equipped with the key to the kingdom, we walked to the apartment, which was not far from the snack bar. We climbed a couple of flights of steep stairs and arrived at our lovely abode, which included a balcony. My friend crashed for a quick nap while I looked at the guide the owner had left us and the little notebook where people had written their recommended restaurants and spots in the city.
Having each closed our eyes briefly, we hit the city for an exploratory walk. Unsurprisingly, I took many pictures of canals, architecture, and bikes. The sun came out and I was able to see the beauty that people had spoken of when describing Amsterdam.
Every five minutes, I wanted to say, “Look at all those bikes!” but eventually I figured out that my friend could see them too. I still thought it constantly, though.
On our walk back to the apartment that night, we passed the lit snack bar, where a group of men sat around a table outside. We glanced at them as you do when you take in the world around you, not looking for anything in particular. One of them called out my name. It was the man who ran the snack bar. How long does it take to make a home? Sometimes, just a day.