I got recruited as a blogger for my college’s admissions website.  That’s where I’m doing most of my reflections about my time in London, now.  I’ve already amassed four posts there — I hope you’re not jealous.  To keep abreast of my goings-on, direct your browser to www.hendrix.edu/admission/katie.  The newest scoop: someone here asked me if I was French, and told me I looked European!  Score!!

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Almost three months ago, I wrote about how to pack lots of outfits from from few clothes.  Now, having actually traveled, I have a better, more extensive list of packing tips.  They’re geared toward women travelers, but men are more than welcome to read and heed the advice.

Clothing Care 

1. Febreze It

Buy a small spray bottle and fill it with Febreze.  Eventually, your things will stink.  Even clean things smell bad after being in a pack with dirty things day after day.  Your traveling mates and the locals will thank you for packing this.

(The best thing about traveling is that no one you meet knows your past.  You’re free to reinvent yourself– or to just rewear that shirt you wore two days ago … and two days before that.  My rule: if it doesn’t have gelato spilled all over the front of it, it’s fair game for several Febreezings.)

2. Shout Wipes 

There’s hope even if you do spill gelato.  I used half a dozen of these babies on my five-week trip.

3. Spray-on Wrinkle Remover

You can find small cans of this at travel stores.  Unless you want to look like a nasty bum, this stuff is pretty necessary.  It works amazingly, too.  Just spray it on the wrinkles, smooth them out, and watch them disappear.

I used the store-bought stuff, but there are also recipes for cheap, home-made wrinkle releaser.  Try a dryer sheet in a small spray bottle of water.  Or, mix 1 cup water, 1/2 cup rubbing alcohol, and 1/4 cup fabric softener.  I haven’t tried either method, so make sure to test in an inconspicuous spot, first.

4. Packing Cubes

If you’re trying to catch an early train, packing speed is crucial.  Packing cubes keep everything organized, making it easier to stuff it all back into your pack without leaving it hopelessly wrinkled.  I brought one for bottoms, one for tops.  Also helpful: a bunch of ziplock baggies of varying sizes, for wet clothes or mementos or receipts or whatever.

5. Think Ahead about Washing

In winter, I wouldn’t bother with bringing Woolite and a clothesline to handwash clothes.  The heavier clothes you’ll be wearing won’t dry quickly.  But definitely don’t plan on finding a laundromat.  Instead, when you’re booking hostels, plan to stay once a week or so in a hostel with washing facilities.  (You can even use an advanced search on Hostelworld.com to ensure that you pick a hostel with laundry facilities.  On the “Book Your Bed” panel, click “Additional Search Options” and then “More Facilities.”)

Garments

6. Choose Your Shoes

They’re heavy.  Choose a good, comfortable pair for walking around the city.  Flats, which are stylish, light and compact, can supplement for nights out on the town.  During the summer a pair of flip-flops can serve as both shower shoes and streetwear.  Also, even though boots are super-cool, it would be pretty ridiculous to pack a pair.

7.  … And Socks

If you’re going to be doing a lot of walking in cold places, thick woolen socks could be key to keeping your toes happy.  But! make sure your shoes will still fit around them.  For formal occasions, I brought little thin, nude-colored, super-low-cut socks.  Those were a lifesaver when I didn’t want to look like a dork with my little white athletic socks, but also didn’t want my shoes to smell bad and get all sweaty and give me blisters.  Get a cheap pair at any department store.

8. Panty Power

I brought seven pairs of nylon/lycra panties.  They dry really fast, so if you’ve desperatly run out of undies you can wash them in the hostel bathroom, wring them out, and they’ll be dry by the next morning, if not sooner. 

9. Bring Some Bling

Bring a fair bit of cheap fashion jewelry — stuff you don’t mind breaking or losing.  It ties outfits together and makes you look like a real person on days when you just feel like an exhausted traveler.  It also helped me keep from getting bored wearing the same small set of clothes over and over again.

10. Pick a Prudent Purse

Bring a purse with a strap, not a clutch.  Out on the street, the clutch is too easy to snatch from your hands.  Also: bring your driver’s license.  It isn’t valid for driving abroad, but it has your birthdate on it and will let you get into clubs or buy alcohol without having to bring your passport around town with you.

11. Buy Pashminas Abroad

Throughout Europe, there are tons of cheap (about $5) pashminas for sale — and people really wear them!  (As neck scarves, especially.) You can buy two or three of different colors.  That way you’re warm, the pashmina ties your outfit together, and when people at home tell you how great you look, you can tell them you got it in Europe!  They’re also good, light compact presents.

12. Ditch the Hoodie

Sweatshirts are really bulky in your pack, and they’re worthless when they’re wet, so you may want to invest in more high-tech, waterproof medium-warm layer

Other Concerns

13. Saving Space vs. Saving Money

If you’ll be abroad for awhile, you may consider bringing a box of tampons with you, because they’re expensive over here!  O.B. tampons are the smallest and lightest choice, if you’re willing to live an applicator-free lifestyle.  Bringing a few of those personal wipes is also worth the trouble.

14. Pack for a Picnic 

Dining out can also be vicious to your travel budget.  To save what you can, eat out at lunch and make picnic dinners.  Many hostels have guest kitchens.  A fold-up plate and a set of good plastic cutlery makes impromptu picnics simple.

15. Audiobooks

Downloadable audiobooks from Audible.com add absolutely no more weight to your pack, but they still give you something to listen to on long train rides.  One paperback book is advisable, too, though, because reading a book in a restaurant or cafe looks a lot more normal than staring off into space with your headphones on.

Happy packing!

With Hostelworld.com as my guide, I set out for five weeks of backpacking through Europe.  Fifteen hostels later, I’ve amassed some great experiences, as well as plenty of opinions.  Here they are:

Hostal Metropol (Madrid, Spain) 

♥♥♥

My first-ever hostel, so I didn’t know what to make of it.  In retrospect, it had a nice breakfast and restaurant (although the paella I had was quite salty).  The lobby features free wireless internet and four free computer stations.  In general, the hostel great location just off Gran Via, near some of the best nightlife in town.  Free baggage storage is available, and the hostel has an *elevator*!  It’s also super-close to a metro station,  — three big bonuses for the backpacker who didn’t master the concept of “pack light.”

The down-sides: squeaky beds, street noise, teensy showers, and you provide your own bedlinen.  My room also featured an in-room bath with a hole in the wall.  Eek!

~

Residencia Luena (Lisbon, Portugal)  

♥♥♥

This budget hotel is definitely lacks the ambiance of a hostel.  The breakfast crowd was elderly and formal — wearing my PJs was quite a mistake!  The staff was very friendly, and the hostel was well connected to bus and metro services.  Free luggage storage and ensuite bathroom was a bonus.  My sister and I stayed in a private room here for 25€ each, which is the going rate for a dorm room in many hostels.  This is a nice place to catch your breath and get some privacy.

~

Oporto Poet’s Hostel (Porto, Portugal)

♥♥♥♥♥

This hostel made me regret I hadn’t planned for more than one day in Porto, nor known about this hostel’s Lisbon branch (the original Poet’s Hostel).  It’s super clean, brightly decorated, and brand new.  Sparkling kitchen, great outside hang-out area, and free wi-fi.  The owner and staff were very friendly, and they hung out with the guests at night.  One German backpacker had fallen so in love with the place that the staff converted a lounge into a bedroom for him so he could stay an extra night.

This hostel is small and warm.  It’s a short, uphill trek from the metro station and rather hard to find, but a cheap trip up the nearby belltower will help you get your bearings on the small city center.

~

Meiga Backpackers Hostel (Santiago de Compostela, Spain)

Easy to find, hard to hang out in.  It’s an easy 10-minute walk from the train station, and many busses run past the nearby plaza.  Rather intimidating staff and strict atmosphere, fitting of a town to which Catholics make pilgrimages.  Oddly enough, this hostel had absolutely enormous bathrooms.  There’s no internet access, and bag storage costs 2€.  The weird, stiff atmosphere would keep me from staying here again.

~

Bull’s Hostel (Madrid, Spain)

♥♥♥

The staff was friendly, but I couldn’t quite figure out why this hostel has gotten such rave reviews on Hostelworld.com.  It’s clean enough, but kind of small.  There were only two dorms, sleeping about 20 total.  Breakfast was pitiful — mini-toasts and digestive cookies.  Fellow guests from the larger dorm had stories of bedbugs, too.  The hostel’s wireless access is achingly slow, so go outside to the adjacent park and use the neighborhood’s free wi-fi.  (In Spanish, “wee-fee.”)  It’s adorable to see the handful of Madrileños hunched over, using Skype or just surfing the net.  This hostel is very near the Metro, as well as to bars, restaurants, and fun.

~

Lima’s Guesthouse (Barcelona, Spain)

Although this place was clean, fairly well located, and very well-decorated, it was definitely not the place for fun-loving backpackers.  Silence reigned, and I never saw any other guests.  Staff seemed almost awkwardly eager to please.  No guest kitchen, 5€ wi-fi (which lasts all night), and a rather un-private shared bathroom.  (Sliding door barely closes; no lock; glass shower; unscreened windows onto a central courtyard.  Eek!)  In general, a beautiful but uncomfortable place.

~

Youth Hostel Bern (Bern, Switzerland)

♥♥♥

The complete opposite of Lima’s Guesthouse.  Full of people, and it felt like going to camp.  Very ample breakfast included: cereals, breads, tea, juice.  No eating limit, either.  One Uruguayan guy ate practically an entire loaf of bread!  My dorm was enormous — 20 beds — which was a great opportunity to make friends and an even better opportunity to put your ear plugs to good use.  The hostel was hard to find — ask a local for help if you don’t have a map.

~

Youth Hostel Van Gogh (Brussels, Belgium)

♥♥♥♥

Definitely the most happening hostel I’d stayed at yet.  Not an ideal location, but near metro.  Guests congregated around the bar, and the atmosphere was friendly (if drunkenly so).  There was a very nice guest kitchen and a great washer/dryer.  Bedrooms were less than homey (more like run-down … almost gross), but somehow I didn’t mind.  The staff was also very helpful.  They even upgraded our room for free so we wouldn’t have to switch rooms mid-stay.

~

Flying Pig Beach Hostel (outside Amsterdam, Holland)

♥♥

The folks at the Flying Pig Downtown branch were incredibly kind on our arrival, allowing us to stor our bags (even a random friend’s huge pack) and use their free internet.  (Many fast, Skype-enabled computers to choose from.)  It was a disappointment, then, to arrive that evening at the smaller, shabbier Beach Hostel.  A single, oldish computer sat on the bookcase in the smoking room/bar.  Although the toilets were separated by gender, the showers were not.  And there was one small changing room that one could not readily lock, since there were two showers and 20 people who needed to use them. 

The hostel’s shuttle service to Amsterdam, a 45-minute ride, costs 3€ each way.  The public transport alternative is a bus (2,10€ round-trip) and a train (free for Railpass holders; 10-15€ for regular folks).  It takes about 1.5 hours that way.  Although the Beach Hostel was cheaper than the Uptown and Downtown branches of the Flying Pig chain, it wasn’t worth the hassle.  That being said, the beach was nice (if cold and windy), and the beds were very comfortable and easy to hop down from.

~

Hostel ROOM Rotterdam (Rotterdam, Holland)

♥♥♥♥♥

Each of this hostel’s rooms is decorated in a theme.  Although our Dutch Delight room had some unwelcome mosquitos visiting, it was so darn cute that I didn’t mind.  In the evening, the staff of the hostel arranged an international game of charades in which the winners (my team) were granted a free beer from the bar.  Free shots of Dutch gin also followed. 

The hostel was right by the waterfront, very near two tram stops and a pretty canal.  The amazing breakfast the next morning (dozens of jams, great bread, good cereal, tea, coffee, etc.) was the best I’ve had in Europe.  Nice.  One downside is that the showers have no lip, so the water leaks onto the floor of the toilet stall next to it.  Kind of gross.

~

Hostel X Berger (Berlin, Germany)

♥♥♥

This place was very dark.  Free wi-fi was a bonus, as was the fact that my room of eight never had more than five guests in it.  There was a guest kitchen, but no real hang-out place to meet people.  (A lounge was under construction in the basement, so that may soon be remedied.)  The big bonus was its location near many bars and restaurants, and a U-bahn stop.  (That being said, it took two or three line-switches to get from the hostel to the main train station.)  This place was deliciously cheap, but too dark to be comfortable.

~

Hostel Louise 20 (Dresden, Germany)

♥♥♥♥

Definitely not dark — blond wood, light blue bedcovers, and natural light flooding in.  This place was spotless, incredibly comfortable, and quite beautiful.  Like Lima’s Guesthouse, but not creepy.  I only stayed for one night, but there didn’t seem to be a happening “scene” there — no noise, no fun.  The other two people in my room were businessmen.  But it’s close to the Nuestadt Bahnhof and in the heart of the bar and restaurant district.  Free baggage storage, too, but a 5€ breakfast.

~

The Tent (Munich, Germany)

♥♥♥♥

An experience!  The first night around the campfire I met a dozen new buddies, most of whom I went out with the next evening.  Funny staff, clean (if a bit cold) showers, and a surprisingly good night’s sleep, considering there were 100 beds in the tent where I stayed.  Cheap, organic food and drink were huge bonuses.  Although it got quite cold at night, the staff gave me five blankets, and I stayed quite warm.

For 10,50€, I don’t think you can get better than this.  It was like Girl Scout camp, except cleaner, newer, and with plenty of boys and booze.  Bring your own marshmallows for the campfire, though.  They don’t sell them at the hostel, and they’re hard to find in the neighborhood grocery stores.

~

St. Christopher’s Bauhaus Hostel (Brugge, Belgium)

♥♥♥

This hostel was a great value for the money.  However, the bathrooms were absolutely gross; they don’t have sinks, and they’re often dirty.  The showers were warm, large, and private, though.  The breakfast was hearty, the people were friendly, and the town was fantastic.  Led by the free map I was given on check-in, I had a great two days in Brugge.  One warning: with the curtains drawn, the rooms stays very, very dark.  You may want to open them half-way before going to bed, or you’ll never wake up.

~

Journeys Elephants & Castle (London, England)

♥♥

For London, this place was cheap.  In fact, it was so cheap that there were several folks living there temporarily.  A brand new hostel, this one is still working out some kinks.  The key cards that unlock the rooms are very touchy, and I had to get mine replaced twice during my two-night stay.  However, the bar area is nice, as are the spacious rooms and showers.  The kitchen/TV room was also a nice gathering point for guests. 

Two warnings: the wi-fi is a rip-off.  Put your laptop in your bag and take it to an internet cafe on nearby Walworth Rd.  Most of them have wi-fi for 1£ per hour.  I also warn (and this advice may contradict my suggestion that you carry your laptop around) that this hostel didn’t seem to be in a particularly safe area.  Other female travelers have echoed my thoughts that the rather isolated, residential neighborhood creeped them out after dark.

~

Now I’m sleeping in my own bed in my own flat.  But I’ll be back around Europe several times this fall, and I’ll make sure to keep you updated of the best and worst hostels.  Cheers!

My railpass record says it all: A trip to the airport. A trip back to the Brussels central station. A trip to the other airport. A trip back to the Brussels main station. A trip via the (super-expensive) high-speed train to London. Ugh.

I got up at 5 a.m. to get to the Brussels airport super, incredibly early – I arrived nearly 3 hours before my flight was scheduled to depart. I’m not scared of flying, but I’m always horribly afraid of missing my flights. With reason, apparently. I won’t dwell on the details, mostly because I don’t want to recall them, but it was an awful, expensive morning, and I almost didn’t get through the UK’s border security. (The agent made fun of Arkansas, too! Who does that?)

I haven’t seen enough of London to make any judgments yet, except that it is indeed as expensive as I had feared. It costs four pounds (aka $8) to take the tube, no matter how short a trip! I spent four pounds calling my mom last night, for a total of about 60 seconds of airtime. The super-cheap Chinese restaurant next to my hostel is a blessed exception to this madness.

In this grey city, I feel like I’m in mourning for the loss of my trip. After a full five weeks of country hopping, it seemed like a death sentence to get stuck on an island, no matter how worldly and impressive an island. It’s equally oppressive to see the school year approach, and to know winter is coming. Winter on a grey island! How will I manage? Where did my summer in Spain go? My misery is compounded by the fact I managed to pick up a nice little cold somewhere. (I think it was from a cute Australian, so that makes it almost worthwhile.)

To make myself feel better, I’ve been perusing my albums of old photos. Some of them are there because they’re great photos. Others are there because they were great experiences. (E.g. the photo with our sexy professor. I got to touch him!!) Rather than posting them all here, I’ve provided a link to an album.  Here it is: The Best of the Best of Europe!  Hope you enjoy!

~~~

I would also like to take this time to reflect on the female traveler’s favorite week of the month. For a list of funny euphemisms for this natural but bothersome cycle, click here.

About a week ago, aware that my time was fast approaching and in need of supplies, I entered a supermarket in Germany. I found this, and only this:

ob

I looked to the left, to the right. There was nothing else. No Tampax© Pearl, no Tampax at all! There were no applicators to be found, not even cardboard. “There – there must be some mistake!” I screamed in horror.

I checked in another supermarket, which offered even less variety. The normal absorbency had all been sold out, leaving only Super and Light. That just wouldn’t do. A fancy-schmancy pharmacy was my last hope, but there, too, there was only O.B. I gave in, paid my four euros and left. Leave it to the Germans, who sort their trash into four different types of recyclables, to be equally environmentally aware with their tampons. And they saved paper by only printing the instructions in German. Eek!

As it turned out, it wasn’t so bad. They’re way smaller and lighter than any tampon with an applicator, even the Tampax© Compak. And even with German instructions, it’s just not too hard to figure out what you have to do with it. O.B. has won a respectful fan, if not a convert. It also helped that I spent the following three days in Belgium, home of the world’s best chocolate (and beer). How lucky is that?

My stay in Germany and my travels without Mandi have largely seemed uneventful.  I mostly passed the four days in Berlin on my laptop, finishing up my last remaining hours of work for the Employment Blawg and writing some Spanish essays to get credit for my time in Spain.  There’s nothing to ruin a city like spending your time there fulfilling bureaucratic requirements.  I did spend a few hours each day seeing the sights, though.   

Friday night, having met a pair of Spanish cousins and two girls from Italy, I went out to a lounge/bar with them.  Although most of us were proficient in two languages, there was no common language among us.  We all ordered drinks in English and spent the night speaking in an intriguing mixture of Spanish, English, and Italian.  Berlin is famous for its nightlife, and some locals teased us for heading home at 1 a.m.  I half regretted not having the full, stay-up-til-the-next-morning experience, but the next day my four companions all had fevers and sore throats, so I was happy I had treated my immune system well. 

On Saturday, when I spent six hours working on the blawg and several more hours on the New York Times website trying to get caught up on current events, my only “sight” was a nearby Italian restaurant.  Their 2€ soups and 3€ pizzas were a sight for sore eyes, though, after an expensive week on in Belgium and the Netherlands. 

Sunday I wrote my much-loathed Spanish paper.  Finally freed of that responsibility, I made my first jaunt into the city alone.  I found the Hamburg Bahnhof art gallery, home of several very interesting exhibits.  The main exposition was a huge display of trash art, which I was more than happy to ignore.  Instead I focused on a nice sampling of paintings by … some guy.  It might be dull, but I am a huge fan of paintings that are just juxtapositions of flat color.  This is one from a series called the Grove, which represent the organic nature and colors of an olive grove in the very flat, geometric nature of square paintings.  I liked the irony of that, plus it matched my shirt. 

Grove

There was also an audiovisual work on the second floor that captivated my interest for half an hour.  It was an oral history of Manhattan Island that accompanied a video panorama of the island.  The emphasis was on the Dutch and English settlers and their interactions with the local Indian population, as well as on the importance of names.  Very nice.

From there I found the equally artistic Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  The plot of land is covered with grey stone blocks of varying shapes and sizes.  Apparently the memorial was designed to have no metaphorical significance.  For instance, the number of stones was dictated solely by the size of the land. 

Memorial 1     berlin-memorial-2.jpg

The museum underneath was very well run and very powerful.  The most affecting part was an exhibit about fifteen different families and how the Holocaust affected each one.  Time and rising emotion limited me to reading only one of them: only the younger sister survived, but the father and older brother were killed just weeks before the end of the war. 

On Monday I explored the next chapters in Berlin’s history: the Berlin wall and the Reichstag building.  I visited the longest remaining stretch of the wall, called the New Side Gallery.  I saw the famous painting of (someone famous) kissing (someone else famous), as well as some other less famed ones.  Many panels consisted mostly of peeling paint.

Besos     Wall 2

I came across one panel where “Nunca tu solo caminaras” (“You will never walk alone”) was written.  I liked that, since it was only my second solo excursion ever. 

I took the train to the Reichstag building, home to the Bundestag, Germany’s congress.  The building remains from before the world wars (although it received some serious damage).  After the reunion of the two halves of Germany, when the capital was moved from Bonn back to Berlin, the Reichstag building was revamped.  The huge glass cupola and gigantic paned glass windows represent the transparency of the new German government, and visitors are allowed to ascend to the very tippy-top of the dome. 

Outside dome     reichstag 2

The building is annually visited by 11 million tourists, since the tower affords an amazing view of the city.  I arrived at 8 p.m. to find a half-hour wait.  When I finally reached the front of the line, I was herded into a small glass antechamber with perhaps fifty others, and the door closed behind me.  We stood there for a good fifteen seconds before another door opened and we were allowed into the building. I’m not a public relations expert, but it doesn’t seem prudent for a visitor’s first impression of the new German government to involve being crammed into a little room and trapped there, however temporarily. The view from the top was indeed gorgeous, though, and worth both the wait and the claustrophobic entrance experience.  Here’s a shot of the famous Brandenburg Gate. 

brandenburg gate

The most surprising part about being up their, looking over the vastness of the city, was when I a woman tapped me on the shoulder and waved hello.  I waved back and turned back around, until it dawned on me that I did indeed know her.  She was a Dutch woman, one of two I met on my first day in Berlin, when I was utterly confounded by the ticket machine for the S-bahn, rather lost, and crying.  She had helped me find where I was going.   With the entire city as a backdrop, it seemed even more incredible that we should find ourselves together again.  Even rarer: we met again on the U-Bahn heading to our respective hostels!  Europe has been funny that way. 

Dresden 

The next morning I headed off early for Dresden.  I took the train, as always, and was very pleased with the experience.  There were gorgeous vistas of rivers, mountains, farmland, villages, cities, windmills, fields of solar panels, and even just pretty train stations.  It was just as picturesque as flying, except everything was at a human scale.  And because I wasn’t driving, there was no need to keep my eyes on the road.  The shame of it all was that, through the double paned glass, and at high speeds, it was impossible to record the experience to share with others.  You’ll just have to buy a ticket and take the journey yourselves.  It’s gorgeous. 

In Dresden I stayed in the most beautiful, second most boring hostel of the trip.  I shared my room with two middle-aged businessmen.  Uck.  (Hostel reviews coming Sept. 1, when I finish my travels.)  The benefits were threefold: it was cheap, very close to the train station, and in the center of the bar and restaurant district.   

After a ridiculously long and delicious nap and a bite of Chinese food, I found a lovely little hole-in-the-wall place called the Teegadrom.  It was a dark and comfortable tea room/bar where I got a glass of cider and a mug chai tea and took in some more of Estampillas Bostonianas, my book of Spanish travel journalism.  I thought fondly of Kurt Vonnegut as I drifted off to sleep later.  If not for Slaughterhouse-Five I never would have gone to the lovely city.

From Amsterdam we took a short train to the nearby, arch-enemy city of Rotterdam.  Mandi and I spent most of our time organizing and splitting up our belongings.  A fantastic falafel run and a multi-cultural game of charades also enriched our evening, which we spent in the best hostel of the entire trip.  Hostel ROOM Rotterdam has about fifteen rooms, each with a different theme.  Ours was the Dutch Delight room.  Check it out!

Dutch Delight 1

Dutch Delight 2

There was also a recipe for Dutch Pea Soup painted on the wall behind Mandi’s bed.  Aside from some pesky mosquitoes that found their way into our room, the hostel was the best one of the whole trip.  The breakfast was a veritable buffet!  Wheat and white bread, dozens of jams and spreads, tea, coffee, and some delicious cereal with dried fruit.  (Thank God for a break from Corn Flakes!) 

The staff was incredibly friendly, offering us each a free shot of Dutch gin and organizing a rousing game of charades.  (Embarrassingly, the Turkish girl on my team knew a lot more about American movies, music, and TV shows than I did!) Inspired by my lovely stay at Hostel ROOM Rotterdam, I’m going to review each of the other hostels I’ve stayed at on the first half of my trip.  But that’s for next time. 

Now I’m going to lament how much I miss my sister, how much I’m scared about traveling on my own, how big my suitcase is without Mandi to help share the weight of the travel gear, etc.  Alright, lament completed.  Wish me luck on my solo travel!

I preface this description with the explanation that our hostel was about an hour outside of Amsterdam by train (two other branches of the same hostel were located in downtown and uptown Amsterdam).  So I never saw the true nightlife of Amsterdam, but the day-life was quite enough for me.  However, I do apologize for being unable to recount stories of true debauchery.

Day 1 

We arrived in A-dam on Monday evening and searched out the downtown branch of our hostel, so we could stow our stuff for a few hours and travel the town.  We found it easily enough, and when we walked in we were assaulted by the smell of pot smoke.   In our quest to find the luggage room, we found that the elevator was occupied by a pair of waaaay-out-of-it guys.  The elevator doors opened, they stared at us and giggled slowly and pushed the Door Close button.  So we took the stairs. 

The beauty of Amsterdam took me by surprise.  It had been a nice, partly-cloudy day, and we came through town just as the sun was sinking.  The reflections in the canals were impressive.  We found a small restaurant, got some warm mozzarella and pesto sandwiches, and said our goodbyes to our traveling mate Nikki as we caught the shuttle to the beach. 

Amsterdam the first evening     Canal with Swans

In the shuttle we met a guy from Damascus who had grown up in Arkansas (turned out he and I have mutual friends at Hendrix College) and had studied at St. Louis University (he’s a fan of Imo’s Pizza and the super-cheap Jack-in-the-Box tacos).  Small world, I’d say!  (In Rotterdam I met another guy, this time from upstate New York, who was familiar with and had been to Conway, Arkansas.) 

At the hostel we collapsed, in preparation for waking up early and heading back downtown.   

Day 2

Amazing spinach soup.  Lots of wandering.  A visit to the local post office, where there are four different slots for various types of mail.  I picked the far left one.  Dad, I hope my postcard still gets to you!

We spent a nice, long time canal-watching.  Who couldn’t stare mindlessly at something this beautiful?  After about an hour of silent reflection, we headed toward the nearest bagel shop, where Mandi and I shared one sesame seed bagel with pesto and tomato cream cheese and one cinnamon raisin bagel with maple syrup, banana slices, and powdered cinnamon.  Whoa.  Whooaaa. 

Stoned canal

As yet unsatisfied, we walked a bit farther and encountered a grocery store.  Part of our plan included cheese, and at the cheese counter we encountered one of the most interesting locals of the trip: a young woman (about my age, I’d guess) who proceeded to tell us the bulk of her life story, punctuated with, “I’m really not sure why I’m telling you this, but …”.  Mandi and I heard her family secrets about divorce and sibling rivalry and some stories about the dangers of living in Africa and how it changed her life and taught her that even when the cheese slicer cuts off pieces of her fingers, life is still good.  Of course it’s always nice to talk with locals, but there was something seriously odd about that interaction.   

After eating the cheese and passing through the Red Light district, we headed back to the train station and back to the beach hostel, where we very unexpectedly encountered our Scottish friends we’d met in Belgium.  Nice. 

Day 3 

The final day we headed back bright and early to visit the Van Gogh museum.  The first floor, the permanent collection of Van Gogh’s works, was stuffed to the brim with tourists making pilgrimages to see the great European works.  Far and away my favorite part was seeing one of his self-portraits, a work that I copied full-size in oil pastels as part of my Basic Art class in ninth grade.  Having studied and replicated those strokes, it was fantastic to see it in person, just inches from me.  The work was a lot lighter, less gray, than the copy I worked from.  The brushstrokes were also a lot smaller and finer than I had realized.  Photography within the museum was prohibited.  This image does it no justice.

Van Gogh Self-Portrait

The second floor, much emptier of visitors, featured a rare look at Van Gogh’s sketches.  Because the drawings are on very sensitive paper, they are usually stored away and very infrequently displayed.  My favorite were Van Gogh’s sketches from a how-to-draw book, from when he was learning how to draw figures.  It’s a close replica, but definitely imperfect.  It’s a good thing he placed higher value on showing the personality of a place or person than representing it with complete technical accuracy. 

There was also a special exhibit about how Van Gogh learned to use color the way he did.  He read many texts about color theory and the color wheel (i.e., contrasting colors make each other appear brighter).  However, having only really seen Dutch art, he applied the theories incorrectly.  Poor guy!  Once he got out and traveled, he improved a lot. 

The third floor featured some Monets, Gaugins, and Seurats, as well as some very impressive paintings by names I didn’t recognize.  Three floors worth of works and three hours of absorbing artistic genius made me a little less bitter about the 10 euros I paid to enter.  But only a little. 

For lunch we found a sandwich shop run by a friendly Egyptian man.  We each paid for our own sandwich, leading me to realize that we had just “gone Dutch.”  Dutch treat.  Get it?  Ok, lame pun. We then headed for the famous Botanical Garden, but with an entrance fee of 6 euros apiece, Mandi and I decided to take a nap on the lawn instead.  I’m not quite sure how Mandi snapped this photo of me without me knowing, but it’s a cute one. 

Katie resting

To wind up the day, we headed by a supermarket to pick up some Heineken.  (What’s a visit to Amsterdam without Heineken?)  An interesting side note is that the supermarkets in northern Europe are infinitely more American and pre-packaged than those in Spain and Portugal.  Check out this adorable display of easy-to-make meals.  It’s a four-step process: Noodles/Rice/Potatoes + Vegetable + Meat + Sauce = Dinner!  The supermarket also sold individually-wrapped red peppers, for whatever reason. 

Amsterdam supermarket

Beer in hand, we strolled through the Red Light district as the sun began to dip in the horizon.  Sex shops abounded, some more offensive than others.  I quite enjoyed window shopping at the Condomerie, although the store had already closed.  Check out these themed condoms. 

Condoms

And the prostitutes?  Well, they were half-naked, sitting in front of windows.  Many of them were quite a bit less attractive than I expected – one looked like she could be your aunt, and most had a lot more pudge than you’d ever see on a porn star.  It really made me realize that they’re regular women.  To me, perhaps the most difficult part would be trying to look sexy, hour after hour, without getting bored.  (Ok, well that would actually probably be the second most difficult part.)

Red Light District

I never saw a man go in, but I did see two come out (of separate doors).  I also saw several children walking by with their parents, to my great surprise.  Oh, to have heard what the parents were saying to their children!  Were explaining prostitution to their kids, or had they mistakenly thought that Oudekerkstrasse was the way to the zoo? 

After a visit to a piercing parlor where the man advised that, should I pierce my nose, I pierce the right nostril, we headed back to little ol’ Noordwijk on the train.  There we grabbed blankets and beers and sat on the beach, alternating between listening to the iPod and listening to the waves crash.  Here’s a picture from the next morning.  It was actually quite a beautiful place.  It was almost a shame we spent all our time in Amsterdam.

Noordwijk beach