Billy Joel knew what he was talking about when he wrote “Vienna”–and he probably had a friend who was attempting to see all of Europe in less than four months.
A week after returning from Dublin I spend the weekend in Vienna, Austria with my program. There are few things that I enjoy more than five hour bus rides, bonding over gas station snacks and the unsurpassed nap quality that comes from being lulled to sleep by our tour guide, Z. This trip we lucked out with a half hour stop at Excalibur city, complete with wizards and fire-breathing dragon. Though it lacked the unique charm of that rest stop, Vienna was an incredible city! I spent most of the weekend simply walking around, admiring the architecture, and imitating the statues at every possible opportunity.The weather was gorgeous—it’s about time!—and the wine was delicious. We spent the nights in the “Bermuda Triangle” neighborhood, recommended by my politics professor as the neighborhood where students tend to disappear. Luckily, we all made it out alive, and even made some new Austrian friends who attempted to teach us German (while we pretended to be fluent in Czech).
The bus ride home from Austria was much less pleasant than the one there because Monday morning I was tossed back into a reality I hadn’t acknowledged since December. Midterms. Yes, a lovely weekend in Vienna was concluded with studying and a 9 am wake-up call for exam time. Three days, two exams, and a load of laundry later my bags were repacked and I was on a plane to Amsterdam.
I must prelude this story with the fact that there were friends who firmly believed that Rebecca, Jen and I would not be making it back to Prague alive.
Of our four nights in the city, only the first would be generally accepted as a “traditional” (or safe, you decide) way of traveling. The three of us stayed in a lovely little hostel closet with two beds and concrete walls. Fine for one night, generally unpleasant, the widely used means of traveling on a budget. Friday night was when the real adventure began as we trekked across the city for our first shot at couch surfing. This is an online community where people create a profile and then offer or search for a free place to crash for a night or two. When we told our friends that we would be couch surfing, we received less than enthusiastic responses that typically ended in “Well, I hope they don’t kill you.” I will admit that the idea sounds a bit sketchy—but it truly completed our Amsterdam experience. Rather than staying in a cramped hostel with a whole bunch of tourists, we cooked dinner, drank wine, and discussed life with a Dutch (not at all sketchy or murderer-like) student and her friends in an adorable studio apartment where we slept on a bed bigger than our entire room in the hostel.
Okay, done with my free promotion of couch surfing (try it!!). Aside from its wonderfully hospitable people, Amsterdam is a city that I am still fascinated by. It’s not always popular for the most morally sound culture—marijuana, prostitutes, crazy bicyclists, but it is just these things that make it so interesting. Contrary to popular belief, people do not walk around high all the time. The “coffee shops” where it is legal to sell and use weed are frequented by tourists, not Dutch people, who tend to avoid the drug. And prostitution is considered an entrepreneur’s profession; the women rent a window, find clients, and pay their taxes at the end of the year. Now, I am not necessarily advocating for prostitution and legalizing drugs, but I cannot help but appreciate the casual attitude the Dutch have towards allowing people to do what they’d like, capitalize on it, and their prioritize issues differently. For example, the tax money earned from the sale of marijuana goes towards the fight against hard drugs.
Imagine, a fully functioning, normal, and economically thriving society despite the subcultures of sex, drugs, and diversity.
Besides, these things are certainly not all that Amsterdam had to offer. Despite terrible weather, we rented a peddle boat and had a self guided tour of the extensive canal system and saw the Rijksmuseum, where there are many paintings by Rembrandt. Our cultural activities were limited by the massive crowds of tourists everywhere, trying to get into museums and out of the rain. The absolute highlight of my weekend, and possibly my semester, was spending three glorious hours biking around the city in true Dutch fashion. And when I say “true Dutch Fashion” I mean that we were terribly obvious tourists who don’t know the proper way to ride a bike. Amsterdam is no place for a leisurely ride—we were usually going faster than the cars (when we weren’t forced into sharing a lane with them) and pedestrian casualties suddenly became a legitimate fear. The bike rental should come with a warning that, though a lovely way to see the city, is way harder than it looks. Seriously, everyone should have been way more concerned about my safety on the bike than couch surfing, but either way, I survived and am finally back for a long and relaxing travel break in Prague.