Around the World in 1998-1999; Holland

Note; this post is recreated from the original wired2theworld website post with the dates below. The old posts were reformatted for the 20th anniversary of wired2theworld. As much as possible, the content is unchanged and unedited from the original, only some formatting, spelling, and link errors have been corrected.

Kristina’s Journal:
February 5, 1999                                 
Amsterdam
US$1= f 1.8(guilders)

We arrived after a 12-hour bus ride from London to Amsterdam in a hail storm. We thought we would be arriving at the city center, but instead, we were on the outskirts at the main bus station, which, thankfully, was right next door to a train station. So, we took a short train ride to the Amsterdam Central Station. At this point, we had an entire day to ourselves, as we were not due to call our friend Mark until late afternoon.
    The first thing we did was to buy papers that had car ads. Unfortunately, none were in English. As we sat over a cup of coffee that morning, we perused the ads, recognizing at least the make, models, and years of some of the cars, as well as their prices. The prospect of buying a campervan was beginning to look dim, as most were out of budget, and there were very few from which to choose. At that point, we started looking into buying a used car.

    Since we had so much time on our hands we went for a walk around the city. Even in the rain, it was beautiful, with many canals lined with multicolored houses all squished together. Apparently, hundreds of years ago when the houses were built, taxes were levied on the square footage of the land, not the structure, so houses were built tall and slim, on as little land as possible. Many of the houses appear crooked, leaning forward over the street. This is not an optical illusion, they really do lean forward, as furniture and heavy objects are hauled up outside the front and into the large windows. The buildings lean forward so the objects do not scrape as they go up.

  We walked to the Anne Frank House which is something I have wanted to see since I read the book when I was about twelve years old. It was fascinating and very moving, to see the cramped  quarters in which eight people lived for years. Downstairs, there is an interactive section of the museum, with touch-activated computer screens that lead the viewer through excerpts of the diary. It really put the book put into perspective to hear a girl’s voice reading the passages and to see just how she lived.  The building next door is being reconstructed to enlarge the museum facilities.

    After that, we went in search of an internet cafe, but they all charge cover (i.e.; they were also bars and wanted you to buy a drink) along with the online fee. We opted to wait.
    So we decided to sit and drink coffee and wait to get in touch with Mark. Mark is the husband of a longtime friend of mine, Leslie. They had moved to Holland a few years ago (Mark is Dutch) and were planning to move back to the States soon. When I tried to get in touch with Leslie via email, it was Mark who responded, saying Leslie had already returned to LA for graduate school, but we were welcome to come and visit anyway.
    When we finally reached his home in Leiden, which is about half an hour outside Amsterdam, it was such a relief to be in a home, not a hotel. Mark was a generous host, and we felt immediately at ease, especially with two cats and a dog in the house.

David’s Diary:
February  10, 1999

    The Netherlands is a lot like I expected it to be.  Flat.  There are canals everywhere you look,  and in Amsterdam, it seems almost every street is accompanied by a canal and at least one drawbridge.  There are boats of all kinds along the banks of the canals, parked, and primarily used as homes.  There were numerous tourist boats motoring along the waterways, which is a novel way to see a bit of the city.  We chose a walking tour by ourselves, as we did not want to spend 44 guilders for the two of us to ride around on the boat, and we were looking for the Anne Frank House.
     Both Kristina and I were a little put off by the sleaze factor in central Amsterdam. Most of what surrounds the train station, and is easily reached by foot, is targeted to the enormous volume of tourists that moves through the little city.  On the main street from the central station are the Museums of Sex and Cannabis, flanked by souvenir shops selling tulip growing kits and T-shirts. We would return to Amsterdam in a week and see the other side of the social scene.

    Mark’s house was terrific.  He lives next to a canal, just outside of the town of Leiden,   a beautiful little town with a significant university and lots of charm.  It is also the town that the Mayflower Pilgrims went to after leaving England before they set off for The New World.  Having lived for five long months out of hotels and pensions and hostels, we were so excited to be in a home once again.  Mark was a very generous host and we felt very much at home with him.  He has a spectacular dog, called Flo, with whom we got along amazingly well.  There were two plush cats, always a bonus for K and myself.  Mark provided us with bicycles to get around on, and helped us figure out the public transportation system, which is very efficient and well run.

    The most successful mode of transportation in Holland is most certainly the bicycle.  The only place in the world that I have seen as many bicycles in use was in Beijing, China.  Not that there aren’t cars around, there are plenty, but there are as many bikes.  To make cycling even more attractive as a mode of transportation, the entire country is equipped with an advanced bicycle traffic infrastructure. These fabulous bike lanes form a network that reaches every corner of the country, which makes intercity commuting by bike a viable option.  In the summer, at least.  Most of the larger streets have a curb or greenbelt divider between the bikes and the cars, and the bike lanes are clearly marked everywhere.  They connect where the roads connect, and at all of the regular traffic lights, there are little stoplights at bicycle rider height, with red yellow and green bike symbols mounted six feet off the ground. There were on-ramps and off-ramps, and four-leaf clover interchanges with over/underpasses just for the bikes.
    But what I most appreciated were the bicycle roundabouts.  A roundabout is a multi-direction intersection of many roads, but most often four, where nobody has to stop.  A driver simply enters the roundabout, proceeds in one way or another (depending on what country you are in), and picks a road to exit onto, while avoiding all the rest of the cars doing the same thing.  One day, I actually ran into some traffic at one of the roundabouts, where five bikes all merged through at once.  There were always bikes on the road, as sure as somebody had a need to be somewhere.

Kristina’s Journal:
February 6, 1999                                 
Leiden

    We awake to more rain, but it is market day, and time to go into town. There is a large, outdoor market, every Saturday in Leiden, with an amazing array of fresh produce available. Mark bought tons of food; fresh vegetables which we had been craving, sausage, olives, and cheese from the Turkish food vendor, fresh bread, and from one of the many seafood vendors, salmon, and pickled herring and smoked mackerel which are local specialties. We went into a wine shop and bought two wonderful bottles of wine, one white from New Zealand, and a red from South Africa. We took it all home and for the first time in months, I got to cook! I made pan roasted salmon and a big salad with tomatoes, olives and feta cheese. Mark’s sisters came in from Amsterdam for the weekend and we had a lovely dinner.
    That night, along with everyone’s help, we begin to try and translate the car ads. We circle quite a few and wait for the morning to call.

February 7, 1999

    Sunday morning and we wake up to snow! The entire landscape is blanketed and from the canal in the front to the farmland out back, everything looks like a winter wonderland. David and I take turns calling car owners, with Mark talking to the ones who don’t speak English. Finally, we decide on two Volvos we want to look at, and arrange to meet both the owners for a test drive the following evening at the train station in Haarlem.

February 8-9, 1999

    The next day, I decide that I want to cook Thai food, and Mark takes us into town where we find a little Asian market and the ingredients for the green curry, and the beef salad I want to make. After a spicy but yummy dinner, we take the train to Haarlem.
    The first car, a 1985 Volvo was in nice condition and very cheap f850. The second car was a 1986 Volvo, a little more expensive at f1300, but in better shape, and a four-door car. David got to test drive both, but the weather was so bad, rain, hail, snow, it was hard to get up any speed. We had pretty much decided that we wanted the 1986 Volvo, but decided to investigate insurance and registration in the morning before making a commitment.

    This is where the nightmare began. First, we looked at insurance and discovered that most carriers in the Netherlands wouldn’t cover us because we weren’t residents. Finally, the National Auto Club said they would, but for f1000 for three months! That was almost the cost of the car! So, ok, we exhausted our insurance options and decided that it was still an ok deal, given that the car was so cheap.

    Then we looked into registration. Mark called three different agencies for us and was told the same story. As non-residents, we were not allowed to register a car in the Netherlands. We could register it as an “export” vehicle, but then we would have only 12 days to re-register it in another country. The car would have a special colored plate, alerting police and border guards as to its “export” status. If we did not have the proper papers in order we could face heavy fines and be required to register it on the spot wherever we were. All this, and we had no idea of registration fees and laws in the other European countries. We could face the same problem everywhere else, we had no idea.

    At this point, we looked again at the campervan company in Holland that advertises in English, targeted to tourists, as to how they could legally sell the vans to nonresidents. Turns out they can’t. The van remains registered in the company’s name, and the purchaser has to agree to sell it back at a later date, for a pre-arranged price. In other words, it is not a sale, but a buy-back program.

    After five days of the used car run around, we are back at square one. We are disheartened by our waste of time and see no other alternative but to do a short term lease (also a buy-back) of a new Renault or Peugeot. Briefly, we considered a rail pass, but the thought of getting on and off the train for three months did not appeal. Also, it did not offer the flexibility we desired.

    Since both Renault and Peugeot offer the short term lease (17 days to 6 months), we looked at both companies and cars. Both are a much better deal than going with a regular car rental, cutting costs by over 50%. With each company, you get a factory fresh, brand new car, with fully comprehensive insurance, and 24-hour roadside assistance.
    Part of our problem was that on such short notice (they like at least 30 days usually), we would have to go to Paris to pick up the car, and the date of availability was uncertain. Otherwise, we would have been able to pick up a car in Amsterdam. After many phone calls to Renault in Paris and Peugeot in the US, we finally went with Peugeot because we felt we got the best deal from them. We had wanted at Peugeot 106 Diesel, the smallest budget model they have, but it was not available for another two weeks. Instead, they offered us the next model up, a 306, slightly larger 4 door hatchback, for only a little more in the long run, and threw in a free upgrade to the “Cashmere” Edition (power everything, AC, stereo, etc.). We agree to pick up the car in Paris a week later.

David’s Diary:
February  10-13, 1999

    We woke up this morning to more snow and cold weather, but the house is cozy and warm.  One of the things that I have truly missed is snow.  Granted, we saw the snow in Nepal, but we didn’t have it to play in, big heavy snowflakes drifting slowly to the ground around us. I looked out the kitchen window and to my delight, the canal had frozen over.  I asked Mark if they ever froze enough for people to ice skate but unfortunately is it a rare occurrence.  Even as he was explaining to me the reason that the canals almost never had a chance to freeze that thick, an enormous barge came trudging into view from the window.  Under the weight and power of the large boat, the thin layer of ice was no match.  I secretly hoped that the ice was thick enough to stop the boat, but to no avail.  In its wake, the boat left a trail of crushed ice that looked like broken plate glass floating on the water.  Sometimes, if the weather is extremely cold for an entire weekend, as the barges do not run from Friday evening to Monday morning, the ice can be thick enough to prevent the boats from running.  If this happens, and the weather remains cold for a few more days, then the ice can become thick enough for ice skating.   That sounds like so much fun!

    As ice skating was not an option, what better way to spend the day than to go to the windmill.  Every town ought to have its own windmill. In Holland, most towns do.  In fact, most towns have a few mills, although almost none of them function as mills anymore.  The windmill in Leiden was a  brick structure, originally used for flour production.  The mechanics of the mill were simply marvelous.  All of the original parts remain intact inside the mill, which could still operate if somebody were to cut the chains that hold the sail blades in place.  The top of the mill rotates 360 degrees to face the wind in any direction.  The sail blades turn a central shaft, to which is connected an enormous gear.  Into the gear, two-spoke wheels can be engaged or disengaged by a large lever on a different floor.  These wheels are connected to very large grindstones, one floor below, which receive the grain via a chute filled from the floor above.  The flour pours down yet another chute, to yet another floor, and fills the bags directly for sale.  The miller and his family lived on the bottom two floors, but the mill was eight stories in all.  The best part of it all, aside from the sheer magnitude of the engineering, is that it was 100% earth-friendly, and we like that.  No pollution, no waste by-products, no worries.  So why don’t the mills get used anymore?  Not cost-efficient, just like most of the nice things in life. 

    We spent our final Saturday in Holland by going back to Amsterdam.  We had missed several of the major sights in town, and we needed to give Mark and his sisters some space to do ‘house stuff’.  The Van Gogh Museum, one of the ‘must-see’ museums in the world, with the largest collection of works by Vincent Van Gogh under one roof anywhere in the world, was closed!  The majority of the collection is on tour, but a small portion of it was being housed at the Rijksmuseum, which is the biggest museum in Holland, and another of the essential stops on any tour through Amsterdam.  So, we waited in line for  30 minutes, in the bitter cold, while incompetent ticket salespeople took forever to process the simple needs of the consumer.  I don’t sound too angry, do I?  I mean, how hard is it? Tickets, money, tickets, money, have a nice day, next, please.  Anyway, it was worth it.

Kristina’s Journal:
February 13, 1999                                       
Amsterdam again

On our last full day in Holland, we went into Amsterdam, to visit the Rijksmuseum. This is the national museum and is currently housing a Van Gogh exhibit due to the fact that the Van Gogh museum is currently closed; most of its contents on tour around the world. The exhibit was very good, showing quite a bit of the lesser-known pieces, as well as work from other artists of the period that were either friends of Van Gogh, or influenced his work (or both).  Unfortunately, probably because it was a Saturday, it was way too crowded, with 3-4 people in front of every painting.
    We escaped to the rest of the museum, which is so large and maze-like, that we got lost trying to find our way out. After checking out the famous Rembrandts, we found ourselves downstairs among endless rooms of 18th-century furniture and some very interesting dollhouses that were built in the 1700s for grown women to admire, not for children to play with.
    We had lunch at a great restaurant that Mark recommended, called Jahre. Near the University in Amsterdam, it was filled with students and people out for a relaxing Saturday afternoon. There were a lively bar and cafe downstairs, and a similar restaurant upstairs. Menu in both Dutch and English. It has a nice canal-side location and we both had homemade soup and warmed goat cheese served with fresh bread.
 The next morning we left the coziness of Mark’s house for a four-hour train ride to Paris…..

Kristina’s Notes;Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll…   
(remember this was 1999…)

Ok, we can’t talk about Holland without addressing some of these issues. There is a common misconception that drugs and prostitution are legal in Holland. As for rock and roll, well, that’s ok. Anyway, here’s the facts; yes, there are “coffee shops” where more is sold than just coffee. It is true that you can walk into these places, be handed a menu, sometimes very extensive, containing names and prices of various types of marijuana and hashish, all high grade, “award-winning”, and professionally grown.  And yes, all is smoked right there, out in the open, inside the coffee shop. However, what most people don’t know, is that contrary to the popular lore, drugs are not legal.

How can this be, you might ask? Well, I did. I asked Mark and his family and was told very emphatically that drugs are illegal, but tolerated. So, technically, what the coffee shops are doing is illegal, but tolerated because they provide a sort of “service” by keeping the drugs off the street. Apparently, people who smoke out in the open are subject to arrest.  And the coffeehouses don’t sell “hard drugs”, not at least over the counter. There is a push to shut down some of these places that have been suspected of dealing in other things. 

There seemed to be quite a few of these coffee shops in Amsterdam, usually indicated by some sort of marijuana leaf symbol on the outside sign, or the use of the reggae/ Rastafarian colors. Many seemed geared toward the legions of tourists that descend on Amsterdam every year. Outside of Amsterdam, they are supposedly fewer and far in between. According to Mark, there are a few in Leiden, most likely due to the University town. An article I read in a local tourist magazine said that even the Mayor of Amsterdam knows the going price (about f25 a gram), but doesn’t necessarily support the legalization (a current hot political issue). 

While walking around Amsterdam on our first day, we unknowingly walked through a portion of the notorious red-light district. Imagine my surprise when, while looking in the various “normal” storefront windows we passed, I suddenly see a 300 lb lady dressed in lingerie sitting in the window. Shock! We passed a few others, all women of fairly hefty girth and I got the feeling we were in the area for men of that special kind of taste. It was weird; there weren’t too many and I get the feeling that the area is actually quite spread out. I think I had envisioned more sex shops, strip clubs, and brothels all packed into one or two streets. It turns out, again after consulting our hosts, that prostitution is also illegal, but tolerated in the same way. 

Have you been to Holland? Thinking of going?
Leave me a comment below and make my day!

You can also find our other travels within Europe here.

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