Tuesday, February 13, 2007

weekend trip to Amsterdam

Saturday morning, we took our time getting up and around as the weather was chilly and rainy. We had tickets to go from Antwerp to Amsterdam-Centraal by train, but train tickets are not for a specific train, just the route. We could go at 8:27, 9:27, 10:27, etc.

We packed a backpack with essentials for an overnight, got The Stroller out (it's been resting a lot lately as we do more tram riding and walking) and walked over to the train station at about 10am. We got there with about 10 min. to spare til the train departed. Antwerp-Centraal train station is really a beautiful building, built in the days when these transportation hubs were treated as temples to progress. The station is undergoing a lot of renovation right now but you can see plenty of majesty in the marble, the gilded decorations on the ceiling, and the fairy-tale staircases that reminded me a bit of New York's Grand Central Station.

The train came, we got on, sat down in our seats and JieJie, still sleepy, said "can I have my buddy (the thing she sleeps with)" and MeiMei said "yeah, I want my buddy too." I looked at John and said "did you pack the buddies?" He looked at me and said "There wasn't enough room in the backpack. I thought you packed them." We looked at the girls, whose eyebrows were starting to scrunch up in the middle, the corners of their mouths turning down into pre-cry frowns.

OH NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! How could we forget the buddies?! How would they ever sleep at our friends' house that night without their buddies?! You have to understand, JieJie has NEVER fallen asleep without her Buddy, and she also has a second buddy, Buddy Zoltar from a parallel universe 30,000 light years away (hence the amazing similarity). MeiMei's buddy is a pink blanket with her name on it, and she also likes to sleep with Woofy the Dog. Moment of panic. I offered to get off at Antwerp-Zuid, go back and get them and catch up with them, but we quickly realized the total insanity of that idea.

We thought for a couple of minutes, and then John or I (can't remember who) came up with the suggestion that we find a toy store in Amsterdam and find substitute Buddies just for that night. I knew they would never agree to that and they'd just keep crying and crying and screaming and flailing until they graduated from high school, and the conductor would come and say I'm sorry we don't allow crying in the trains, you'll have to find some other way to get to Amsterdam...we'd walk off the train past fellow passengers, none of whom have ever had children (or if they did, their children never ever cried), and they would spit on our feet and mutter "stupid spoiled Americans" as we slinked past them, stepped down onto the cold, abandoned train platform and watched our train disappear to the north.

But wait--JJ and MM stopped crying, sniffled a moment, brightened up and agreed to the Temporary Buddy Plan!!! Soon the Snack Man arrived with his cart, JieJie ordered her little can of Pringles, MeiMei got her Waffel Suiker, we had some coffee and enjoyed the rest of our ride to Hamsterdam, as MeiMei calls it. Not many people know that the Dutch actually invented Hamsters. True story.

We got out at Amsterdam-Centraal and walked through hordes of Birkenstock-wearing young backpackers with dredlocks and dilated pupils going from the nearest Coffee Shop (a colloquialism meaning Marijuana Den) to the Sex Museum to the souvenir shop to Madame Toussaud's and then back to the Coffee Shop. It's too bad that Amsterdam has become the new Haight-Ashbury, but in a few blocks we arrived at the Dam (central square) and turned down a side street toward the beautiful Old City with its quaint canals, bridges, boats and shops.

It was cold and drizzly as we walked down Herengracht and Prinsengracht looking at all the beautiful rowhouses, which are kept up so nicely. Antwerp has neighborhoods like this too, but Antwerp is earlier in its gentrification process, and there's still lots of graffiti and broken windows compared to Amsterdam.

We found a cute little toy store and there was a bin of soft stuffed animals. MeiMei picked a pink pony right away, and JieJie, always the discriminating shopper, lined up all the stuffed dogs and cats so she could choose the best one. She had so much trouble picking, she asked for a countdown. After I said 3...2...1...pick! she chose a soft kitten and promptly named it Meowy (are we surprised?). The girls were content with their Temporary Buddies and we headed for lunch.

We found a pizza place on the Elandgracht (Napoli Restaurant) and ordered what has become our usual: a frutti di mare for the adults and a Margherita (tomato sauce & cheese) for the girls. They were good pizzas, though we think Blauw Water in Antwerp is still the best we've had here.

Next we walked the old town. It's such a great place to spend time, just so different from any other city we've been to. We worked our way toward the Rijksmuseum with its amazing collection of Rembrandts and Van Goghs and tried to figure out whether a museum visit was a possibility or not. Based on the girls' restlessness, and the fact that it would be 4pm by the time we got to our friends' in Mijdrecht, we decided to put it off til another time. The neighborhoods around the Rijksmuseum are worth a walk too--GORGEOUS 19th-century houses, truly grand. I bet it's spectacular there in the spring.

We waited at Museum Plein for our bus, and it soon came. The big wide doors opened and we noticed that there wasn't a big wide opening for the stroller, as we'd assumed. The opening was cut in half by a railing--oh, no! We tried to fold down the stroller but one part was stuck. After a short while, the bus driver gave up on us and left. No matter, the next one would come in 15 minutes and we'd be ready this time.

We rode the bus to Uithoorn, going from central Amsterdam out to the 'burbs, through a sweet town called Amstelveen before heading to Uithoorn. Our friend R soon arrived with the car and we rode to R&M's house for an overnight. We enjoyed a relaxing evening, more great pizza and sandwiches, a movie (Brassed Off) and bed. The girls did ok with their stand-in buddies but I ended up sleeping with MeiMei and we put JieJie in with John so if they woke up in the middle of the night they'd have a parent nearby.

Sunday morning we just relaxed and visited. R&M's son was supposed to have a soccer game but it was canceled because of rain. After lunch, it was time to go back to Antwerp. R drove us to Amsterdam-Schiphol station, which is in the lower level of Schiphol Airport.

It's really great how integrated the air/train/tram/bus systems are in Europe. I haven't missed the car at all! It would actually be more trouble than it's worth in the neighborhood we're in. It's really amazing how quickly we've adjusted to doing everything on foot or by public transportation, and we've realized how everything around us is set up to support that way of getting around. Take shopping for example. At home, we drive our car to the grocery store, fill a cart to overflowing, then fill the trunk to take it all home. Once we're home, we have a big refrigerator to put everything in, an extra freezer for overflow, and a pantry for dry goods.

Here in Antwerp, we walk/tram to the grocery store with our little rolling grocery carrier in tow, fill a hand basket with a few days' worth of groceries, tow the groceries home in the handcart, and once we get into the apartment, we have a very small refrigerator (comes up to just below my shoulder) and freezer and two cupboards for food.

Because the system is set up this way, our food is fresher when we get it and meant to be consumed within a few days. It has fewer preservatives and fewer things are made with hydrogenated oils, so the food is healthier too. I don't often think about my shopping patterns as a product of a larger system of food delivery, but when I think about how difficult it would be to shop this way at home, it's clear that larger circumstances in society determine the menu from which we make our personal choices.

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