derek's stream of consciousness guide to amsterdam

I wrote this to a friend -- it's mental vomit of the best things to do in two days in Amsterdam.  FYI for anyone who might ever be attending the VU!!  And I apologize for the spelling mistakes and writing style.  I call this "don't worry, everyone here speaks english -- a quick guide to a'dam."  Enjoy!

quick guide to the city: public transport is super easy but if you're staying in the city center you can walk everywhere -- but to take a tram you buy a "strippenkaart" from either the machines that sell them or a lot of stores e.g. in centraal station, i think ako nieuws sells them; you stamp one strip for each zone plus one for yourself (i.e. traveling within a zone is 1 + 1 = 2 strips, stamp the second; or just tell the conductor where you're going and he/she will do it for you). the markets in amsterdam are really great, i like waterlooplein which has mostly clothes, nieuwmarkt whenever it's open which i'm not really sure about, and albert cuypmarkt a bit southeast of the city on albert cuypstraat, maybe 25 minutes walking max from centraal station but close to some.  albert cuypmarkt is close to some metro stops like weesperplein or something...

at night rembrandtplein is awesome (stop on some random trams, i always bike or walk there, it's just south of muntplein where there's a big tower), leidseplein (stop on #5) is super popular but really touristy, personally i like dutch bars and there's tons of random ones & they'll be cheaper than other places. there's a "jaeger bar" (1,50 euro jaegermeister shots) called st. christopher's hostel which you can easily get to by walking north from the dam not on the main street with the trams but the street behind the national penis i mean wwii remembrance obselisk. it's on the right, Warmoesstraat 129

for a cool view of the city you can walk behind and to the right (east) of centraal station and follow the signs to post-cs/stedelijk museum (a modern art museum, temporarily located there)

as far as museums van gogh and rijks are both really nice, i also like a few others like the fotographie museum but you obviously aren't here very long.

for fast food i like kantjil to go, which is takeaway indonesian food on nieuwzijds voorburgwal just north from the spui on the tram #5, (actually in front of that tram stop, look for a red and white box of takeout food next to a restaurant called kantjil and de tijger, just south of the amsterdam historical museum and north of the american bookshop). maoz falafel which is a bit ubiquitous (there's one on the main drag of tram #5, leidsestraat which goes from leidseplein to koningsplein over the canals) is also great. new york pizza apparently sucks... i also know a great dutch place i can take you.

if you want to just walk around, go west and south from the city center and you'll end up in the jordaan/nine streets of amsterdam, which is pretty and has boutique shopping. kalverstraat the main shopping street runs through the dam, it's pretty hard to miss.

don't eat mushrooms (sold at "smart shops") and fall into a canal! those are mutually exclusive -- feel free to do either (the second one is more dangerous) but not at the same time!! hahaha.

as far as coffeeshops go (places that sell weed, coffee houses sell coffee), if you're into that my friends have recommended to me: "de dampkring" just north of koningsplein (stop on tram #5), "homegrown fantasy" (by nieuwzijds voorburgwal, also a stop on tram #5 and the name of a street), and "the bluebird" for hashish (located between waterlooplein and nieuwmarkt).  you can have weed on you outside the coffeeshops, really you can smoke it on the street it's no problem.  i've seen people do so, especially in the red light district.  i'm pretty sure people get harassed more for bicycling improperly i.e. without lights than for smoking weed.  if your hostel is cool there'll be a room that you can party in.

the van gogh museum is really easy to get to, just take tram #5 and get off at hobbemastraat, the stop between leidseplein and museumplein.  the "heineken experience" is Tweede Weteringplantsoen 21, just walk from leidseplein southeast past a club called paradiso and a small plein with a hard rock cafe to your south (the holland casino is just south of that) and keep walking for about 5 minutes until you have to walk across a traffic circle and then you're there, just look for the signs.

if you're at all into classical music, we should definitely hit up the concertgebouw while you're here.  7,50EUR for any concert, no matter who is playing, or we could go to the free lunchtime concert wednesday at 12:30pm (we should be there by noon).

i don't know if you're flying into amsterdam, if so you can really easily take a train to amsterdam centraal station, which is the city center.  or hope on one to amsterdam zuid/WTC and take anything heading north, e.g. tram #5 or metro #51.

of course, a lot of this stuff but not all of it is represented on derek's google map of amsterdam

have fun and take it easy!


Koninginnedag 2008 (Queen's Day)

Queen's Day is my new favorite holiday. Taking place annually on April 30, everyone in the Netherlands parties outside to celebrate the Queen's birthday. In a typically Dutch twist, they actually celebrate on the old Queen's birthday since it generally has wonderful weather.

To celebrate the House of Orange, everyone dresses up in the Dutch national color, orange. Orange is also my favorite color, so I was more than ready for Queen's Day. I have never seen so many ridiculous hats or nationalist (provincialist) symbols in one place!

I love that on Queen's Day, the country turns into a free market (Dutch: vrijmarkt) -- anyone can sell anything, anywhere. Basically, Amsterdam had a city-wide yard sale. I was pleasantly surprised that Dutch people also think people are interested in buying their household shit that they don't want, and by late afternoon no one seemed to be selling much of anything worthwhile. Street food vendors were extremely successful and common across the city (I quite enjoyed my five Vietnamese loempias, or fried spring rolls made with rice paper).

People -- my friends and myself included -- go out the night before on "Queen's Night," when the city hosts almost as many free concerts as on Queen's Day. I don't recommend it, unless you're biking -- the night buses were so overcrowded that they were leaving people waiting for the next one.

Unlike most holidays I've seen overtake the city of Amsterdam (Christmas, New Year's), Queen's Day had surprisingly few tourists. Of course, few is relative... there were probably a few hundred thousand foreign tourists swarming the city, but they were matched or surpassed by Dutch people celebrating their only national holiday.

It's not all great, though -- many Dutch people are over it, since they've been celebrating it since their birth. Plus, in any of the crowded areas (any of the pleins, most of Vondelpark, and anywhere there is a concert), it can get a bit rowdy. It's not a fun holiday if you aren't a party person. However, I love it.

I know that this won't be my last Queen's Day, even though I'm moving away this summer when my exchange ends. Like Schwarzenegger, I'll be back.


Suburbia in the US and the Netherlands

I've recently been amazed by the incredible differences between urban sprawl outside of Richmond, VA (i.e. in suburbs like those I am from) and outside of Amsterdam. Compare these two maps, both about 10km away from the downtowns of their respective cities:

10km south of Amsterdam, in Amstelveen

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10km north of Richmond in what is still called the City of Richmond (click "View Larger Map" and check out Street View for a real look at the area)

View Larger Map

These areas are of what I assume are comparable income levels*, but as you can tell, the housing and environment are way different. The Dutch neighborhood is extremely typical of what I've seen in Amstelveen -- tall buildings of apartments for families, short, connected houses with connected but fenced yards, and farmland. All right next to each other. Fast public transport is a few minutes walk away, there are nearby (walking- or biking-distance) shops, and families don't have much space of their own. Tons more stuff is within biking distance, including a sports park.
*Richmond data: $250,000 median house price, with 50% of people renting, and a $37,000 median salary according to

The US is covered in suburbs like the one shown above. The nearest bus stop to get into Richmond city from that American neighborhood is a 4km walk south along a road with no sidewalk, so a car is mandatory. It's practically impossible to walk to anything interesting. Each house has its own yard, and there are absolutely no housing skyscrapers anywhere close until you get to the heart of the city. And there is zero farm land, even though most of the land is probably arable... Anything "undeveloped" is left as fallow woodland. You'd have to drive at least a dozen kilometers in the right direction to find some small farms. Most of those -- at least near where I'm from -- are being bought up and developed into offices or shopping malls.

I find it amazing that people live so close together here in the Netherlands. It doesn't really affect me as a student -- my rent here (260EUR or something per month with utilities; I don't pay it since I'm studying through ISEP) is way cheaper than typical Richmond rent ($450+ without utilities and with roommates, maybe somewhat cheaper if you share a room with a roommate in a dorm, but not cheaper in the single-room dorms). Of course, the rooms in the US are generally bigger, but for there being so many of them and so few rooms in Amsterdam, I would think rent would be more comparable. But, on the other hand, I would never live this far away from the center of Richmond or any "college town," since I would likely need a car -- 45 minute commutes on a bicycle are no fun when there isn't a bike lane nor room of a bicycle. Suburbia is just yet another interesting difference between the US and the Netherlands.


Guesthouse Chili Cook-Off

I like living in the Guesthouse.  Sure, the bathrooms smell like piss, it's apparently more expensive than comparable rooms for Dutch people, and I'm living in Amstelveen with a view of a giant, empty field.  But other than that, I like living among only international students -- who all speak, as my Argentinian neighbor put it, "Guesthouse English."  I have the rare opportunity to learn and grow from dozens of unique worldviews and cultural experiences every day.  And, in a recent case, I had the opportunity to sample world cuisine in the comfort of what is basically my living room.

Despite DUWO, the housing corporation, having a "no partying" rule (yeah, right), we had a common dinner party on my floor about two weeks ago.  What was supposed to be a smallish birthday celebration with lots of food expanded, in typical Guesthouse fashion, to a huge, crowded, and raucous party.  With lots of food.

I made a humongous pot of spicy American chili with ground beef and quinoa that was demolished by the end of the night.  There was a really spicy Cameroonian sauce, fried fish, quinoa patties/cakes, Chinese spicy chicken, boiled plantains, pastries, and more.  I even helped my two Chinese neighbors bake a cake, that I couldn't eat.

It turns out that plantains are absolutely delicious in chili.  I never would have known without our kitchen party!

It was a fun night... the sort that I know I will miss when I leave the Netherlands.


ESN Trip to Volendam

It was a nice Saturday, warm with fleeting glimpses of the sun.  A friend and I were hurrying -- unnecessarily quickly -- from our dormitory to Centraal Station to meet up with a group of two dozen members of the Erasmus Student Network.  A few hours of waiting and a bus ride later, the big group of us arrived in a town of 20,000 people.  It's called Volendam (full dam) because they built a big dam and filled it with clay.  Everyone who was born there stayed there, more or less, and became fishermen.

We immediately started on a tour with a guy (a real Volendammer, born and raised) dressed in the traditional fishing outfit.  The town was really cute and had a tiny city center.

I tried raw herring from a fish stand (very Dutch) for the first time.  It was surprisingly good!  And salty.

Then we dressed up in traditional costumes for fishermen and their wives and took a group photo.

All in all it was a great day, perfect for recharging my batteries from nonstop thesis work.

Undressing from our costumes in Volendam:


Party bus of some sporty guys drove by:



I'm starting to like Amstelveen

Happy Easter!  It is now Easter Monday (1ste & 2de paasdag in Dutch) so I'm writing my weekly blog.  Next week I'll write about how my bike was stolen and I had to get a new one -- how Dutch -- but this week I have a video celebrating the spring I want to show you.

After several months in living just where Amsterdam starts to be called Amstelveen, I thought Amstelveen was total crap, just some lame suburb with nothing to do, nothing to see, and no reason to be there.  Maybe it's just the spring time romantic in me, but now I'm starting to like Amstelveen.  It's a little watery city all on its own, nestled under Amsterdam.  Amstelveen has its own commercial areas, including a real shopping mall & a large outdoor market (both at Amstelveen Binnehof).  Who knew?  There's a modern art museum I plan to check out in the coming weeks.  Amsterdam's city center is only a few (dozen) tram stops away, plus you can take your bicycle on the metro.

People in my dorm don't see enough of Amsterdam, let alone Amstelveen.  I like the quiet serenity of this bicycling suburb, where het Amsterdamse Bos is never too far off.  Plus I could send my kids to the Guus Kieft School, where I've been volunteering.  I could see myself settling down and raising a little family...  Definitely not right now, but it's a nice thought :)

I'm not sure for how many years I could deal with the weather, though.  Thirty minutes ago, tiny flakes of snow were floating up over my balcony and onto my window.  It's been snowing here for several days, and it comes down in these windy snowshowers that look like fog.  I woke up this morning to the sun shining on ground covered in snow.  Then it was hailing, and the ground was getting covered in little balls of ice.  Now it's sunny again.

Here's a video of me biking in Amstelveen along the river Amstel:



Football in the rain

I was in my dorm room, toiling away on my thesis with good intentions.  Several quick knocks suddenly disturbed me from my reverie.  Two of my friends were standing in the hall, inviting me to play football.  (We all know that the idea of soccer is something that white people like.)  I protested because the weather was rainy and windy, but they told me we could play on the artificial pitch behind our dorm.  So that's what that sandy field is for!

I like the perseverance and willingness to not let small obstacles stop them from doing what they want in the Europeans I've met.  In the Netherlands especially, people don't let the weather get them down; they don't feel SAD and stay inside because the sky's a bit grey.

We had a great time playing with eight people for about three hours.  I felt happy to be socializing, meeting new people, and being athletic all at once.  We followed it up with a little dinner party.

Check out what happened to my nice new football shoes... only 15€ at Decathlon near Amsterdam ArenA.  I've found the right equipment is really essential to play a sport!




New photos (in chronological order) from the US & Amsterdam


Coming Home

I just returned from a month long stay in the US, where I interviewed at several graduate schools and spent time with family and friends.  I had a great time at a party that my friends threw for my birthday.  I felt happy to see many parts of the US I had never seen before (Seattle, California) while seeing some of the US's greatest cities (Boston, New York).  I haven't yet decided on a graduate school, but I'll end up somewhere nice.

It took me only a few days of home to return to my suburban American habits: driving, eating out, and lazing around my parent's house.  Humans are creatures of habit, what can I say?

Now, I've returned to Amsterdam and to my routine here: meeting fascinating international students, grocery shopping with my bicycle, and complaining about the weather.  The trees are starting to bloom here, as they were a month ago in Berkeley, but apparently the trees here are only reacting to a change in sunlight, as the weather is no different from when I left at the end of January!  The sun will come out tomorrow someday ☼

My trip's made me question what home really is.  I feel lucky that I feel at home here in Amsterdam.  I like being at my parent's house because I was excited to see my family, but I hate being so far (20 minutes driving) out of the city.  Although I was surprised to miss my warm car after a few months of living here, I guess driving isn't my thing after all.  Biking twenty minutes is much more enjoyable for me, and Amsterdam is the perfect place for it.

All in all, I had a great trip, but I'm glad to be back.

Traveling does have its downsides, though; I spent an hour today cleaning spilled protein powder off of my stuff in one of my suitcases.  Anyway, this will be the first of my weekly Sunday blog entries.  Enjoy!  :)

Video from the San Diego zoo:



How to volunteer in Amsterdam

Ik ben een vrijwilliger.

I recently started volunteering at the Guus Kieft School in Amstelveen.  I'll talk about my so far wonderful experience there another time, but I want to mention how incredibly easy it was to find what may be the best community service project of my life.  While walking and shopping in the 9 streets of Amsterdam late one chilly afternoon at the beginning of January, I stopped into the vacancy bank, a central repository of all the volunteer opportunities in Amsterdam.  While some may say the Dutch are over-bureaucratized, in this case it's a good thing.

When I returned for my scheduled appointment a few days later, the employee I had briefly mentioned my background and interests to had compiled a list of seven opportunities of potential interest to me.  He then patiently explained each one to me, translating the description on the Dutch website and leveraging the vacancy bank's resources to give me more information about the organizations.  After forty-five minutes, I was on the phone with the head teacher at the school, discussing what I would be doing there.  The next day, I started volunteering.  This is a far cry from volunteering back home at Virginia Commonwealth University, where one of the only resources is a trifold pamphlet with the names and possibly outdated telephone numbers of Richmond area volunteer organizations.

Haven't considered volunteering?  It's a great way to get off the VU campus and spend some time in the community.  And, yes, it looks great on your resumé.  Too many people around the world are living in such interesting places, but never see or do any of the interesting things.

Contact information for the Vrijwilligerscentrale Amsterdam (VCA) taken from their Dutch-only website,  Call or walk-in to schedule an appointment:
Main Vacancy Bank
Hartenstraat 16 1016 CB Amsterdam
020-530 12 22
Tuesday: 13.00 – 17.00
Wednesday through Friday: 9.00 - 17.00