This week saw me take my first and unfortunately last trip outside of the UK for the summer. After a jam-packed work week, filled with the usual lineup of writing, research, and more writing, I was off. Together with Brooke, and 3 others from our group I had booked a student bus tour that would take us through France and into Holland and Belgium. For me this was exciting for several reasons. Although I’ve traveled extensively within the states and throughout England, this would be my first time in a non-english speaking country. Coupled with that was the fact that this would be my first visit to continental Europe. Needless to say I was thrilled.
We left on a Friday night. After meeting the rest of group at Victoria Station in London, we caught a train to the seaside town of Brighton where we would rendezvous with our bus. The train was literally filled to the brim with people. Most of them looked to be Londoners, clad in their beach-wear and ready for a weekend away from the city. The difference between the English on their way to, and from Brighton is something to behold. One can always tell if the weekend is just finished, or has yet to begin. On their journey to the beach, the skin is its usual pale lily-white shade. On the way from, it is transformed into a shining lobster red, which covers even the scattering of freckles that seem to adorn the arms and shoulders of every true Brit. After leaving the train in Brighton we made our way over to a local hotel, which had been designated as the meeting spot for our tour bus. Right on time, a long greyhound pulled up to the curb and we were off.
Since this was an overnight journey, the plan was to spend the night on the bus while getting a good nights rest, and awake in the morning feeling refreshed and ready for the day. This was all very easy to accomplish if you exclude the entire sleeping aspect. To make a long story short, buses do not make good beds. This is especially true when you are 6’4. It was like a bad dream. (pun intended) I would awake every 10 to 15 minutes, groggy and disoriented only to discover that, yes, I was still on the bus. Perhaps if I were a contortionist my night would have been spent more comfortably. However since I am not, the issue of having my foot jammed next to my ear proved slightly vexing.
I awoke for the final time around 6 a.m. that morning as we pulled into a Holland petrol station. As I made my way blearily into the building I saw bright “Welkom!” sign hanging from the swinging front door. In many ways that first stop at the station would prove indicative of my overall experience that weekend. I was fascinated by the strangely marked Dutch products, and the pair of locals who looked warily over as our group entered the store. I was intrigued by an environment, which was for the first time in my trip, completely foreign.
As we pulled away from the station I sat up and looked at the countryside. All around us, fields of yellow corn stretched for miles and miles. In the East, the sun was pulling itself arduously up over the earth’s rim and into the morning sky. My first European sunrise and it was beautiful. When we pulled into Amsterdam 2 hours later I had finally woken all of the way up and was instantly amazed by what I saw. Amsterdam is a city not unlike Venice in that the Ocean is an integral part of it. Everywhere you go there are canals and arched bridges looping over the water. Where we have roads, Amsterdam has waterways. Driving through the streets we saw rowboats paddling down the river alongside of us. Neat huh?
Upon disembarking from the bus I was ready for a day of exploration. After eating breakfast in a little shop on the water we agreed on a visit to Anne Frank’s secret annex. The annex was the setting for Anne’s world famous diary and the hiding spot for her family for almost all of World War two. This was a place that I had read about since I was in 5th grade. To actually walk behind the secret bookcase that concealed the entrance to the living quarters was a surreal experience to say the least. The house has a sense of significance that is evident from the moment that you enter. It set my skin on edge to think that 66 years earlier the Nazis had dragged the Frank family off to Auschwitz from the same spot where I was standing now. Another thing I found particularly moving was the photograph of Otto Frank. Taken years after the war, it shows him standing in the empty attic staring off into the same space where he had hidden his family years before. The pain of losing them is etched in the lines running across his face. His shoulders are hunched under the weight of what I can only imagine would be unbearable grief. It is a powerful photograph that moved me more deeply than I can explain.
After leaving the Frank house we were all in a somewhat somber mood. And so determined to rectify the situation, we headed out to explore more of the city. Now when people think of Amsterdam it is usually due to one of two things. Prostitution or marijuana. So naturally we were all curious to see what the seedier side of the capital looked like. Unfortunately this proved harder than we anticipated. As we wandered around searching for a drug infested brothel to gape at we quickly became frustrated with the pursuit. It seemed as though all Amsterdam had to offer in terms of trade was an inordinate amount of.. (wait for it) “coffee shops”. Imagine our surprise when we walked dejectedly into one of these shops for a drink and witnessed a variety of people, all sitting around smoking a suspiciously sweet smelling substance. As it turned out, “coffee shops” in Amsterdam are the equivalent of bars in the states but with Marijuana instead of liquor. People go there to sit down with a menu, and order their favorite variety of weed. While it wasn’t what we had pictured, it was still an interesting look at a culture so very different from our own.
As we continued onwards, our walk took an X-rated turn. We stumbled into the infamous red light district. Down every alleyway a long line of glowing red lanterns adorned the building fronts. Below them, large single pane windows protruded clear down to the street. As I walked by the first of window I looked over to see a girl in her early 20s dressed in black underwear smiling out at me. Behind her a single lamp cast light on a bare room and small bed. All down the alleyway, people were walking slowly by windows such as these. Some were just curious tourists like myself. Others appeared to be actively “window shopping”. Every now and then a door would hurriedly open and close as a man shuffled furtively in or out. It was simultaneously comical and creepy to witness. Exhausted after the tour and a full day of walking, we quickly found our hostel and said Goodnight to Amsterdam.
The next morning it was an early wakeup followed by a quick 3-hour bus trip to Bruges, Belgium. Bruges (pronounced broo-j) is a gorgeous historical city plucked right out of the 15th century. Recognized as one of Europe’s historic gems, Bruges is preserved much as it would have been in the 15th century with nearly all of its medieval architecture intact. It features cobblestone streets and an array of ancient churches and spires. It is also home to the tallest brick tower in all of Europe. One of the tastier benefits of visiting Bruges is its abundance of chocolate shops. Just like Amsterdam, Belgium is famous for two things, Waffles and Chocolate. While I didn’t get a chance to try a waffle, I certainly sampled the chocolate. For much of our stay there, we wandered Bruges narrow roads, going from Chocolatier to Chocolatier. Four hours and eight chocolate shops later it was finally time for us to depart. As I climbed back onto the bus, I reflected on my incredible journey. I had explored two beautiful cities and forayed into mainland Europe for the first time. I had seen the sights of Amsterdam, and gone back in time to Bruges. Not too bad for weekend away from London. Don’t you agree?