FIRSTS!!

May I ask you a question (well… two)? What is the best experience you’ve ever had?

This could be a tough question for some. I ask it because I have been vacillating for the past few days about my first international trip; and my first real vacation. For those who do not know me (first- thank you for reading ♥), I am a person who’s experiencing a number of firsts– people, places, foods, things I’ve never done before… and this trip, in my life, has been the most significant. I wanted to reflect and recount it, share some stories, lessons, victories, and losses, so that some of you may share in it with me. Let’s go to Amsterdam! 

1. HOW IT STARTED-

I’ll start with the best lesson that I am consistently learning: the people in your life can lead you to amazing things (LESSON!). This trip almost didn’t happen for me, but I work with some amazing people. One of them, Tony, was planning to go to Amsterdam on his own, and a mutual friend, Elaine, essentially volunteered me to join him. Initially, I play along, because I think we’re joking, but she was very serious. So, I got a little more serious and said to Tony, “If you’re open to it, I’d actually love to join you.” Sometimes, I say things with the intention of pulling out later, because fear in your life can lead you away from amazing things (LESSON!) as well. And I was part-afraid of going, part-afraid of going with him, and of reneging. I couldn’t just say no- because Elaine is scary and persistent. I needed to come up with a reason. I did just that a short while later.

I crafted the perfect exit, “I need to relocate, and the cost of a trip right now, I just can’t afford to do it. I’d love to go, but the timing sucks for me. Sorry man.” “Yup,” I assumed, “that sounds pretty plausible, almost full-proof, and people know what it’s like to move, so they won’t ask any follow-up questions… hee, hee, hee… HA ha-ha-ha… MWAHA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!”

That was not a correct assumption.

People poked holes through it almost immediately. “When are you trying to move,” they asked me. “Uhhh, April,” I responded. “APRIL?! And you’re going to let an opportunity like this pass you by?” “You’d be crazy not to go on this trip.” “I would definitely do it.” “If moving prevents you from going (since it was almost two months from then), you’ve got bigger problems.” “It’ll change your life.” “You should do this for yourself.” These were all comments that people said (sometimes in groups) when I shared my “full-proof” reason for not going. “Okay, okay… I definitely want to go.” “Maybe I won’t end up purchasing the ticket,” I think to myself, but then, Tony and I end up doing that together. Now, I’m committed…

“SWEET JESUS! HELP ME, LORD…!!!”

After the ticket was purchased, there was no turning back for me, which was a good thing. I avoided thinking about it for a while, but as the time to leave drew closer, so did the excitement. Tony and I talked through plans for the trip- basically listing a number of restaurants, cafes, museums, and castles. Being a bit obsessive, I also wanted to find a place to workout, though Tony assured me that we’d get plenty of exercise walking and biking the city.

“Yeah, right… Okay…”

2. THE BIG DAY-

The day before my flight, I didn’t sleep at all. I started packing that night (technically morning), and easily packed too much. I packed an undershirt, underwear, socks, and an outfit for each day, plus 2 more undershirt/ underwear/ sock combos just in case. I brought 4 pairs of shoes, 3 sets of workout clothes, a case of protein, a pre-workout shake, compression sleeves, 2 pairs of gloves, 2 books, 2 notebooks, a journal, 2 sets of toiletries (body wash, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, shampoo, lotion, blue magic, lip balm), 2 sets of earbuds, a phone charger, and an extra “battery.” I left later that day to buy a pair of khakis, worried that I didn’t have good leisure wear (for a restaurant), and when I literally could think of nothing else, I called my brother Kevin, to take me to O’Hare.

I’ll say this, going through security was easier and faster than I feared it would be (you may have noticed I’ve mentioned “fear” a lot. More on that in a coming post, promise). Even though it had been a number of years, I was pretty comfortable with domestic flights. It was the overseas flight which was entirely new; the requirement to present my passport, to bring it anywhere at all. It was a pretty invigorating experience. I was gleaming, sharing with the flight attendants that this was my first international trip. I’ll say this for Delta, their customer service was definitely top-notch! I asked all the “newbie” questions: “Where should I go?” “Do I need to check-in with you?” “Is this gym bag alright to bring on the plane?” “This backpack as well?” “Do you need to see my passport?” I needed to be sure of EVERYTHING. For some, I am sure planes are normal, but it impressed me. The cockpit, the seats, the overheads, everything seemed small, but when I sat down, I had plenty of room (I am short, but still)! As the plane took off, all that was left was the excitement, that semi-queasy, roller coaster feeling from rising and falling altitudes, and hopes: “I hope I have a good time. I hope I make a good impression on Tony, so that he doesn’t regret letting me join him, maybe I’ll meet someone there, maybe this will spark a change in my life for the better, open my mind and heart to new things… good things.”

I land in Minneapolis (my first time there!) and check out this airport. I have to say, Chicago definitely has some competition: the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport had great shops, restaurants, and live music (a man playing covers on an acoustic guitar). I was impressed. Even though I wasn’t in the city, I had to take a photo. To me, this counted as a destination.

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Minneapolis- it counts!

Another colleague from work gave me advice on how to make the best of an overseas flight. She said to me, “Make sure you do your sleeping on the plane (LESSON!). You wouldn’t want to sleep your first day away just because you’re tired.” The flight lasted 7 hours, on a MUCH larger plane. I traded my aisle seat for the center, and met 2 really interesting people on the flight. One was very talkative, but in an interesting way. He was an air traffic controller, family man, transplant from Nigeria, traveling between homes to visit relatives. On the other side, a woman was connecting from Amsterdam to Africa to do some missions work. Both were incredibly friendly, and easily engaging. I wanted to follow the advice I was given, and Delta (or was it KLM?) actually dimmed the interior, gave us these eye coverings, pillows, and blankets, so I decided to politely exit the conversation and go to sleep. The food was also very good: for dinner, a baked chicken breast with red and fingerling potatoes, steamed broccoli, and a brownie, for breakfast, a bagel with blueberry cream cheese and greek yogurt, and snacks in-between. I was able to wake up for every meal/ snack. It was an amusement to my seat mates. Who were polite enough to let me go back to sleep right after eating, hand my trash to the attendant, and lift my tray table back. I awoke in the morning just as we were landing.

I can’t believe it. I’m in another country!” 

3. FIRST DAY IN AMSTERDAM-

Tony’s arrival time was fairly close to mine, so using What’sApp (LESSON!), I let him know where I was so we could head to where we were staying together. We caught a tram from Schiphol to the city and got off at the first stop. Immediately, I was blown away by the amount of bikes we saw just at the station. When Tony said this was a bikable city, he wasn’t kidding! We headed towards Rembrandt Park based primarily off of GPS and general direction (since we both wanted to avoid using data at all costs (LESSON!)).

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tram station- look at these bikes!

We didn’t take the most ideal route, but we did see a part of the city, I didn’t expect. It was incredibly diverse: stores with signage in Dutch, Arabic, and English, and lots of brown people, even some black people, which astounded me so much I think I mentioned it to Tony several separate times! There are Black Dutch- I never would’ve imagined. I would be even more pleasantly surprised to learn what we shared culturally.

We stayed with an EXCELLENT host from AirBnb, Rick (LESSON!). Not only was his home not too far from the city center, but it was beautiful, clean, and loaded with information for new travelers to the Netherlands. Not to mention the breakfast- Rick kept his kitchen stocked with various breads, fruits (I grew to love kiwi and mandarins), coffees, teas, yogurts, peanut spreads, dried cereals, meats, cheeses, and chocolates. And during the breakfast time, you could help yourself! He was out on our first day, so I didn’t meet him, but when I did, he was very polite and super informative!

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the view from our room

After getting settled in the room, we headed out and started walking through the park toward the city. I have to say, going on a trip with an awesome person definitely makes things more enjoyable (LESSON!)! I’m a person who enjoys walking, A LOT, so having someone who equally enjoyed that meant not worrying so much about distance or destination. The city itself was breathtaking. Everything felt so intentional, and colorful, and safe. We stopped at this place called Bagels and Beanswhere I had my first Cappuccino! I started learning to appreciate coffee as a drink on its own from that moment. I also learned that essentially everyone in Amsterdam also speaks fluent English (LESSON!). However, since the city is so diverse, they start speaking to you in Dutch (as you could easily be a resident there). We stopped at a few places on our way to Amsterdam Centrum, including an outdoor farmers’ market, and a local supermarket. In Centrum, I think I had to take a photo whenever we crossed a canal. The city was so clean, and it looked built for walking and biking.

There were bikes, riders and pedestrians all over, the roads were lined with deep red brick, and every vehicle traveled slowly enough to stop for any walker, even the public transportation tended to yield to people walking. I’d never seen that, and though I was caught up in wonder, I couldn’t notice any driver being particularly frustrated at having to wait for someone to cross their path. In Centrum, there were essentially no cars (only occasionally, bikes and motorbikes. It didn’t seem to matter where we turned either, every alley had some store, or coffeeshop (more on those shortly), or restaurant, or bar, or cafe, or bakery, or a surprising amount of corner cheese shops.

We stopped at a place for dinner:  Luciën’s Pancakes. There, I had the best chicken sandwich (open faced, with bacon) of my whole life (I can definitely use best here), and had a little of Tony’s pancake, which he definitely said was more like a crepe. I also learned that Chase and Visa are essentially worthless overseas (LESSON!). If it wasn’t a store not being able to take the card, it was the foreign transaction fees, which that bank in no way mentioned to me, even though I easily spent 20 minutes with a banker. Fortunately, CapitalOne and Mastercard worked fine (LESSON!). The day turned to night surprisingly quick. And before heading back, I definitely wanted to try a coffeeshop.

4. COFFEESHOPS –

A note about coffeeshops in Amsterdam: Coffeeshops are not so much known for their coffee as they are for their weed. I went here to get high for the first time. The first coffeeshop we went to wasn’t too memorable. Upon going in, I noticed right away the low ceilings (Amsterdam has a way for getting the most out of a small space), the mirrored wall, the white, Christmas, icicle lights lining the wooden beams, and a register way in back. We approached the counter and Tony let the woman there know that I had never smoked before. She recommended a particular brand that was pure and directed us to the second floor (the place had 2 floors, with a rather steep staircase near the entrance) we found a seat near a spiral staircase in the back, and Tony walked me through how to smoke a joint. I would later learn I wasn’t doing it the right way, because while the evening was amazing, I didn’t really feel too different. I thought to myself, maybe this is like the first time I had alcohol. The combination of circumstances, finding myself on a new continent, in a new country, a new city, with a cool travel partner. Getting high didn’t really seem significant. I remember reflecting later that evening that I wouldn’t want to do it again. That opinion would change…

Afterwards, we started walking back towards Rick’s place, when I heard a live band playing in a bar (Casablanca). I HAD TO GO IN. This was an incredible sight to me. It was a 15-member jazz band of just these normal citizens. They came in with their sheet music (one or two late stragglers) got into position, and the conductor led them through some classic funk pieces (I think I heard some James Brown) and some slow jazz. After a performance, he would give them some notes and they’d go to another chart. WHAT I LOVED was the diversity- there was a black man playing bass guitar and another larger black man with an afro, mutton chops, and beard, playing the trumpet. Thinking of the day, the music, the beer, and the friend I was with, it’s difficult to give the feeling justice. You know the feeling you get when you feel warm all over, like you’re being hugged? You can breathe in fully? The air is smooth and even though you’re not talking, you don’t feel alone? That’s how I felt in that moment. We stayed for three pieces before heading out.

Continuing towards what we thought was Rick’s place, we stopped at what we thought was the Red-light District. I WAS UNIMPRESSED! Just a few windows, lined with red and blue lights, some empty, some with women in them. I remember saying to Tony “I thought there would be more here. Oh well, at least we’ve seen it.” We walked around a lot longer, I stopped every so often to take a photo. One of the things I learned that first day was how ingenious the people in Amsterdam used the color green.

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so cool, all these shades of green!

We definitely got a little lost, and had to take a much longer route back. We weren’t too concerned about it though, which I appreciated. On the way back, we stopped at a place and I had my first Kebob wrap (there were storefront kebob places all over Amsterdam). It was delicious, loaded with chicken, this slightly spicy sauce, cucumber, and onion. I also tried mayo on fries (not US mayo of course. It was a more subdued flavor and it tasted of some additional spice. It wasn’t bad!). All told, the first day, we walked probably for 8-10 hours. I LOVED IT!

5. DAY TWO: THE REAL RED-LIGHT DISTRICT-

I really couldn’t sleep that night. I tried for the next 2 hours, but I was pretty excited and sometimes, it’s difficult for me to quiet my thoughts. Afterwards, I just got up and started getting ready. I made some mistakes, like trying to sneak into the restroom, but wearing shower sandals against a wooden floor, which actually ended up making a LOT of noise. I also couldn’t seem to correctly close the door to our room. Then, when I was in the restroom brushing my teeth, I end up breaking one of Rick’s glasses, which everyone heard. The critical, insecure voice (which plagues me a few times here, more to come on that) started speaking up. I started wondering if I’m going to drag down this trip… if I was already doing so. I kept saying to myself, “Don’t focus on the outward stuff so much.” “Don’t worry about what people are thinking.” “Don’t be an asshole.” By the time I was finished, Tony was awake. As he was getting ready, I met Rick and Rene, and shared that I broke one of their glasses. To his credit, he was very understanding. That voice died down soon after, thankfully, and we headed out.

Walking around came a little easier. We each had slight better bearings on where we were in the city and how to get back. So we found our way to Centrum much faster. I also tried a latte for the first time! Tony talked with me about the differences between lattes, cappuccinos, machiatos, and cafe americanos. I was like “Wow, this guy really knows his coffee!” I definitely liked the latte more.

There were 2 experiences that stuck with me that day. First, we went to this coffeeshop called the Greenhouse Effect Coffee Shop. I asked Tony if we could get high again. It turned out I really liked that first experience even though I wasn’t smoking correctly. How did I know I wasn’t smoking correctly? Well, because Tony had mentioned that you needed to inhale the smoke. I didn’t understand. There’s smoke in my mouth, surely I’m not supposed to breathed that in. Quite the contrary, I needed to take a deep breath, not with my nose, but with my mouth, and then exhale the smoke out. He modeled it for me, and when I tried it, that was an ENTIRELY NEW sensation which I felt every time I smoked. The place was pretty chill (is the best word I can use to describe it), in the background, they were playing music that Tony was familiar with (lots of places played popular, funk, hip-hop, or R&B music from the US), Radiohead. We stayed there for quite some time, I’m sure for the conversation and the music. Another cool thing that evening (talking about diversity) was a woman came in with beautiful black and blonde extensions. She was speaking Dutch with a friend (I believe) and I reached across, telling her how much I loved her style. I spoke with Tony about my mother’s skill with braiding and how long such a style takes. The best thing was just seeing it across the ocean.

The second notable experience was the REAL Red-Light District (first time ever!). The journey there was very interesting because we were just wandering around, and suddenly we were there. There were things to see EVERYWHERE- live sex shows, nude photos, sex dolls, DVDs, condoms, and toys in the windows, neon, pink elephants, flashing lights, a sex museum, and so, SO many windows, with women of all types beckoning potential clients to come inside. Next to each full length window, was a door which you could walk in, then they would close the blinds, and do whatever it is they talked about. I was overwhelmed (though I am frequently overwhelmed), but very interestingly, it didn’t seem as “seedy” as I thought it would. There were people of different ages (excluding children OF COURSE) and nationalities. We even saw an older woman walking through the district with a younger woman who very much seemed like her daughter. It was definitely apparent that they came together. Large groups were walking around taking photos, and there was a notable lack of rowdy behavior. It was as if the city had this attitude of “okay, we have this. No need to make a big deal about it.” If there were loud groups, you could tell they were not local. There was also a light police presence, but we didn’t see them needing to do much that night. Another interesting thing about Amsterdam is how much you have to plan for bathroom use (LESSON!) . It was here, we saw these semi-exposed, public urinals along the canal. It was… unique, but definitely useful! Even with all of that stimulation, we actually had a very good talk!

As we headed out of the district (we didn’t know that’s what we were doing. there were multiple blocks), we stopped at these dueling kebob places. We walked past one, Kebob Corner, and I caught the eye of the man at the counter. He yelled out encouraging us to come in. Across the street, another man from a competing Kebob place, Doner Kebob, started talking with us too, “No don’t go in there. Come here. Best kebob ever.” It was entertaining. We chose Kebob corner, I think because the man there was slightly more pushy. There, I had a slice of pizza. Tony had a kebob. Each time the man handed us food, he would say, best ever. I’d never seen someone so excited about all their products. Funny enough, tucked in the back of this Kebob Corner was a sign that said Doner Kebob. A large part of our conversation there was… “What if they both work together, and they are just pretending to be against each other?” A fun, eye-opening evening we had. We got a little lost again, but I would say that walking with a friend, even in the early morning, definitely helps you feel more secure. We made it back home and that was when I had my worst night.

6. MY WORST NIGHT-

Why am I sharing this moment? I had an incredible time in Amsterdam. I enjoyed every activity and place we went. I enjoyed who I met and who I was there with. But that inner voice definitely plagued me and again, I couldn’t sleep. This time though, it was insecurity. I was having a great time, but what if Tony wasn’t? What if I shouldn’t be on this trip? What if I’m tiring? I’m a bore? What have I done with my life that everything we do is a first for me? Have I lived at all? What am I? Who am I? The voice started to turn negative, and I couldn’t turn it off. I reached out to a friend over What’sApp to pray for me. Because I didn’t want to have that insecurity destroy my enjoyment, but I couldn’t reach him. So I sat up, wondering what to do… I couldn’t leave- I didn’t have the keys to get back in. I couldn’t wake up Tony- It was late. So, I sat on the edge of the bed and started to write about this voice and the damage it can do (I’ll post it soon). And after about 3 hours, I went to sleep. I woke up about 4 hours later, didn’t mention it at all and hoped it wouldn’t show up again… I learned that even when things are incredibly good, that doesn’t fix all your issues, and that your issues can ruin your experiences if you let them. YOU DON’T HAVE TO LET THEM (LESSON!). 

Want to hear something funny, that following day was a highlight of the week for me…

7. PLLEK!- 

We started the day as we usually did- walking towards Centrum. We stopped at this place called Coffeeshop Amsterdam (or Dampkring 2),  recommended to us by a really cool person we met in a clothing store in Magna Plaza. I was pumped because he was black. He basically just talked with us and gave suggestions, which he wrote in my phone. I’m proud to say that when he mentioned the names, I pronounced them well (just had to say that). Again, friendly people, from all backgrounds.

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this… is Magna Plaza!

We went to the coffee shop and got high again. This time, I felt a short period of anxiety and nauseousness. I wouldn’t say I was panicking (Tony may say different), but it was unexpected. I asked Tony a lot of questions about what was happening with me. He suggested that I just focus on one point, reminded me that things were fine, and that in a few minutes it would pass. He was right. After getting over that scary part, it was a really cool experience. I learned that if you are going to smoke, you should definitely have a something to drink as well (LESSON!).

We left and headed toward Central Station. As we walked closer, we saw a ferry about to cross over the water and Tony said, “We should hop on that ferry.” So we ran onto it just as it was about to depart. The attendant praised us (and a few other runners behind us). “Yay!” he said. The ferry was pretty interesting. People would just ride their bikes right onto it. There was an indoor an outdoor section and it was totally free. We came out on the other side and just walked around through places definitely off the beaten path. We came to one or two dead-ends so we had to turn around. We started heading to a part of the city, north and east, where there weren’t so many stores. It looked kind of like Amsterdam’s version of the “projects.” What was VERY notable was the art on the buildings. There was so much graffiti art, and some of it was good! We started heading towards an industrial district near the docks. There were a few houses in the water, which had a lot of character (they were old, but well-kept), there were businesses like junkyards, mechanics, manufacturers, warehouses, many of which had some sort of graffiti art on at least one side. Tony had researched this area before, including Pllek, which was supposed to be situated on a small beach. We headed closer to the dock and saw these old large shipping containers again covered with graffiti, but there were people coming out of one of them. So, we headed into it.

Pllek was just cool. You enter through a nondescript, unlit shipping container, lined with posters of various musicians and comedians. At the end of which is a dark, heavy plastic curtain(?) that hides a very beautiful place! It’s a combination of modern steel and wood, with an exposed ceiling with a disco ball in the center. There was bar along one side, facing the main floor eating area, and on the other side was a clear view of the patio and the skyline.

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Pllek

They were incredibly busy. When we mentioned there were two of us, one of the staff basically said we could eat there, if we would wrap up by 7:30. It was about 6:00, so we thought that’s doable, but then she mentioned that we could just go to the second floor and sit on the couches where there is no reservation, so we could stay as long as we wanted. That was WAY better. So we headed up the stairs and sat at the last set of couches. The atmosphere was quite active, and there were all types of people here. One man, for example, had his toddler with him and he was walking him up the stairs.

It was here that I tried some new foods and learned a really great philosophy. I’m very much a person who believes “You don’t fix what’s not broken. Go with what you know.” But what if there was another way to look at life? Tony talked about how each experience was different. How he sought that out. Even if the experience (food, drink, event, etc.) wasn’t as good as a previous one, it was still different. You grow from that (LESSON!). For the first time, I think I understood where he was coming from and I committed to myself that I was going to learn to integrate that point of view into my life.

So, that evening, I tried a new beer, but this time, I tried to distinguish the taste even more. I noticed that the taste had a commonality with citrus to me. It’s hard to describe the taste of hops- slightly bitter, or the intensity of the carbonation, but I was able to say, this is different than other beers I’ve had before. I appreciated that a lot. We also tried Wild Boar Croquettes. Growing up on salmon croquettes, I said to myself, “I’m sure these must be good.” Why yes… yes they were! The meat was puréed, savory, and creamy! It was served with this spicy mustard, which really cut through the creaminess. We also had these sauteed peppers in olive oil and sea salt. Mushrooms that were so meaty, they tasted like cut-up grilled steak, And a pita, with a raspberry like sauce (that one is hard to describe) with onions.

Tony shared with me how he met his fiancée, Patricia, and how they became an item. We talked about music, and sports, the artistic mind and the analytical mind. We talked about Radiohead, Metallica, Cowboy Bebop, game music, and Dave Mustaine. It was good stuff!

We caught a much more direct ferry back into the city (apparently there were multiple ferries) and stopped in a bar called Prik (my first gay bar!). I’d never been to a gay bar before. I was feeling a little uncomfortable at first. Even though I am out to most people, I have grown for so long denying this part of me that it was still uncomfortable being in that setting. Even though the place was objectively good. Tony seemed at ease, which actually helped me A LOT. There were a lot of people there, mostly just talking. And at the far end, there was a dance floor, where the DJ was playing a mix of disco, 80s pop, and some current stuff. It was getting a few folks’ attention. We didn’t really dance, though there was a rather pushy woman there, who REALLY liked Tony and tried to get him to dance a few times. He wasn’t really into it, so she tried to dance with me to get to him. Now, we both weren’t really into it. That was weird. But overall, we had a good time.

We left there (I wonder if it was because of the pushy girl?), but we weren’t really tired, so we walked around and I listened for bars that were pushing out good music. I can’t remember the name of the bar we found, but I do remember that it was packed! There was also a dance floor here at the far end, where a lot more people were dancing, and much better music. I danced here. I never dance! But the great thing was, NO one cared if you danced really well or not. I have rhythm, but coordination and choreography need some work. Still, I think we danced for about 2 hours. It was one of the most fun times I’ve ever had.

8. BIKES AND BATHROOMS- 

Another big part of the trip was the bike riding. Tony and I planned to rent bikes from Rick on Monday and Tuesday (yes, he has bikes for rent ~ GREAT HOST if you’re going to Amsterdam (LESSON!). That first day was tough for me. It was definitely a day where that insecure voice came out. You see, I’m pretty fit and active overall. But I am a beginner on the bike, which was not something I was able to accept. I got visibly frustrated every time I made a mistake. Every time I lost my balance, or couldn’t pick up speed, or couldn’t signal, or couldn’t steer, I would yell out some profanity or some self-critique. Near the start of riding, I almost lost Tony a few times, which REALLY pissed me off. Sad to say, I was kind of ruining the experience for both of us. Tony reminded me that he’s been biking for years, pedaled thousands of miles, etc., and that I was actually doing okay. Also, if I should make a mistake, no one really cares, if we should get separated, that wouldn’t be a huge deal either (I agreed with him, but only externally).

Only moments later, I would lose sight of Tony, being stuck behind cycle traffic (which really wasn’t bad, if you’re not being super critical), so instead of trying to catch up to him, I thought I could go forward one block and circle around to meet him. Of course when I came around, I couldn’t see him, so I pulled to a corner and almost called it. I didn’t know the way back to Rick’s (plus I didn’t have a key) and I also didn’t know where we were going (to meet him at the destination). I broke down on the inside. I felt so out of my depth, and a little helpless (which is the sensation I hate most of all). Outwardly, I’m just standing on the corner looking at my phone. Inwardly, I was excoriating myself. I’m standing in disbelief that this happens when Tony rides past saying “Get on your bike.” The relief I felt is one of those things that’s difficult to describe, though I would imagine most people can relate. I also hit him (his bike) a few times. It was hard for me to really be aware of my surroundings, and I was also pretty hesitant, which definitely caused me to lag behind a bit. It took me a while, but slowly, I was able to become more comfortable and focus more on just enjoying myself.

We stopped at a coffeeshop which a colleague recommended called The Grey Area. The unique aspect of this place was that the walls were covered in rolling papers that people could write their names, messages, basically anything, on, that would serve as a memento of them being there. That day, it was pretty crowded (and they didn’t sell pre-rolled joints), so we decided to go to Dampkring. That’s such a GREAT place. This time, I remembered to get a drink (I actually got a strawberry milkshake), so I wouldn’t have a repeat of last time. This was the first time where I think I felt comfortable smoking.

Three small, but really cool, things happened: first, one of the staff in front was really friendly and talked me through how to get the most out of smoking a joint as a beginner. He even came up to check on us later on. Second, the staff had made an extra Turkey panini and were looking to give it away. It was food, so I heard her immediately and told her we’d take it. We got a delicious sandwich for no cost and it was awesome! And third, we met this really young, friendly kid named Lester. Lester was very into working out and asked me a lot of questions. It was one of the few times people really noticed that I work out. He talked a lot about exercise- calisthenics, his plan to enlist in the military, his enjoyment of getting high, and his enjoyment of hip hop. It was here that I learned about hip hop in Amsterdam. He wrote a few artists (like Latifa) in my phone for me to check out. Again, it was uncanny just how much in common black Dutch and black Americans have in common culturally. Other than the language, the music video was nearly indistinguishable from something we’d have in the US.

We spent the rest of the day riding around Amsterdam, first we rode through a small park, but then we headed to Amsterdamse Bos. We found the park, but before we went there, we made a slight detour to a local store. This was a funny story to me, so I am going to detour to tell it: Earlier, I mentioned how important it is to plan your bathroom trips (LESSON!). Well, this one time, as we were going near the store, I casually mentioned that I needed to use the restroom. Inwardly though, I REALLY NEEDED TO GO. We looked around for a restroom and there didn’t seem to be one, so I asked a woman at their service desk. She apologized and said no, they didn’t have one. By then, it was an emergency, so Tony suggested that I find someplace outside. I ran outside to see if I could find a forested area, but there were houses and cars and business everywhere, with no visible spot to discreetly… go. I even ran down the street a short ways but no luck. I came back to the store (by the way, Amsterdam has these little circular ‘kiosks’ that look a little like porta-potties, but are not, and it’s just not right).

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see? So deceptive… *smh*

I come back to the store and say to Tony, “I’m going to have to go in there and humble myself. I’ll have to tell them that I am going to have an accident if they don’t let me use the restroom.” Tony was hesitant, as any person would be, but I was out of options. So I run in, find the first person I see and say, “I am SO SORRY. I am about to have an accident. May I please use your restroom?” “Sure,” she says. Very nice, but she clearly didn’t see my level of distress, because she got into a conversation with the woman at the service desk. By now, I’m physically grabbing myself and rocking back and forth. She eventually leads me to their backroom. No offense to her, but she was definitely taking her time. I’m yelling at myself on the inside “Hold it, dammit!” “I’m so sorry about this,” I say to her outwardly. She leads me to 2 doors that look like restrooms but actually turn out to be freezers. By now, my mind is saying “It’s happening. Oh my God, I’m going…” She then leads me to a steel staircase, “I have to warn you to proceed slowly and watch your step because this stairway is very steep and you could easily slip.” “Are you f*cking kidding me?! We have to slow down?!” I say to myself while saying to her, “I understand. Thank you.”

I’m going to be honest with you all- I didn’t really make it to the restroom in time. I made it enough. This trip was filled with firsts. That’s the first time I ever had to admit to a stranger that I was going to piss my pants right there if they didn’t let me use the restroom. It all worked out though. Good times…

So, after that… unpleasantness, we headed to Amsterdamse Bos. It was an incredible, large, forested park, with lots of open trails to ride. The trails also had signage which helped us navigate into and out of the park. We stopped at the river, where we saw a group of rowers have a practice, while their coach biked along the bank, talking through a megaphone. It was interesting to see. It was a pretty nice day too, the sun was setting over the water, so it shined a really bright gold. We rode away from them and found a clearing where we finished off a joint (and I played the The Headshaker from Tekken 2. It was a perfect soundtrack to that location, in my opinion at least). All I can say about that moment was that I felt really… present. Which rarely happens for me. I loved it. It was getting late… and pretty cold, so we biked back to Rick’s place.

When we got there, Tony suggested that we go to a place called Moeders for dinner. Can you guess what moeders means? Maybe after I describe the place. So we enter in a small door and pass through a curtain (there are a lot of those types of entrances). Inside, the place is covered by pictures of mothers from all over the world (not just Amsterdam). On the menu, they mention that they are still accepting photos. On the small spaces not covered yet, they have this kitch designed wallpaper, beige with green accents, with brown lamps sticking out. It created a really warm, nostalgic mood, like when you’re over an elderly relative’s house, who has WAY too many knick knacks and yet, it feels comfortable. Moeders served some really hearty and delicious food though! I had a beef stew, with Split Pea Soup (first! now I’m a fan) called Erwtensoep. It seems as though after spending so many days together, Tony and I spent more time in silence. Normally, I can’t abide silence, but it felt rather comfortable this time!

After eating, we headed to a coffeeshop called the Funky Munkey. No one recommended it to us, we just saw it and went in. Tony ordered a joint called “amnesia.” I could tell it was definitely stronger than the weed I had before. I still struggled to not overdo it, but I loved it. The place was cool, too. The place was dimly lit, with a glowing blue neon light on one side, and on the other, a painting of an aquarium with a bunch of fish, as well as a map of that part of Amsterdam, where they list the streets and the names of the canals. Also in the back was a large, wooden chess board (the biggest I’ve ever played with). It was missing a few pieces, so we substituted euros and caps for pawns and the king (white). I fancy myself a pretty decent chess player, though I hadn’t played in some time and I was high (I actually confused myself as to which color squares each king and queen occupied), but Tony was surprisingly good. We played several games, made some brilliant moves, plans, some dumb mistakes, and each won and lost at least one. He asked me what I thought was the most interesting part of the trip. While I enjoyed seeing all the new sites and having new experiences, it was really getting to know this person I worked with beyond just professionally. For him, it was the unique and unexpected route we took to get to Pllek.

9. THE LAST DAY-

Definitely bittersweet. I was feeling pretty mixed the whole day. Most of the experience was amazing. But there were times I felt a real sorrow at ending the excitement of this place. It was a full day on the bikes (I made a lot less mistakes!), starting at a cafe called Back-to-Black, which had this REALLY cool host and vibe (for example: playing some tunes I hadn’t heard in a while, like classic Aretha Franklin), cool art pieces, including a framed picture clearly made by a child using crayon (which I thought was cool to nurture in someone so young), and really good lattes! We hung out there for a short while, then headed to the Museumkwartier. We planned to see 2 museums, the Rijksmuseum, and the Van Gogh Museum. Both were beautiful. The Rijksmuseum had four floors, each with separate wings, which chronicled the history of the Netherlands through intricate ship models, paintings, armor and swords, guns, murals, stained glass, dishware and trinkets, furniture, sculptures, miniature doll houses, and holograms. I was overwhelmed with all of the art:

There was also this amazing old Library, which descended to the bottom floor, with multiple floors of books all connected by this really classic spiral staircase. It was still in operation, so we had to be quiet, while we viewed the various medallions from important Dutch historical figures.

The place the I connected with more was the Van Gogh Museum. It was smaller, yet, still 3 entire floors, with separate wings, detailing particular parts of his life, his inspirations, and his influences. I knew relatively little about Van Gogh, other than he cut off his own ear. But being in that place, and learning more details about him, there was so much that I connected with. He was an artist, an avid, effusive writer, and he suffered from mental illness. Those are all things I can say fit me too. Seeing his words, looking at his art, and learning about his life, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy, but also motivation. For regardless of the immense sorrow and loneliness he felt that would ultimate lead to him taking his own life, he pursued art with unabashed, unmatched passion. His sheer level of output, some work (in my biased, limited opinion) genius, other work, pedestrian. He was ever honing and refining his skills. I hope to do that someday.

After the museum, we rode to the Public Library of Amsterdam (or the Openbare Bibliotheek). This place was recommended to us by a few people, including Rick. There is a terrace on the 7th floor that has an amazing view of the city and is free. We went straight up, had some coffee and some pastries. Then went out onto the terrace, where I made this video:

It was tough, because everything had this sense of finality to it, but it was a wonderful moment. And we both gave GREAT parting messages…

For our last Amsterdam meal, we went to another bar that Rick recommended, Getto. It was my second time in a gay bar. It was pretty sparse in there (probably because it was a Tuesday night), but they had GREAT food. What was unique about this place was that every one of their burgers was named and themed after a famous drag queen. I had the Jennifer Hopelezz Beef Burger (I’d say it was nearly a half pound burger, topped with bacon and jalapeños, with a side of guacamole) with fries (which they called Homo Fries). The place also had a white cat, which really took a liking to Tony… then later bit me (but I think we were friends too).

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Cat likes Tony! Cat likes me, too. I’m sure of it…

I got high one last time at the Funky Munkey. We went to a few places 2x, but this was definitely my favorite. That evening was one of my highlights. I was just much more at ease, though I made it a point to take playing Tony more serious than I did the day before in Chess. The mood was way more relaxed. We didn’t say much, but I really enjoyed the games. The second one, I was high, and literally forgot where the pieces were situated (since I asked Tony about a plan of attack he had), shortly after though, he got me into a position where I just had to withdraw. We each won a game and then stopped playing.

For some reason, when Tony asked if we wanted to ride around for a bit, and then on the ride home, I found that to be the most memorable. Maybe because it was the last night, maybe because I finally felt comfortable, as the trip came to a close, but whatever the reason, that simple chess set, plus bike ride- I look on that most fondly right now. We rode through the city one last time and got to Rick’s place and I began packing. We were leaving at different times, and I definitely wanted to make sure that I didn’t oversleep or miss my flight. The plan was to leave early that morning without waking up anyone, but it turns out, you need a key to leave the apartment, so Tony had to get up and let me out. At least, we wished each other safe travels.

I walked to the tram station with no trouble and got back to the airport. Even though I was beyond sad to leave, I was happy at how little trouble I had not only making it there, but going through all the procedures. Mostly though, I was sad. Missing the experiences I had, and who I shared them with. To be honest, I’ve never had a vacation like that, where I was so heartbroken at the thought of it ending. I understood why so many take vacations so seriously. Until this time, I kind of hated vacations, but I didn’t know what they could be…

10. REFLECTIONS-

Thinking about my week in Amsterdam, the range of emotion, depth of experiences, and the different cultures,… I was definitely affected to my core.

My outlook on life changed a bit. Things seem way more positive and possible. Also, not everything seems as fatalistic to me. I say to myself more, “if this [whatever the situation may be] doesn’t work out, things will still be fine. I’ll be fine. (LESSON!)” I am learning to adopt a new philosophy- to open myself to new experiences, even though I may be comfortable (I didn’t say happy) with my old routine (LESSON!). 

Also, I feel like I came away from Amsterdam with a new friend. I can’t say I have many friends, because so often, people come into our lives for just one reason, like work, or church, or school, or sports, or business, but rarely do people, in my life at least, move beyond those spheres. So, when I’m with them in those spheres, we have GREAT connections, but there’s no foundation beneath it, and when we leave them, we don’t usually speak again. I think Tony was like that to start. A person I knew from my job. A great person yes, but probably someone who I wouldn’t see again if I left Cara. Now, I think of him as a friend beyond work. And I’m SUPER grateful for that.

As each day goes by, I make more discoveries about myself since I came from Amsterdam. I am picking up new habits and trying new things. I’m definitely happier and more hopeful, and I have an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I was afraid to go on this trip. FEAR defined so many of the decisions I made. I’m glad I know quality people who have helped to break me away from that, even a little.

I know some of you will read this. THANK YOU. It’s hard to truly state how powerful for my life such a breakthrough is. I am 34 years old, and I finally think I am starting to live my own life. I am so grateful to know all of you.

To those I don’t know who read this: I hope you’ve seen enough to encourage you to take a step like this one, or to help someone you know who, like me, may let fear keep them from really living. Perhaps it reminds you of an experience you had in the past, that you remember fondly. If so, I’m glad. I hope this story creates in you a little bit of the happiness I feel thinking on it everyday.

I had so many firsts on this trip, but the most powerful one, was the type of contentment that I have right now. A contentment that opens everything up to real possibility.

I wonder where I’ll go next?

P.S. there were lots of other things we did in Amsterdam, including visiting Rembrandtplein, changing our castle tour plans, snorting chocolate, etc. I couldn’t fit all of it in, but I hope what I was able to include, you enjoyed!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. singleparentsteppingup says:

    Wow…Great trip

    Like

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