My trip to the Netherlands began shakily. I was going to visit a college friend who was studying abroad in Leiden, about an hour or so from Amsterdam. It was to be my first time in the country and I was excited to see if everything I imagined about Holland was true: bikes everywhere, efficient public transportation, modern architecture scattered among characteristic town houses, perfectly bilingual or even trilingual citizens, and people eating tons of French fries with mayo.
Immediately upon arrival at the airport in Amsterdam, I was able to check one thing off my list of expectations. There was a busy train station right in the middle of the airport. I was ecstatic not to have to take a bus or subway to connect to the intercity rail system. It was so logical and convenient the way everything was planned out. With great anticipation, I bought my train ticket and followed the directions given to me by the cashier who (check #2!) spoke wonderful English.
I boarded the super clean train and was whisked away from the airport. After a few stops, I noticed that there was no one left in my car, and that the train had been stopped for a while in the middle of the tracks between stations. I waited patiently, trying not to panic. But eventually, the lights dimmed, and I had no choice but to investigate the situation. I walked through the cars toward the front of the train, and soon enough, I saw a man shining a flashlight walking toward me: a rail worker. After informing me that the train was out of commission, he brought me to the engine car and I slipped out the door from the driver’s compartment onto the train tracks. He led me back along the rails to the nearest station and directed me to the platform I needed to make my connection to Leiden.
Eventually I made it to Leiden station, but my friend was not there to meet me. After trying to call him several times on a payphone, I realized that my adventure was not over yet. As I explored the station, trying to find a bus schedule and a map, I passed by a fast food vending machine. When you inserted money, you were able to open one of many little doors, each of which contained a food item, such as hamburgers or French fries (check, again!).
I eventually found someone who helped me figure out which bus to take. I showed the bus driver my friend’s address, and he told me which stop I needed. Once I got off the bus though, it appeared that I was in the middle of nowhere. I was surrounded by fields, and could see a few houses way off in the distance, but nothing resembling a dormitory. The one other person who had exited the bus with me told me to walk straight under the overpass up ahead and that I would be able to see the dormitories beyond that. I had no choice but to follow his directions, walking along the empty road in the dark night, trying not to feel too paranoid. Sure enough though, as I came out from under the overpass I saw a cluster of buildings up ahead and was able to find my way to my friend’s room. It must have been 10 or 11pm by that time.
The next day, I set out for Amsterdam and had an amazing time wandering the streets, following canals, and dodging bicyclists (one more check). The city was so vibrant with its quirky cafes and distinctive architectural style. Sleek modern buildings were squeezed in the small spaces where old ones had been removed (final item on the list!). I spent the whole day on foot, trying to take in as much of the city’s beauty as possible.
My final day was devoted to Leiden, with its Sunday market that sprawled over bridges and across cobbled streets. After browsing the produce stalls, I climbed to the top of the old citadel and took in the view. There was also the requisite windmill visit, in which I scaled several ladders up ever-shrinking levels, admiring the rudimentary displays explaining how the mill had once operated. My favorite experience in Leiden, though, was when I was able to borrow a bike and ride through empty streets at night with my friend. Even though it was freezing outside, and my nose was dripping incessantly, it felt amazing to glide past the closed up shops, making our way to a cozy bar to relieve our wind-stung cheeks.
Although my visit was rather short, the Netherlands left me impressed with its incredible efficiency and charm. It was predictably delightful and definitely lived up to my expectations. But mostly, I was ecstatic to have developed a taste for mayo with my French fries.