Monday, June 23, 2008

Amsterdam - May 2008

It took about 4 hours by train from Bruges to Amsterdam. We reached Amsterdam at 12:00 AM. We got off the train and found the station bustling in activity even at that late hour. The station was a beautiful old structure and we loved it.

Saru: Hey, look there is a NY Pizza shop here. I love this place!

Me: You love this place because they have a NY Pizza shop?

Saru: Enna periya attitude? You can like Belgian fries that taste exactly like McDonalds fries, but I can’t get excited about NY Pizza?

Me (muttering): They are fried twice….for the extra crispiness.

Saru: SO…are we going to stay in another attic tonight.

Me: No no, I booked us a 4-star hotel on Priceline for $150. It should be one of those glass and concrete buildings with no character.

Saru: Character???? Now we want character in a hotel?

We walk for 15 minutes along a nice road to a huge 20 floor building called Movenpick hotel. It is a 4-star Swiss hotel chain. The entire gound floor was a lobby and a restaurant. We were checked in very quickly and stepped into our 16th floor room. The giant room was super clean with granite floors and funky fixtures and a huge king bed. One entire side had a glass wall which gave us a sweeping view of the waterfront area.

Saru: Are you telling me that THIS room has no charm or character?? You know what? I don’t care for character. I love rooms without character. In future, please book me only in characterless rooms.

Saru (walking towards the glass wall): Now…THIS is called a view. What we had in that charming attic of yours was a prison window!!

We woke up late the next morning and walked towards the ferry terminal to go on a canal cruise to get an orientation of the city. It was a bright sunny day about 70F. The weather was as perfect as it could be. The boat ride was useful to give an overview of the neighborhoods, but all in all not very enjoyable. On a day as gorgeous as that day, it didn’t make sense to sit inside a glass covered boat and get roasted. But from the few glimpses of Amsterdam we saw from the boat, we knew we would love the city. We came to Amsterdam with the least amount of expectations. Everybody I spoke to said that it was too tacky and touristy. We still came here because it was very close to Brussels and Amsterdam is one a world class city that warrants at least one visit. I am so glad we came because we loved it. Maybe it was the perfect weather, maybe it was the springtime scene with green trees and flowers or the outdoor cafes full of people, but we both absolutely loved it. They say that Paris is the lover’s capital of the world, but to me Amsterdam was the perfect place for romance with its crisscrossing canals, Victorian homes, cobble stone streets, the sweet smell of lilacs and of course the outdoor cafes facing the canals. Later in our trip, we went to two towns that were the most romantic towns we had ever been to: Cesky Krumlov in Southern Bohemia and Hallstatt in Austria.

Amsterdam roads were not built for cars. In the late seventies, when oil prices were rising, Amsterdam decided to reduce its dependence on oil by promoting public transportation and biking. Biking makes up for over 50% of traffic in the town!! Everybody there rides a bike. We saw youngsters, oldies, pregnant ladies, women with kids, executives in suits…..literally everybody. They say that in a town of 7 million people, there are at least 6 million bikes. Most people have 2 bikes – a sleek road bike for longer trips and a dilapidated old bike for city use. Bike thefts are very common; hence the old bike for city use. Here is one of the 3 storey bike parking facility near the train station.

Europeans certainly know how to enjoy life and the first example of that is in outdoor cafes. We took a tram to a square called Leidsplein. The entire place was full of outdoor cafes and at 2:00 PM in the afternoon, it was full of people eating lunch, drinking gigantic mugs of beer and smoking pot. It was incredible. I saw this guy take 15 minutes to roll pot into his tobacco sheet with such concentration; it was almost as if he was praying to the tobacco gods to make him high. Street performers were going on with their jobs. There was a guy who ( I swear I am not kidding) swallowed a long balloon and pulled it out of his butt (through a hole in his pant!).

They say that if you want to eat local food in Amsterdam, you should eat Indonesian or Middle Eastern food! We settled in an outdoor Indonesian restaurant. Food was okay, but the outdoor scene was awesome. You can sit and people-watch all day and you won’t get bored.

Trams stopped running for a few hours because of some celebrations at the Dam Square, so we walked back for an hour towards the hotel. The entire city was so charming with all those brick facades, Victorian homes, crisscrossing canals, the bridges over the canals and the trees with their new light green foliage. Jet lag had kicked in, so we took a short nap in the hotel and then walked back to a neighborhood called Jordan which is famous for clean tree lined canals and good restaurants. While Saru was clicking night shots of the area, I looked around for a dinner place and found a small Pizza joint with a long line of locals. Taking that as a good sign, I stood in the line for a good half hour watching two girls roll out pizza dough and make pizzas without a minute’s rest. We noticed that in most of Europe, folks in restaurants were overworked. In almost every other place, there were 2-3 people that were seating, serving and cooking. This explained the bad service that we encountered pretty much everywhere.

My plan was to buy pizza and sit by the canal on a bench and have dinner. It didn’t happen because just when it was my turn the girls announced that their dough was over. I would have normally gotten angry, but I was in Amsterdam and on vacation, so went and found an Indian restaurant and ate parathas and curry. Saru’s night shots of the canals show how cool the place is during twilight.

Three themes recurred pretty much every day during our 2-week vacation – Walking, Outdoor Cafes, staying up late. We walked at least 4-5 hours a day and at least 5-10 miles. The best way to discover a new town is to walk all over, get lost and then walk some more. By the end of the third day, we didn’t need to look at a map. Eating in outdoor cafes is so much fun. The weather was perfect every day and the people on the road provided live entertainment, so it was like a dinner and a show. We stayed up at least till midnight every day. There was daylight till 10:00 PM, so it didn’t make any sense to go back to the hotel, plus we were having too much fun and sleep was the last thing on our minds.

May 4, Monday, Amsterdam

The next day, we went to the Dam Square that was built to commemorate building a dam on the Amstel River (thereby giving the city its new name – Amstel-Dam or Amsterdam). It was a very beautiful square with the Royal Palace, a Cathedral, some hotels and an Obelisk in the middle. We spent some time there and then had lunch. We had Panakoken or the dutch pancakes.

We then took off to go to the Kuekenhoff gardens, famous for their tulip fields. It was the first week in May and usually the peak time for spring bulbs is April, so we didn’t know how good it was going to be. We took a train to the airport and took a quick bus to the gardens. From the bus itself, you could see the tulip fields. It was like a rainbow of colors with long lines of tulips in red and yellow and pink and white and numerous other colors. We rented bikes and rode on a 2 mile bike path along the tulip fields. Something about beautiful flowers is so romantic that you want to break into a bollywood song “Dekha ek Khwab to yeh silsila hua”. The flower fields were so incredibly beautiful; we could not resist taking these filmi pictures.

Every few meters, we would say that we have had enough of pictures and swear not to take any more, but the next vista would bring in millions of tulips in a different color and we would be getting off our bikes and taking more pictures. At some point Saru said” You know Vam, it is actually boring to see the same things again and again.

Me: What do you mean same things, these are pink tulips.

Saru: Yes, but what is the big difference between red or orange or pink tulips… they are all tulips.

Me: How can you even say that these are boring? Do you know how much effort it takes to grow a single flower? Imagine how happy the farmer would be when he grows these millions of flowers? The Dutch flower industry is several million dollars. The loamy soil and mild weather make Netherlands an excellent place to grow spring bulbs.

Saru (thinking to himself): What the hell is loamy soil?

Me: You know it is pretty sad that you are surrounded by such beauty and all you can think is that it is repetitive. For heaven’s sake, wake up and smell the roses…

Saru: But I can’t smell. You know that something is wrong with my nose.

Me: Arrgh! Just take the picture and we can move on.

Saru: See, that’s the problem. There are a million flowers. What do I focus on?

Me: There are a million flowers!!! Focus on any one of them!! Jeez!!

This picture in the middle of pink tulips was where Saru complained. Now, you guys tell me if he is justified. I don’t care if flowers are a girl thing, but you just cannot complain when surrounded by such beautiful scenery.

We completed the farm loop, returned our bikes and entered the Kuekenhoff gardens. These folks took gardening to a totally different level. There were many daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and muscaris grown in beautiful designs. I am going to keep using the term “incredible beautiful”, so many times that I should just stop writing and let the pictures show how beautiful (there we go again!) the gardens were. Something about beautiful flowers and gardens bring out the romatic in you. Saru and I were very happy, walking hand in hand and enjoying the beauty.This was probably one of our most romantic outing ever. We spent a good 3 hours there and left only when the garden closed.

The garden was not just beautiful, but also very fragrant from the smell of hyacinths and daffodils. I was walking and taking in deep breaths.

Saru: Vam...Are you OK?

Me: Yes, why?

Saru: Why are you breathing so hard?

Me: Oh!! I am trying to take in the fragrance from the flowers.

Saru: cant do that by breathing normally?

Me: But I want to take in as much fragrance as possible. They smell heavenly!

Saru: You look ridiculous! People are staring at you!

Vam: I dont care. I am on vacation. I can do whatever I want.

Saru: manam pogathu!! (am embarrassed)

Vam: Wait a minute, People are not staring at me...they are staring at you!! Your fly is open!

Saru: Shoot!! OK, Cover me.

Vam: Look who is embarrassing who now!

Saru: Man....The zip is busted!! Do you have a safety pin?

Vam (sarcastically): is one from my mangalsutra.

Saru: Dont be a jerk

Vam (laughing uncontrollably): Oh Man!! Are you going to walk around like this all day?

Saru: Shut up!!

We walked around with Saru pulling his T-shirt down every few minutes. Dont look too carefully at his pictures:)

We came back to Amsterdam and went to dam square to do the ‘Red Light District’ walk. Unfortunately we didn’t realize that all shops there closed at 7:00 PM. There were some streets where the entire street had rooms with glass doors and semi-naked woman standing with an open invitation. There were women of all kinds, some dressed in classy lingerie and some that could re-define sleazy. What struck me most was that a number of these women were young and very beautiful. Somehow I had imagined these prostitutes to be a bunch of helpless women, but these women behind the glass doors were confident beautiful ladies who probably make more money than us. They charge anywhere from 50 Euro to 500 Euro for an hour. There is also an old church and a children’s daycare facility signifying that life is quite normal for these sex workers after they get done with their work. We had dinner in Leidsplein and then walked back to the hotel.

May 5, Tuesday, Amsterdam/Trip to Prague

Today was the last day in Amsterdam. Given the negative reviews I got from people, I only planned 4 nights and 3 days in Amsterdam. If I had to do it all over again, I would have stayed an extra day here to take day trips to other small towns in Netherlands.

Saru and I decided that this vacation was to relax and unwind. We mostly wanted to get a feel for the town instead of just visiting the “must-see” attractions. We decided to skip the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh and Reich’s museum in favor of the less crowded ‘Amsterdam History Museum’. We wanted to find out how the city went from being a small town to the biggest port in the world to the hippie haven to the liberal country.

Amsterdam used to be a small fishing village. Twelfth century saw the damming of the Amstel River and the beginning of trade with other parts of Northern Europe. A shipping canal was built in Rotterdam (world’s busiest port until 2004 when Shanghai overtook it) which was used as a transfer point for goods traveling between the North Sea and the Balkans. This was the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company. 17th century was considered as the golden age in Netherlands. It became one of the wealthiest countries from trading and acquiring of foreign lands. 19th Century saw the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in Amsterdam. The government was liberal and allowed the use of soft drugs, thereby attracting the hippies.

After lunch we walked to Museumplein, the square that houses the Van Gogh and Reich’s museum. Both were very beautiful buildings with a big park and a place to rest your feet in water and cool down. We then walked through some more famous squares like Rembrandtplein and ended our day sitting in an outdoor café with hundreds of other people watching street performers.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

In Belgium – May 2008

The best time to take a vacation is when you are between jobs. In our case, We were between jobs and countries! We decided to take a long 3 week vacation, the longest we ever took outside of an India trip. We spent a week in NY and UMass where we visited family and friends. Then we took a 2 week vacation in Europe. I was a little worried about the long trip because Saru is not a big fan of Europe. I love museums and churches and palaces, but Saru thinks if he has seen one, he has seen them all. That is why I alternate our vacations between historic places and those of nature. Our last vacation was to Belize, so this one ended up being in Europe. Added to that, it was on our way to India.

We were flying Jet Airways via Brussels to India, so it made sense for us to spend at least a couple of days there before going to other famous cities. My friends Arun and Rohini went there last year and came back raving about the little museums and churches and waffles and chocolate. We landed in Brussels. I exchanged $300 for Euro and was horrified to get back only $160. The exchange rate was 1.77! I am glad we came now, because I doubt if we can afford this anymore. In the next 2 weeks, we would notice that there were hardly any American tourists. There were no American backpackers or families, only a couple of retired folks. We did however see busloads of Chinese and Japanese tourists.

We left our luggage at a friend's home and took a train to Bruges. Bruges or Brugge (translates aptly to 'wharf') as the locals call it used to be a very important port in its hay days. Now, it is a very popular tourist destination. This World Heritage town in the Flemish region of Belgium is considered to be one of Europe's most well preserved medieval towns. It is about an hour's train ride from Brussels.

The train arrived promptly on time. There were a lot of people, so we boarded quickly and congratulated ourselves on getting the last available seats. We settled in and were talking about how cool the compartment was and how India should learn from the Western society about cleanliness and timeliness, when the conductor arrived and calmly told us that we were in the 1st class compartment with 2nd class tickets. Embarrassed, we moved to the exit to get down at the next station and get into the 2nd class compartment. Turns out there were a lot of us who made this mistake. Among them were some very well dressed and beautiful Indian girls. I found myself staring at them….at their designer clothes, knee length boots, dangling earrings and ethnic bangles…necklaces ….lipstick, beautiful smile, silky hair. Wait a minute….did I say I was staring…no no, it was Saru who was staring and he remembered all these details and told me later. While not staring at them, I smiled and asked one if she and her friends lived in Belgium. She said that she and her friends were air hostesses for Jet Airways (explains the beauty and style) and were touring on their day off before going to Toronto on their next flight. I complimented her on the excellent service provided by Jet and told her how impressed Saru and I were. Train ride was nice….the scenery was beautiful …I mean the outdoor scenery. Here is the first canal we came across as we walked to our B&B.

We took a bus to our B&B, a charming old Victorian. We huffed and puffed our way through three narrow and steep circular stairs. 80E bought us a room in the third floor, a nice brightly lit room with stylish furniture all under giant wooden beams. Yes…80E, $140 bought us a room in the attic!!

Saru: So….all that research and I end up in an attic?

Me: Yes, but isn't this a cute and charming attic.

Saru: Sure…maybe next time you should lift that big suitcase with my heavy camera backpack on those three flights of stairs.

Me: Of course the backpack is heavy…with all those lenses and cameras.

Saru: My camera bag is heavy?? What about the 100 dresses you packed in the suitcases.

Me: My ten dresses are lighter than your jeans and cargos.

Saru: But I brought only 3 pants.

Me: OMG!…You are going to wear only 3 pants for 2 weeks?

Saru: I would have brought more if you had left me any space.

Me: Whatever!

Me: BTW….the host told me that the weather is going to be great the next couple of days…around 68-70F.

Saru: Excellent. After all that rain in NY, we deserve good weather.

With the topic conveniently changed and jetlag kicking in, we take a short nap and step out of the room around 5:00PM. The walk towards downtown takes us through cobble stone streets and criss-crossing canals. The shadows of the old Victorian homes in the calm waters of the canal make it a really nice picture. You cannot resist taking photos with such a nice background.

We walk towards the downtown and find a roadside stall selling Belgian waffles and Belgian fries. We get one order of each. Waffles are served in three forms – plain with sugar, plain with sugar and whipped cream and dipped in chocolate.

Me: Umm…this is the best waffle I ever had…here take a small bite.

Saru: muttering….I should take a small bite but she finishes an entire waffle in 2 bites.

Me: If you want it so much…why don't you buy another one for yourself? Cheapo!

Side Note that Saru wrote:

Over the years, I have come to realize that my wife's concept of 50-50 is more like 70-30 and it even becomes 90-10 if it is her favorite food like fruits or desserts. I have to be really quick and grab my piece, Otherwise the food vanishes from the table. Of late, she decided to be fairer and started cutting things into halves and she tries to stick to her half (which incidentally is bigger than mine). She gulps her half at an astonishing speed and then starts staring at my half which I like to eat slowly. She says it does not mean anything, but how is a guy supposed to eat when somebody is staring at him!! Her very latest way of dealing with this is to not share at all! Even before we buy something, she says ' I am not sharing this with you. Buy one more if you want it!!'

Me: Let me try those fries. Belgian fries are supposed to be fried twice, once for cooking the potato and another time to make them extra crispy. These are quite crispy….no?

Saru: again muttering...If I buy fries from McDonalds or Burger King, it is considered junk food, but Belgian fries are cool!

Me: You should eat these with mayonnaise like a local. Only Americans eat fries with ketchup. Rohini always eats her fries with mayonnaise.

Saru: You and your friend must be born Belgians.

Me: Don't make fun of my friend.

With our hunger satisfied, we walk all over the little town. The carnival was in town and the locals were having a lot of fun in the merry-go-rounds and trampolines. The downtown was lined with these really cool Victorians outdoor cafes.

Night time in these cute towns is magical when the sky turns deep blue and the monuments are lit up. We hung out in this square before having dinner in an Italian joint called Pilli Pilli. They had very nice pasta and chocolate mousse.

Next morning, the host left this giant plate of breakfast. It had croissants and a basket of soft bread with sides of cheese and butter and assorted jams. Saru's face lit up when he saw the food. He was like "Oh good…we don't have to spend more money on breakfast". I was thinking the exact same thing, but of course I made a face and said "You are such a cheapo".

Belgians are very famous for their tapestries and carillons. I wanted to visit the bell tower, so we walked towards the tower through the canal-side lanes. Everywhere we turned, it was a postcard shot.

Our B&B host told us that the best bet was to get a combo ticket to rent a bike and see 3 museums and the bell tower.

Me: Hey Saru, it is 366 steps to the top of the tower and then we can bike 4 miles to the next village called Damme.

Saru: Damn!

Me: Yes, isn't that a funny name for a village?

Saru: You want me to pay to climb 366 steps and bike? Isn't this supposed to be a relaxing vacation?

Me: Don't you want to lose all that weight and become the young and dynamic executive at Reliance?

Saru: What happened to weight loss when you made me eat waffles and fries? (Muttering "conveniently changes stories when it suits her")

Me: But you cannot-not eat Belgian waffles and Belgian fries in Belgium.

Saru: So, I eat those and climb 366 steps and bike 4 miles?

Me (showing the "L" sign): OK. Why don't you sit here while I climb the steps and come back? I promise to not tell anybody about this.

Saru: FINE! Buy me a ticket too. You are torturing me on the first day of the vacation!

Huffing and puffing and complaining how not-relaxing this vacation was, Saru climbed the top of the steps. Me, I am a sucker for views. I will climb any number of steps if it promises a good view of the city and I am never disappointed. Looking down from the 300ft tall building you could see the view of the little town with its red roof tops and outdoor cafes.

We went to the bike rental and took off with the bikes. I was very happy. I am on vacation and riding a bike with the wind on my face and great views all around. Saru, I like to think was secretly happy but acting like I was torturing him just to get the upper hand. Once we crossed Bruges, the bike lane to Damme became more scenic. The lane was next to a canal and lined with tall trees on either side. Spring was in the air and the fields around had lush green grass.

Me: Man….the air smells so pure. I love this place.

Saru: Pure??? Don't you smell the cow dung?

Me: A little bit…it is all very rustic and village-like…very cool.

Saru: So cow dung is cool now??

Me: It reminds me of my mom's village in India. My grandparents had floors in their house made of cow dung. If you think about it, they had very creative uses of dung. They used it for flooring, in cooking and in farming. I wonder how they make gas out of it.

Saru: All organic matter has some amount of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane. When you blah blah…decompose….ferment….blah blah…you can make gas.

Me: I lost you at Nitrogen!! I don't need a chemistry lecture here. Jeez!!

Saru: Can we take a break, I am hurting.

Me: You tired already?

Saru: NO, I am not tired…I said I am hurting!

Me: Where?

Saru: You know where…so Shut up!!

Me: Here…take my sweater and use it like a cushion.

A giant windmill announced the entry into the historic town of Damme. Saru was exhausted from the bike ride and sat on a park bench and took a nap while I biked around the town to look for lunch places. I picked a place and came back.

Me: Looks like you had a good nap, you lazy ass.

Saru: Vam….I am so embarrassed.

Me: What happened? Did you drool or something?

Saru: Chi No! I was sleeping very well until I woke myself from somebody's loud snoring. It stopped as soon as I woke up!!

Me: Oh God!! You woke yourself up with your own snoring?

We bought some sandwiches and ate them at a park. When we were ready to leave, Saru's cycle chain had come off and how ever hard he tried, he could not put it back. He was not very happy with the prospect of walking his bike back. I found two construction workers and asked them to help. They also struggled for a bit, but managed to fix it. We drove back. I wanted to get back to the city centre for free performances by some dance troupes, so I rode faster. I reached the city center and Saru was nowhere in sight. I waited for 10 mins, started getting worried, so I rode back and 5 mins later saw him all angry and walking back the bike. The chain had come off again.

After cursing me and the bike for 10 minutes, he cooled down and came and saw the flag dance show by high school kids. It was very well done.

We then went to Groeninge Museum, a small but nice museum and then went to a chocolate store. When in Belgium, eat Belgian Truffles. We then walked around the town, ate some Chocolate dipped waffles before it was time to head to the train station to leave for Amsterdam. All in all, Bruges was a nice 2 day trip.