Cooking with Linux: Amsterdam on Fifty Guilders a Day
Ah, Europe. There's no place like it. Except for, maybe, certain neighborhoods in Chicago, but there it's easier to get through customs. At any rate, not long ago I had the privilege to speak at the International Linux Symposium in Amsterdam, which is a small town in upstate New York. Ha ha! Just kidding. I'm talking about the version of Amsterdam found in the Netherlands, of course, which is a large city with a lot of canals and people who speak Dutch. When I first heard about the conference, I was certainly interested but perhaps not very optimistic about my ability to find a few thousand dollars worth of change between the sofa cushions. Then something dawned on me: would I ever have another legitimate excuse to visit Amsterdam? Probably not, so I managed to pull off the travel expenses and hop on a plane to the fair city of canals. En route I even managed to pull together a talk about applications porting, but I had a lot of help from the flight crew.
Well, needless to say, I had such a wonderful time in Amsterdam that I feel it's my moral duty to share with you the many varied pieces of travelling wisdom that I accumulated during the week-long adventure. Otherwise you might run into the same problems that I did, while I was there, and let me tell you up front that it's not much fun to be yelled at (in Dutch, no less) by a very angry waiter wielding a fork and knife. With the handy tidbits contained in this article, you should be able to handle the situation with ease. (Hint: whenever possible, use the Dutch phrase Hoe laat opent het zwembad? I have no idea what it means, but it seems to calm people down.)
Amsterdam is a nice place to go if you enjoy being run over. Michael K. Johnson, LJ's illustrious editor, and I learned this the hard way as soon as we stepped out of the RAI train station from the airport. There we were, trying to get our bearings, taking in the countryside, observing the locals, etc., standing in what appeared to be an innocent walkway. Walkway? Fat chance. This was none other than the bicycle lane, which is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous places on the face of the Earth to stand with a map and five large pieces of luggage. Later, we discovered that standing in the bike lane is a capital crime in the Netherlands—that is, if you don't get killed in the act.
So, there we were, looking like your canonical tourists, when a moped screamed by doing 80 KPH (that's 3 million miles per hour, for those of you in the US), nearly knocking Michael into the road, which is a lot like the bike lane except that the vehicles there are much more deadly. In fact, the crosswalks in Amsterdam have lights marked with the international symbols for “Don't Walk” and “Good Luck”. Crossing the street is always an adventure, and well worth the price of the trip alone, in case you're into near-death experiences.
All cab drivers in Amsterdam are certified maniacs. After discovering the dangers of being a pedestrian (the Dutch word for which is, literally, “bumper fodder”) I wanted to see what it was like on the other side of the wheel and opted for travel by taxicab whenever possible. The first thing to realize here is that you can't hail a cab in Amsterdam, but you can call for one. Another big surprise is that the Dutch have perfected teleportation technology, demonstrated by the fact that no later than thirty seconds after you hang up the phone, a cab will materialize in front of you. This is certainly convenient, especially when you happen to call from your hotel room.
I was sure that I'd feel safer taking the cab, somehow lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that I'd be riding in the comfort of a six-ton shuddering hunk of metal with an alert, safety-conscious driver at the wheel. Wrong again. Taxicab drivers in Amsterdam are required, by law, to scare the hell out of their passengers at least twice during the trip. Tipping the driver didn't seem to help, either. But what a thrill! Humming along at 120 KPH, weaving in and out of heavy traffic, surviving at least a dozen near-misses with unwary pedestrians (ha!) and other vehicles (including streetcars), with a driver who's more involved in finishing his cigarette and staring out of the side window while changing the radio than, say, holding onto the steering wheel. I don't know about you, but this is what I call excitement. I was so impressed that I was alive and in one piece after the trip that I paid the driver twice the amount of the actual fare. So taking the taxi in Amsterdam gets high marks in my book.
Be very, very careful when ordering food. Although nearly everyone I met in Amsterdam spoke at least seven languages, including English, this fact didn't seem to help at the local pubs and restaurants. I would routinely enter such an eating establishment and be presented with a menu listing such enticing items as hutspot met klapstuk, uitsmijter, and pijptabak. Being completely ignorant of the local language and custom, I stuck to the more obvious choices such as koffie, broodje, pannekoek, and bier-the last of which turned out to be a reliable default. But I do recommend being brave and ordering entrees at random. You might end up with a wonderful culinary delight such as a piece of white toast, as I did. Before you know it you'll learn what not to order.
Another thing: don't let waitresses at Indonesian restaurants constantly serve you their fun 'n' fruity mixed drinks during the course of the meal, because they'll turn out to be ten guilders a pop. One caveat with this approach: after several of aforementioned drinks, you may not notice them being served. Be on your guard at all times!
The red light district isn't for the faint of heart. Unless, of course, you're into places with names such as the Banana Bar, but I need not go into detail here. On the other hand, the red light district was the home of the most wonderful Spanish restaurant, which we, the teeming mob of mad Linuxers, took over and held all of the chefs for ransom. Just kidding! We were actually served a delightful five-course meal without the necessity of holding the head waiter at gunpoint. At least I think it was five courses-I stopped counting after three. Just imagine the scene: a restaurant full of nearly a hundred Linux users, including such shining figureheads as Remy Card, Fred van Kempen, and Linus Torvalds himself, chowing down on enough Spanish food to feed the armada, having a riotous good time discussing the pros and cons of, say, multiple filesystem block sizes. The amount of geekiness in that room was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I had to duck out routinely for a breath of fresh air-but alas, I was trapped in the back alleys of Amsterdam's most visceral neighborhood. Bon appetit!
You can find the finest coffee in the world in Amsterdam. Really! Scattered all over town are many gourmet coffee shops, wherein the dark brew is served in large quantities. If you think that's interesting, you'll really enjoy the lavish style of these bistros, with their foil-covered ceilings, subdued lighting, and pictures of Bob Marley adorning the walls. Very bizarre. While I won't pretend to understand the Dutch taste in coffee shop decor, I will vouch for the quality of coffee served within-something you won't want to miss while in Amsterdam.
Well, there you have it. I hope that the above advice will help you to get around Amsterdam in better shape than I did. Oh, and one last bit of guidance for your trip: No matter what anybody tells you, it really is fun to get lost amongst narrow, winding streets with names like Leiuweijkstraat and Geifen von vijkeslaan at three o'clock in the morning. Try it some time. You'll thank me later.
Matt Welsh (email@example.com) is a writer and programmer at Cornell University, working with the Linux Documentation Project.