Wednesday, June 08, 2016

High Life in the Low Countries

The last time I was in Brussels, it was 7 years back, a layover on my way to the US for the first time. I guess layovers don't count as being in a city, but the thought of that layover did bring back some great memories of that eventful journey. This time was a layover as well, but it's much easier to get out of a train station and stroll around the city for a few hours than say leaving the airport to stroll around and voluntarily having your body cavities searched a second time when back at the airport.

Stepping out of the station you are greeted by fully armed soldiers and armored vehicles. Not an entirely warm welcome to the capital of Europe. But I guess better safe than sorry? It's complicated. Though I wonder why they wear the green camouflage in a city? Maybe dress in red and yellow, the colors of McDonalds, if you want to blend in an urban environment? Brussels, meanwhile, was having a litter festival. Who knew that the drab grey streets could be livened with thrash in bright colors?

Brussels was where Tintin was created. My favorite comic book series. Seeing Tintin pictures in windows and alleys brought back some fond memories from childhood. Blistering barnacles, I only had a couple of hours to see the highlights of the city. I spent most of it in the central square, the grandest in Europe. I took in the 360 degree panorama of ornate facades and majestic spires. And it was time to head to catch the connection to Bruges

Moving on to Belgium's number one destination. Bruges is a lovely medieval city with narrow cobblestone streets lined with gingerbread houses. It was lovely to walk around the back streets and canals, everything silent and a mist, albeit a little annoying, adding to the ambiance. Sometimes a long walk through a maze of quaint homes, with no fixed plan, is just what the mind needs. To be with your thoughts, to pray and to just be. At the end of it, I stepped into a cozy coffee shop and ordered waffles and chocolate, followed by beer. Not a gourmet combination, but it covered all things Belgian. 

Finally! Finally, I saw how beautiful life could be if the conservatives in the US would finally let go of their unfounded doubts and entrenched mentality. I'm not talking about weed or the sex shops, two of the most famous things in Amsterdam. I'm talking about biking.

Amsterdam is a city on bikes. Everyone is on bikes. The old and the young, men in suits and men in speedos and women in heels. Though almost no one was in spandex. Europeans consider biking as a form of commute, not a workout. Kids are strapped in the front or the back, or sometimes two in a box in the front. I hadn't seen two on a bike (passenger on the carriage) since I was maybe fifteen. One guy was multitasking with a phone in one hand and a cigarette (maybe a joint?) in another. If he had more hands, he would probably be drinking coffee and painting as well. And there were stretched bikes and cargo bikes. A few were cheating with electric assisted bikes. But it all counts. This is a city on bikes.

I decided to join the city on two wheels and rented a bike. The city looks so much friendlier and more fun from a perch on a saddle. Except when I almost got hit by a bike, a scooter and a ped at the same time. And watch out for trams and tracks. Red lights are suggestions to yield rather than stop. It's incredible that there are no crashes. I'm not sure if the Dutch and the Italians are somehow related. It's chaos on the streets. Even old ladies go like there's no tomorrow. Though some are so old, they probably think that that is the case. Everyone is zipping by with a #yolo attitude. The dedicated bike highways make for smooth riding, until you reach cobblestone streets. I love walking on a cobblestone streets, but definitely don't want to traverse them on a bike. Unless it's a full suspension mountain bike.

I loved the vibe of Amsterdam. It was the best city for ambiance. It felt alive. Amsterdam felt local. The tourists were not obvious with their tour guides and buses. Though the canals were patrolled by gangs of bros and woo girls. Also there are no obvious tourist sites for a selfie and duck face exhibitions. Except for the Anne Frank museum where the lines make it look like an Apple store on release day of iPhone 17 (I don't know what number they have reached).

I wandered around this wonderful city taking in the sights and sounds. Dutch sounds remarkably like English. It felt like I should  know what they were saying. Just that they started clearing their throats suddenly and uttered something incomprehensible. It was time for a break. But I was too scared to go to a coffee shop as I was apprehensive about baked goods in case I got baked. I learned that coffee shops = weed, and cafe = normal coffee shop. I once had to go to a pharmacy and had to make sure that it was a pharmacy and not a 'pharmacy'. It's just that I'm not into weed and the only joint I have rolled is my ankle. And isn't it a fun coincidence that the city coat of arms is a triple x and their main clock tower was built in 1620? Amsterdam is just fulfilling it's destiny.

A must visit in Amsterdam is the Anne Frank House. I had read the Diary of Ann Frank just a couple of years back and it's still fresh in my mind. The pain and suffering of a teenager, a family, a community, a nation and the world can never be forgotten. Seeing the places described in the Diary was a profound experience. We have to remember that both Anne and Hitler were human. But their lives were so different and have been remembered so differently. We are the choices we make. It's also a stark reminder of the dangers of excessive nationalism. It's important to remember that Hitler was human. Not a demon or an extra terrestrial. He could rise up again anytime from among us. Those who consider themselves good need to be vigilant. In the guise of a strong leader, we could have a tyrant lurking. A visit on the 72nd anniversary of D-Day added to the sense of occasion. Let us truly mean the 'never again'. Pro tip about tickets. The tickets are sold out online weeks in advance and the in person queues are long. But you can get tickets on the day off if you check online at about 9am.

With that, from the highs of Amsterdam, I head across the sea to the big country on a small island.


  1. Belgium french fries and beer. Now that is a pairing! PS: Nice compo with the bike in foreground.

    1. They have their fried with mayo. It's an acquired taste I guess.
      Thanks for the compliment on the pic!