Europe Sampler, Part I: Amsterdam

comic062309The bad luck started early when my Boston-Newark flight was delayed for 2 hours. Anxious idling in a waiting area is not my style, so I struck up a conversation with the businessman to my left, who turned out to be a partner in a bank.

He looked like he was trying to look happier than he was – his smiles sighed and his laughs frowned when we talked about mundane work and life and he gave advice that seemed to have been nailed to his heart: “If you get the big things right – and there are only two big things really: your job and your wife (chuckles, points to ring), you can make all the small mistakes you want. Never make the mistake of working for money. It drives people crazy and doesn’t make you happy. Find a job you love and you will not have to work.”

But there was no mistaking the youthful sparkle in his eyes when he recalled the tonic-like air of Notre Dame and the comfortable drizzle of the streets of London. A naked glee surfaced when he talked about how the best part of 8-AM meetings in Europe was getting to climb mountains and enjoy parks for the rest of the day. I handed the conversation to him at that point, and his hat no longer looked as heavy on him.

“Good meeting you, son. You have a long and exciting life ahead of you. Good luck on your trip.”

“You look like you still have sixty years yourself.” I was not really joking.

Of course, we get another delay taxi-ing in the airport, so by the time I exit the plane,  Y, G, and P were already in the plane to Amsterdam. I started running Olympic-speed (in the event involving flip-flops and two bags). “Final boarding call for Yan Zhang for flight XXX, departure time 5:20” repeated itself twice, but two Continental workers cheered for me (“Go go go!”) as I Usain Bolted down the final stretch, ending with a long jump into the gate at 5:09. “No need to be so feisty, brother,” said the second worker.


The first thing that caught my attention exiting Amsterdam Centraal was an elegant-looking tween brushing past me, a flurry of camera flashes following her. She had the face of a girl heading to a final exam. Then I saw the bikes.

Bikes outside Amsterdaam Centraal.
It's China! With white people!

P, the Amsterdam expert, led the search for coffeeshops (as opposed to coffee shops) of Amsterdam, through the Rijksmuseum, the Dam Square (where we saw a shielded Inca Warrior and.. Batman taking pictures with tourists next to the wonderfully phallic National Monument). It took me quite a while to know what this meant, but I understood soon after entering one. Maybe it was the Rastafarian art on every wall, the sculptures of aliens and UFOs on the ceilings, or the marijuana menu in plain sight catering every strain from Purple Haze to Northern Lights. An elderly couple in their fifties came in after us, grabbed two seats, and started rolling their joints.

We soon come to the I AMSTERDAM sign at Museumplein Park. We sit and breathe in the air, which breezed de-stress and relaxation… or maybe that is just all the secondhand hash in the wind working.

I am sterdam! But where am I? (Solutions at the end of the chapter)

Of the few things I planned ahead for in this trip, the first was the Van Gogh Museum, which was visible in the distance at this time across a green field. The museum was small and unassuming, and all of Van Gogh’s works were collected on one floor in a cycle of rooms with no doors, starting from the darker (shade, not context) works of Dutch influence of Nuenen (early 1880’s), through the colorful works he adapted from French and Japanese art (despite his earlier disdain for them) in Paris, ending with the amazingly varied and mature works in Saint-Remy (including my favorite, cliched yet abrasively efficient in its strokes: “Wheat Field with Crows, 1890”). Considering I have the memory facilities of a peanut, I strained to take down every pixel I could, looking at each piece several times. I was frequently distracted by Y, who at this time (had a little too much coffee?) was hulking around like an iron golem behind me, whom he (it?) took as his adaptive mother. However, I did manage to find a couple of new favorite pieces, including this one:

Tree Trunks with Ivy, 1889. Watching the tesselating strokes somehow form a coherent picture was mesmerizing. (Source:
Tree Trunks with Ivy, 1889. Watching the tesselating strokes somehow form a coherent picture was mesmerizing. (Source:

I gained more admiration for the master’s refusal to be bound to academic tradition (almost entirely self-taught!), and wished I could summon the same genius while being a rebel to tradition. On the way out, G buys a Moleskin to pay respects. The notes from my own,which I bought in Boston before the flight, will eventually become these blog posts.

Park at Van Gogh Museum
At this park, a boy in red plaid was throwing balls for two cute white puppies with an instrument that looked like it came from jai alai. "Do dogs instinctively know how to run after balls?" Y asked.

The next day, we woke up fighting jetlag to see Fernando Torres score a hat trick on New Zealand, and now I have a new favorite soccer player. I became more excited about soccer simply because I was in Europe, a testament to the power of ambient culture, something that will resurface several times. For various reasons we were more chilled-out today, so we spent more time canal-watching. I ordered a pretty mean caprinha (Brazil’s national cocktail) from one of the canal-side bars, and the “frites speciaal” from Fedo (fries, mayo, delicious bad-for-you-goodness). I saw ducklings.

Cute duckies. Like me.

For the day’s walk, we decided to walk down to Sarphal Park south of the city center. We grabbed some coffee at Coffee & Company, chilled a bit in the park, and swung back north to the infamous Red Light District. Coffeeshops galore, this den of legal iniquity featured, at each crimson-framed window, a worker showing her jiggly wares, always impeccably dressed and made up.

It was late and we have an early train to Brussels, so being the ballers we are, we end the day by eating at a high-class restaurant that “you people” can never afford.

That's right.
This is how we roll


P.S. Answer to quiz:

If you still can't find Yan then you need glasses.
If you still can't find Yan then you need glasses

P.P.S. I mean seriously. Not only can the guy score from anywhere, he is hot too! Check out his official site.

2 thoughts on “Europe Sampler, Part I: Amsterdam

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