In my family, a relaxing vacation is a ridiculous idea. My dad has always been an restless spirit, valuing experiences more than things. As a result, my family does not drive fancy cars or live in a huge house, but I am far more traveled and have a much better grasp of geography and culture than the vast majority of my peers. At the age of 16, I have visited a total of 12 countries and cannot remember a vacation where my body did not ache from exploration and adventure.
Spring break this year found me in an assortment of international locations, from Germany to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Helsinki. Each new city was a new experience, too different to choose a favorite. From the sites of Paris to the utter foreignness of Helsinki, Amsterdam may have been the greatest adventure.
Merely entering the city of Amsterdam is a harrowing experience. The entire city is a spiraling network of canals where each street is surrounded by water and connected to the adjacent roads by bridges. Because of the land shortage, parking is incredibly expensive and biking incredibly popular. In fact, bicycles are such a prominent form of transportation that riders have their own lanes and traffic signals. To navigate the city on foot is to be on constant look out to avoid becoming ground into the pavement by cars, bikes, or trolleys.
Even to someone who considers herself well traveled, Amsterdam was a bit of a culture shock. Beyond the old-world facade, Amsterdam is also known for its edgy, inhibition-free side best characterized by the famous (infamous?) red light district. Although my family chose to avoid this area, the garish glow of the neon lights is a bit hard to miss down the alleys.
That dark side of the town draws millions of tourists a year. While I cannot say that I did not learn from it, to me it was a drawback. Each time I passed a coffee shop (which, the guidebook informed me, does not serve coffee) my stomach churned as I held my breath, sped up my pace, and renewed my vow never to smoke any substances, especially those declared illegal in the US.
The part of the city I fell in love with was the history-rich old European town. Amsterdam is a beautiful place, with its narrow streets and its tall, thin, and crowded buildings all built upon spiraling canals laced with old stone and brick bridges. I was immediately drawn to the colors, from the swirling paintings of the Dutch masters to the many varieties of tulips, but nothing captured my heart like the Anne Frank house. Since I read the diary as a young girl, I have dreamed of visiting the place where this brave little girl spent years in hiding. To walk up those tiny, ladder-like steps was a bit of a pilgrimage for me. Even without the furniture that the families lived with, the tiny rooms held a huge significance for me; an experience I can never truly explain nor forget.
With all of its quirky sides, Amsterdam is like no other city in the world. While its sleazy, free-spirited, side prevents it from being my favorite place on earth, its old-world charm and rich history assures me I will be back, hopefully before my dad decides a trip to Pamplona in July would be a fun adventure.
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