transatlanticism

•April 3, 2010 • Leave a Comment

So I’ve written a lot about adventure, and excitement, and trying new things. I guess it’s because, until now, I haven’t been ready to face what is so affectionately referred to as “transatlanticism.” But since sustaining my injury, I’ve been stuck inside resting it with little else to do but think.

It hit me early, when I was above the Atlantic between home and the unknown. I didn’t know a single person where I was going; I didn’t know where to find the “red and white checkered meeting place” at Amsterdam Schipol; I didn’t even know what my apartment would look like.

My headphones drowned out the noise of the jet engine, and I was able to nap for a little bit to some Deathcab for Cutie: familiar, mellow, sympathetic music. I woke suddenly when my neighbor accidentally nudged me in his sleep. Morning was breaking outside of the plane – it was a cool, smooth blue, and the stillness of a plane full of sleeping passengers made me startlingly self-aware.  I didn’t feel scared, and I didn’t feel excited.

I just felt alone, in the most neutral way.

The Atlantic was born today, and I’ll tell you how
The clouds above opened up and let it out

At first, I was so overwhelmed with all the little details of my new life, and everyone from home was still so fresh in my mind, that I didn’t have time to feel that neutral alone-ness. I was always thinking so fast, trying to translate every little thing I heard and read in my head at light speed.

Little by little, the new-ness became more managable. Classes gave me a routine. I made friends. I knew that I could get sun-dried tomatoes at Super de Boer, but not Albert Heijn, and I knew all of the Euro coins by feel and weight. Strangely enough, when I got used to Europe is when that feeling I had on the plane began to come back tenfold.

Most people were overjoyed; they took to their boats
I thought it less like a lake and more like a moat

One night, I was falling asleep and remembering playing in the snow with friends before I left. I concentrated on the feeling of the snow stinging my bare hands, the wind howling through the mountains, the red warning beacon on top of the highest peak that flashes steadily every night just outside the dorms. When I tried to conjure up a mental image of the face of one of the friends I was playing with that night, it came to me sharper and clearer than the rest of the memory, and it hurt. That’s the only way I know how to describe it.

The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row
It seems farther than ever before

I got out of bed and I wrote a long letter. I filled out a lot of postcards that night I never sent. The act of writing to the people I missed eased a lot of the pain, even if they’d never read it.

Now that I have a month to go, I feel strange that there’s an end in sight. I love this place and the people I’ve met, and I’ll probably find myself getting out of bed in the middle of the night to write to them too someday.

I learned something important: that the neutral alone-ness I experience here from time to time is a blessing. Some days I bask in my independence and the quiet of not being able to be reached on a cell phone 24/7. Some nights I look at the photos I brought with me and laugh and cry a little. Too much of either, and you miss something. But when you strike a careful balance, you find a life rich with both new and old experiences, and transatlanticism doesn’t feel so scary anymore.

kristie and the chocolate factory

•March 29, 2010 • Leave a Comment

A few months ago I blogged:

Never let your mark erase/’cause broken legs can be replaced

Are you ready for some serious irony?

Pauline and I decided to visit Cologne, Germany, a big, youthful college city about three hours away. We booked a room in a hostel that evening, packed a duffel bag, and just took off the next morning. One of my favorite things about Europe is how easy it is to be spontaneous. You just turn up at the train station and wing it from there.

To travel internationally, you take a more expensive high-speed train. It’s like the Greyhound of trains in that it is substantially more comfortable. Like intercity travel, it’s possible to buy your ticket up until just minutes before your departure.

If you’ve ever watched any of the Harry Potter movies, the trains out of Holland are a lot like that, with seperate cabins. We wound up in a cabin with a Dutch mother and her toddler.

Wie is dat?” she asked him, pointing to a picture of Michelle Obama on the front page of her newspaper.

“Michelle,” he said instantly. The kid was like, two and could already identify America’s first lady! I can’t even identify every state on a map of America.

I watched the countryside go by outside my window, determined to pinpoint when we crossed over into Germany. I could tell immediately: the architecture of the houses changed and winding roads through the country looked more like Vermont than Europe. I was under the impression that every country was as tightly packed as Holland, but Germany is much, MUCH bigger.

Eventually we arrived in Cologne with nothing but a hostel name written on the inside of my hand. I mean, we could have found directions if we looked hard enough, but it’s more fun to see if you can do it yourself.

After about an hour of walking, we found our place, Appartel am Dom.

It turns out that it was a four-star hotel… we just got a hostel-like price because we booked at the last minute. Awesome. We immediately noticed, though, from our first interaction with a German, that there was a much greater language barrier than we had anticipated.

After making sure the lights were all off before we dropped out of our room, we hit the street.

It’s amazing how every different city you visit has a completely different vibe. Being a Saturday night, everyone was just out for the fun of it, and you could feel the buzz in the air. Musicians were everywhere – not a lone guitarist or xylophonist like in Leiden, but full swing bands and string quartets. Totally awesome.

We realized in all the excitement that we hadn’t eaten since that morning, so we decided to consult the map for German cuisine. We wound up at a small corner bar/restauraunt called Rheinezeit (Rheine time.)

The menu, of course, was in German. I told our server, “I don’t speak any German. Can you recommend something totally German I won’t get in Holland?”

“Absolutely,” he said with a huge grin, “you are wanting beef that is marinated in vinegar for a long time. It is covered in raisin sauce, with potato dumpling and red cabbage. We call it Sauerbraten.”

“Let’s do it!”

It was so awesome, it was beyond words. About halfway through the meal I was interrupted by a silver man in a light-up top hat. No, really. He painted his face silver and was dressed in a dazzling suit. I wish I had thought to get a picture, but I was so baffled that it didn’t occur to me.

He began in German and I interrupted apologetically, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand…”

“Ah! Not problem. See, I have many wishes for you in this box. If you are supporting me with one euro, I will bestow it upon you!”

How can you say no to a silver dude?

“I shall translate,” he said, straightening up and clearing his throat. “Comes your way is success and friends that walk beside you. May you be poor in unluck, and rich in happy. May you always be loved!”

He bowed, handed me the tiny scroll, and made his way back into the street.

The sky was clear and a waning moon lit up the Rheine, and a saxophonist was wandering up and down the patio, and I felt pretty poor in unluck already.

Before we went back to our hotel, we stopped for a German specialty,spaghettieis.

After some German cable, we went to bed. Side note: the Fairly Oddparents is equally funny even when you can’t understand them. Except here, it was called Cosmo und Wanda wenn Elfen helfen.

The next morning we were treated to a breakfast courtesy of the hotel, featuring German breakfast favorites such as “meat spread.” They tried to get me to order an egg for seven euro but I wasn’t buying it. That’s like ten American dollars.

We checked out with our things and stepped into a sunny day. We had a couple of hours to kill before we caught the train back to Holland, so we walked along the banks of the Rheine until we came upon the Shockoladen Museum (the museum of Lindt chocolate.)

On the way out, we checked our watch to find that we had just over an hour to make it back to the train station and catch our train. We were a couple miles down the Rheine at this point, so I switched shoulders with my bag and began walking.

And then, just like that, I wasn’t walking. My ankle gave out on the uneven cobblestone with a wicked crunch and I was down. I struggled back to my feet and gingerly tried to put some weight on it. I couldn’t. Oh my God! Is it broken? Is it sprained? I still don’t know!

It was quite terrifying to suddenly be rendered so incapable of caring for yourself in the middle of a strange country. We had an hour to get to the station, and I couldn’t walk. If we missed that train, we’d be stuck in Germany until the next day with nowhere to stay. It was so absurd that we just stood there and laughed.

Pauline said, “It’s okay. No matter how it turns out, this is gonna make an awesome story.”

Just then, a guy pulled up with a rickshaw. Perfect! We’d pay him to take us to the train station and I could just hop from there. It was pretty cool actually, minus the part with the agonizing pain and all.

He dumped us at a station that was clearly not the station we needed. “Take the next train, and from there, go underground to the trams and take tram 18 to the HBF.”

I don’t know if he missed the part where walking wasn’t really working out for me. But suddenly he was gone, and we didn’t have a choice. We had to catch that train.

I tried a small limp forward. Then another. And another. One step at a time, we made it on the train. Off the train. Underground. On the tram. Off the tram. Up a huge flight of stairs. To the ticket counter. And finally, to our platform. We were gonna make it!

When we settled in on the train, we thought it was over.

Dreiundsechtzig,” a woman said to me rather forcefully. My German is terrible, but I understood that she was saying “63.” I looked up, and saw my seat was numbered 63.

MIEN.” She made a motion like she was shooing me away. I was in her seat. We looked, and saw that we didn’t have seat assignments. I grabbed my bag and struggled to my good foot, and moved a couple of isles back. “Sorry,” I called over my shoulder, easing myself into a new chair. Before I even sat down completely I was accosted by another angry German woman with a seat assignment. And again, and again, all up and down the compartment. It slowly dawned on us that the heartless German guy at the ticket counter sold an injured chick standing-room tickets on a three-hour train ride.

By the time I was approached by the last woman I was nearly crying. She said, “This is my seat, but there are others, so I will sit there. But if someone asks for their seat back, then I am taking mine back, okay?”

“THANK YOU,” I nearly screamed. She nodded, looking startled, and made her way to the back of the train.

When the train started moving and I was positive I wasn’t being relocated again, I leaned back against the seat and finally, for the first time in many hours, began to relax. I had just closed my eyes when suddenly a door burst open from the back of the train and huge men in black uniforms rushed down the corridors, shouting, “PASSPORTS OUT, NOW!”

Honestly, I think at that point nothing would have surprised me. There was a slight air of panic. I turned and craned my neck to try to see what was going on when a man stopped at my side and said pleasantly, “Immigration. Passport please.”

Apparently, it was a routine check, but they did it in such an alarming way that had I not been legal I probably would have lept out the window onto the tracks.

Eventually, we made it back to Holland, and I slowly limped my way into the setting sun from the train station back to the LLC where I live.

Currently, I sit with my leg elevated above my chest, pretty much houseridden for the time being.

But I’d get injured a thousand times over to experience the magic of Cologne again. This takes the cake as my most interesting trip ever!

Amerika

•March 6, 2010 • Leave a Comment

On my way home from Markt today, I passed a Subway and thought, “Why not?”

Apparently, in Holland, Subway is the place to be. American hip-hop was blaring at near-nightclub levels. Small cliques of teenagers in oversized clothes and gelled hair (it was all very 90’s) were making themselves at home at all 4 tables. Even the employees had a wicked fashion sense, with one of them wearing her Subway shirt tied in a knot at the stomach. She got on her tiptoes and waved to indicate that I could order.

“Mag ik Engels spreek?”

“HUH?” she hollered over the music. “CAN’T HEAR YOU.”

How awesome to go to a familiar place and hear English. Their subs are 15cm and 30cm, as opposed to our 6inch and footlongs. What were their ads like when we were singing about “5 Dollar Footlongs?”

I ordered a toasted chicken teriyaki, and she asked, “With all?” so I said, “Sure.” In America it comes standard with teriyaki chicken, lettuce, onion, tomato, sauce and cheese. I then turned around to watch the birds flying over the canal.

When I turned back around I received a toasted sub with plain chicken, lettuce, onion, tomato, cucumber, pickles, olives, hot peppers, and, oddly enough, no cheese.

“Cheese is extra,” she informed me while smashing the sandwich flat with the palm of her hand. “We don’t put.”  (To a Dutchman, it’s perfectly acceptable to leave out the subject of the sentence if it has already been established. They sometimes forget that it doesn’t make sense to us.)

“That’s a lot of toppings. I didn’t realize you really meant everything.”

“But it is not everything. This is just how the Dutch like it.”

Oddly enough, it was pretty good. (I took the olives off, though.) This got me thinking about other American chains that have altered their menu to appeal to Dutch tastes.

McDonald’s, for example, sells a limited edition combo for a promotional period called “Winter Weken” (Winter Weeks) which consists of a McRookworst, (smoked sausage and hot mustard on a bun) a Stroopwafel McFlurry (those little caramel wafer cookies) and a cup of warm Chocomel (a very popular Dutch drink similar to Yoo-hoo.)

Another very popular regional menu item is the “McKroket,” a deep-fried patty of mincemeat, potato and vegetable topped with a dijon mustard sauce. I tried it and thought it was awesome, but I was also very drunk, so I’m not sure on that one.

The Burger King menu, however, is essentially unchanged, but there are far fewer of them. On a side note, I haven’t figured out if the Dutch are awesome or horrible at advertising:

LONG CHICKEN. They just tell it like it is. I’ve been meaning to take a picture of the GROTE GROEN PLANETEN on sale at Albert Heijn this week. Literally, “BIG GREEN PLANTS.”

Ben & Jerry’s is very popular here, too, and most scoop shops sell all kinds of hot Belgian waffles, available with any flavor of ice cream you like on top. We need to get on that bandwagon pronto.

KFC in Holland uses a batter instead of a breading on their fried chicken – totally weird – and serves shoestring french fries like McDonald’s, as opposed to potato wedges.

Also, every Tuesday, you can get FLAMING HOT HOT HOT PEPPERS QUICK EXTINGUISH RED HOT DEAL on-the-side SPICY JUICY FIRE.

So if you want your SPICY JUICY FIRE on the side, now you know where it’s at!

boodschappen doen

•February 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Half of the magic of living in a new place is adjusting to doing mundane things their way. It turns every little chore into an adventure!

Take, for example, boodschappen doen, or grocery shopping. In America we have the luxury of driving to a large superstore, circling for 10 minutes looking for the closest parking spot, chasing down a cart, filling it with groceries while 90’s love ballads play over the loudspeaker, comparing nutrition labels at your leisure, and eventually dumping it all in the trunk.

Here, it’s a different story. Ga met ik naar boodschappen! (Come with me to grocery shopping!)

The most popular grocery store here by far is “Albert Heijn.” Mine is about a half-mile from my apartment. Bring your backpack and re-usable shopping bags – they charge about .20 euro per bag – and choose your groceries carefully, because you’ll have to carry them all back!

You’re finally there outside the Albert Heijn! A Dutchman grabs you by the shoulders roughly and asks for directions in Dutch. You stare blankly. He curses the “stupid French” before walking away, and you are free to enter the supermarkt.

Let me set the scene. The smell of fresh-cut flowers is strong – flowers are a big thing in Holland, and people buy them as a staple, like bread and milk. The place is tiny and cramped – smaller than an American drugstore. And the music is the same, no matter where you go.

Fire up some Mika to make your experience more authentic. At some point during your shopping experience in Holland, you will undoubtedly hear this song.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDSK91mUNLU&feature=channel

You grab your handbasket – there’s no carts – and start jamming along down the aisle.  Let’s get some fruit!

The produce at the grocery store is of poor quality and expensive – that’s why most people get their groenten en vruit (veggies and fruits) at Markt. I’ve never seen apples at Markt, though, so we’ll have to settle for these.

Now let’s get something typically Dutch:

Condiments! Fritessaus is the Dutch alternative to mayo, and people are usually rabid fans of one or the other. It is less fattening than mayo and has a slightly tangy taste. I’m a Fritessaus girl.

Curry Ketchup is neither curry-flavored nor ketchup – it’s a sweet, slightly spicy condiment somewhat like barbecue sauce, but less sweet and with a strong clove taste.

What’re you looking for? Fruit Loops? Um, no. We don’t have that. There’s something that looks like sticks and mud in a bowl. Oh, here’s the Special K!

You’re gonna need some milk to put in that cereal. Milk is sold in small rectangular cartons and comes only in volle (whole) and halfvolle (kind of like 2%.) It would take more than 5 of these cartons to equal a whole gallon of milk. Makes you wonder if you love milk that much.

How about some tea?

European eggs are amazing. They’re tiny, with thick shells and bright orange yolks – and they taste amazing! Get the free-range ones with the happy chickens on it.

Notice anything funny? They’re sold in crates of 10. Not 12. Weird!

Peanut butter? Uh… kinda. A little history…

The Dutch word for “peanut” is pinda, and the word for “butter” is boter. Someone thought fast and trademarked the word pindaboter, so the Dutch forever refer to their hackneyed version of peanut butter as pindakaas, or “peanut cheese.”

A stuk is a piece. The Dutch add ‘je’ to the end of a word to make it small or diminutive, so a stukje is a little bitty piece. So, peanut cheese with little bits of nuts. It’s unsweetened, the peanuts are hard, and the texture is weird. Enjoy your peanut cheese.

Here’s something you might be familiar with – we Americans know it as Laughing Cow cheese. In Europe, it’s sold in its original French packaging. It translates literally as “the cow who laughs.” And it’s just as expensive over here… go figure.

Don’t forget the shampoo! It’s hard to be a pirate in the modern world. Holland gets that.

Is that everything? Are you sick of this song yet? Just wait, they’ll play it again. Let’s go cash out.

Allo.” You smile at the cashier. She doesn’t smile back and starts chucking your groceries down a chute rather roughly.

“De eiren!” (The eggs!) you cry in vain. She pretends not to hear you.

“Twee en twentig euro vijftig,” she sighs. “Wil jij een bonnetje?” (22.50. Want a receipt?)

“Nee dank u.” She scowls and crumples the receipt.

Without a moment’s hesitation, she begins flinging the groceries of the next person in line down the chute, all mixed up with yours as you rush to pack them carefully in your backpack. It’s like Tetris, but more frightening. Big Girl, You Are Beautiful is still playing in the background. You run out of room. You want to scream. You curse the stupid French because it’s the only thing you know how to say and elect to carry the eggs in your hands when you realize the person behind you has “accidentally” packed them in their backpack.

You debate buying another carton, decide it’s not worth it, and just get the hell out of there.

Now you get to carry them home. Wasn’t that fun?

(p.s. – if you haven’t heard enough of it, here’s an awesome cover of the aforementioned song by two Dutch teenagers dressed as hobos, who’ve re-written the song to be about beer. Even if you don’t speak Dutch, you can get the gist of the song by watching the video. It’s quite funny! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_LcFlTNopA )



i fought the law

•February 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Here at Webster University, the semester is split into two eight-week terms. Instead of juggling five classes at once, you take two or three intensive courses at a time.

In just over a week, my first term here will be over, and the work has really been piling up – nobody’s been doing much travelling. Pauline and I were getting cabin fever, though, so we decided to go hang in Amsterdam for a few hours yesterday.

We planned to scope a couple tattoo parlors, grab something to eat, and head back. We didn’t plan on Google Maps leading us into the infamous “Red Light District.”

It’s a well-known fact that prostitution is legalized, accepted and widely regulated in the Netherlands. Oddly enough, it was Napoleon’s reign that helped build the foundation for the system we see in place today; he mandated that workers in the sex industry belong to an early version of a union and undergo frequent check-ups to ensure the safety of their clients.

Sex tourism aside, the Red Light District is home to some 70 “coffeeshops,”  or places where marijuana can be purchased for consumption on or off the premises in small quantities – this equates to a coffeeshop roughly every 50 steps – each with their own unique atmosphere. Some boast trippy lighting and ear-shattering house music, while others are quiet and ambient, with comfy, upholstered booths and pillows. All of them offer juice, soda, coffee and tea, as well as light snacks like grilled cheese.

While overwhelmingly dominated by brothels and coffeeshops, another common sight is a “smart shop” – as psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms) was outlawed in 2006, fresh and dried mushrooms are no longer available. In smart shops, however, one can buy grow kits for these mushrooms due to a loophole – the spores don’t contain any psilocybin, so it’s legal to grow them yourself. Salvia divinorum and herbal pick-me-ups like ginseng and guarana are also available in these kinds of places.

The sheer self-indulgence of the district is punctuated by frituur and grillrooms, where pizza, fried food and smoked sausages can be purchased. It’s cheap and fast, which really just re-inforces the theme of instant gratification that’s so prominent here.

I wouldn’t say that the Red Light District really captures the spirit of Holland, but from the minute you arrive, you’re someone else – the angel on your shoulder disappears. There’s nothing like it.

We decided to grab a couple drinks before heading home to Leiden on the train. I guess our shoulder-angels hadn’t returned yet, because when we got to the train station, I asked, “Are we gonna buy train tickets this time?” in a voice that really said, “I’m not buying a train ticket this time.”

“Naaaaah,” Pauline replied, “I’d rather hang onto the ten Euro. They never check them anyway.” Which was true. I dutifully bought a ticket each time I wanted to use the train, and nobody ever collected them.

We felt pretty pleased with ourselves and settled into our first-class seats, watching the lights of the city pass our windows. I was exhausted, and full of beer and junk food. I had just closed my eyes when I felt a slight tap on my shoulder.

“Mevrouw?” (Miss?) It was a uniformed man. Eek.

“Allo,” I replied, and smiled weakly. I thought maybe if I smiled at him long enough he would go away.

“Uw kaartje,” (Your ticket?) he prompted me, holding out his hand.

I decided to play dumb American. “I’m sorry?”

He grimaced. “Your ticket.”

“Ohhh!” I reached into my back pocket and produced my ticket from that morning, which was clearly for the opposite route. I smiled broadly. “Here you go.”

He studied it for a minute. “No.” Gulp.

“Is that not right?” I asked cheerfully. I  pulled out my Webster ID. “See, I’m studying abroad in Leiden through an English university, and I thought–”

He pulled out a walkie talkie.

“Can I buy one from you?” I asked hurriedly.

“Yes you can,” he said politely, “and it will be accompanied by a fine of 36 Euro.”

I opened my purse. “I have a ten,” I offered helpfully.

After a short silence, he replied firmly, “When we stop in Schipol, you are leaving the train. You will meet me outside. Understood?”

“Okay,” I said meekly, and he walked to the next compartment. Pauline and I immediately began panicking.

“Should we run for it?”

“We’ll just have to get back on eventually!”

We stepped off the train as casually as possible and were immediately accosted by our friend in uniform. “We go upstairs,” he said, with so much emphasis on the upstairs part that I wondered what was upstairs. A police station? A jail cell? An alligator pit?

As it turns out, a ticket counter.

“These young ladies,” he said to the woman behind the counter, “would REALLY like to purchase tickets to Leiden.”

He saw to it that we bought them for eight Euro apiece. And then he walked away.

We barely caught the next train to Leiden, which was creepy and ramshackle, but we were pretty psyched to have been spared a fine, or worse, an arrest.

So in Amsterdam, you can get away with all sorts of debauchery, but you definitely cannot get away with train-hopping. Lesson well learned.

different strokes

•February 10, 2010 • 1 Comment

The other day I noticed I was running out of food. It’s common here to grocery shop two, three, or even four times a week, which I’m not really accustomed to.

I was hungry, but not ‘walk half-a-mile to Albert Heijn and lug my groceries home on my back’ hungry, so I decided to take a short walk to the frituur, which specializes in fries, fries, and more fries with nearly 15 different kinds of toppings.

We have a McDonald’s, but why settle when you could go first-class? Besides, the frituur sells chicken nuggets in starfish and sailboat shapes, which is clearly more awesome.

Mayo on fries? Yes.

I was waiting in line to order my dinner (kipnugget en kleine patat met mayo) when a woman holding her toddler approached the cash register. I motioned for her to take my place in line, because I wasn’t holding a kid, and I had all the time in the world.

She responded in rapid Dutch, so I said, “Sorry, ik begrijpt niet — ik Engels spreek.” (Sorry, I don’t understand – I speak English.)

She smacked her free hand to her forehead and cried, “Of course you are! Why else would you give your place to me? You are American. You are silly. Okay. I take your place.”

I laughed and asked, “Waarom is dat? Ik vind dat niet grappig.” (Why is that? I don’t find that silly at all.)

She looked at me very seriously and said, “Because. In America, you are always wasting your time, saying, ‘No, you go first!’ ‘No, you go first!’ when you both are wanting to go first. Right? Yes?”

“Ja – dat is proper. Omdat je heb een kind.” (Yeah – it’s polite. Because you have a kid.)

“Nee! When you play those silly games with a Dutch person, they will say, ‘Okay’ and then you will be taken a fool. Like this.” She cut ahead of me in line and relayed her order to the cashier in more rapid Dutch, then looked over her shoulder and said, “Now you must wait. You are feeling sorry, aren’t you? Yes, I bet.”

The cashier handed over her order and said, “Smakkelijk!” (‘Good taste’ – kind of like ‘enjoy!’) The woman stopped at the door and said, “Dag, American! Now you are a little more Dutch. Good luck.”

I looked at the cashier, who simply shrugged and said, “It is true. Wat je wil?”

I went out in search of a quick dinner fix and learned a valuable lesson… only in Holland!

me you and everybody

•January 31, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Leiden Centraal Station. It makes zero sense.

Yesterday, I had my first experience with the train system.

I had the idea to tour the Heineken brewery in Amsterdam, which is about 20 minutes away by train. The brewery’s website had very little to work with as far as directions went — “Trams 16, 24, 25 from Amsterdam Centraal” so we figured it would be as simple as it sounded. The four of us – impulsive Aaron, passive Brandon, sensible Pauline and scatterbrained me – made the short walk to Leiden Centraal Station.

The ticket machines only accept “pinnencart” – a kind of Dutch ATM card – or coins (which come in 1 and 2 euro pieces). We tramped all over looking for someone to make enough change for us while Aaron repeatedly inserted his American Visa into the pinnencart slot, totally convinced that it would accept it if he tried hard enough.

When we finally got our 1-way tickets to Amsterdam – 8.10 euro – we noticed there was no platform number. We wound up chasing several trains down before we were able to squeeze on one, which had no available seats. We stood in a corner, desperately clinging to the walls to avoid falling over onto each other, the entire way to Amsterdam.

They never checked our tickets, so I guess they were largely unfazed by the four young adults clinging to each other and shrieking at every sudden stop. Maybe they felt bad for us.

With the trams being much smaller, and having heard horror stories of people who didn’t pay their fare being booted off in the middle of Amsterdam, we made our way to the front of tram line 16 to pay. Aaron paid first, about 7 euro. I pushed to the front to pay my fare when the driver suddenly slammed the doors shut and stepped on the gas, sending the rest of us flying backwards onto unsuspecting passengers.

Hold onto your hats, folks.

After the initial terror of our first tram ride had passed, we found it pretty hilarious that only Aaron had to pay. Ha-ha.

The brewery itself was the greatest tourist trap ever. There was interactivity, good music, super-friendly tour guides, and, of course, free beer.

The Heineken employee walks us through a proper beer-tasting. The proper way to drink a Heineken, apparently, is at light-speed.

At the tail-end of the tour is a bar where you can redeem the pins on your admission bracelet for free beers. I handed mine to the bartender, who laughed and handed them back. With beers. We decided that we liked this game a lot and hung around for a good hour.

We couldn’t figure out why they were so generous with the drinks until we got to the gift shop, where we suddenly wanted to buy everything.

On the way back we got lost in Amsterdam Centraal and wound up waiting an hour for the right train. We sat around in the cold, tearing at a hot Belgian waffle and laughing at our own ineptitude.

It was such a rare experience; no one was angry or frightened that we had no idea what we were doing. We were lost, and rolling with it, and having the greatest time ever. I realized that studying abroad presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with people who share your taste in culture and adventure, people I’d never have met otherwise. As we fought over the last bit of waffle, I knew I’d made the right decision to study abroad.