Thursday, 19 May 2016

europe 2016, day 4: amsterdam (may 1)

Day two in Amsterdam and Sunday, which for good, Jesus-loving Christian girls means church, and which for good, Western Evangelical millennial Christian girls means a Hillsong church. Really just the easiest solution, given that there's a Hillsong plant in pretty much every city in the world where you can fly a plane to from Australia. We planned to attend the 10am service, so it was a quick bite at the breakfast bus and then out the hostel grounds by 9am and off to Holandrecht Station.

On the metro along the way to church we met the most beautiful golden retriever, which Judy immediately fell in love with. Of course, she tried to sneakily take a picture of it - creepy invasiveness is forgiven in ours, the Snapchat generation - and of course I nearly choked laughing when the owner caught her in the act. But she just had a good laugh about it too, because it is a proven fact that all Dutch people are unfailingly nice.

Perhaps it was because Hillsong London had left such a bad taste in my mouth when I visited three years ago - fine, it was definitely because of that - but I had very low expectations for service today. But God, in his infinite general awesomeness, has a way of surpassing our measly, faithless expectations and showing his glory even when we are not looking for it.

Service was no Livingwater, but I was still exceedingly encouraged by it (and by exceedingly I mean that the degree to which I was encouraged exceeded my paltry expectations) and the message that was preached - on finding your own cleft in the rock where God can meet you, just as he met with Moses. Good and very timely word. Also, while I've tended to be wary of how concert-like Hillsong's worship feels, I couldn't help but be blessed to see just how joyful everyone looked to be there. A palpable joy in the room at being in the house of the Lord. There's no way that's not going to be encouraging, even for a jaded cynic like me. (Ha! That was a joke. The claim that I am a cynic would convince probably nobody who's ever talked to me for five minutes.) Evidence that God is at work in Amsterdam and loves the Dutch people.

Lunch after church we had at a cafe we stumbled upon after we spent a sizable chunk of time wandering the area around church looking for a food market which we had been assured by someone from Hillsong was open but which, in fact, was not. I will try not to hold it against him. (He had been very confident, though.) But no matter. The cafe, a Gertrude Stein-inspired cafe bearing the name of Gertruudskoffie, was charming, the sandwiches delicious, and the Wi-Fi un-spotty. What more can one ask for in a cafe?

After lunch, back to the city center again, to Central Station. From there we headed to a nearby bike rental/coffee shop and joined the 800,000 cyclists in this famous biking city to experience Amsterdam in a new way. Getting on a bike meant that we all had to marvel again at how well planned this city was, with the bike lanes and bike traffic lights everywhere allowing people to bike without having to fear for their lives as they do back in America.

I wish very much that I could say that the bike ride through the city was a magical experience, that I breezed through the streets with the serenest of smiles on my face and music playing in my head while beautiful houses passed me on either side, and yes, it is true that I had a smile on my face much of the time and that music played in my head the whole ride (mostly the "one step at a time" song from Anastasia which Judy has been singing nonstop so far on this trip, thank you Judy) and that beautiful houses passed me on either side. But I was also sweating profusely while simultaneously freezing from the wind hitting my face, and my thighs were hurting like nobody's business. So it wasn't quite the perfect, idyllic experience I had hoped for, but I chalk this up to my own sad unfitness mostly. It was still extremely enjoyable. Although I can't fathom how everyone here bikes all over the city all the time like it's no big deal. I was ready to collapse after about fifteen minutes of it.

We eventually made it to Rijksmuseum (which we are going to tomorrow), the "I amsterdam" sign, and the Van Gogh Museum which Tiff and I went to while Judy had some alone time, having already visited a few years back. Not too much mot say about the museum other than that it was expectedly impressive, but also rather tragic. I mean, you walk from exhibit to exhibit and practically every single one talks about Van Gogh's suffering and early death. It's depressing. But the paintings, the paintings! Beautiful. As with everything else on this trip so far - glad I went. Well, maybe not Skansen. (Tiff would say definitely not Skansen, emphasis on every syllable of "definitely.")

After we'd had enough of yellow oil paint sunflowers (which I definitely was not allowed to take a picture of), we met up with Judy at our designated rendezvous point and got back on our bikes for a ride to and around Vondelpark, nearby. That was a bit closer to the idyllic bike ride I'd pictured - greenery all around, people strolling about happily. One thing I've felt about Amsterdam is how much the city seems to shout, "I'm alive!" Full of life, in the best sense of the phrase. Just bursting with it, in fact. And Vondelpark was that essence of Amsterdam's vibrancy condensed in one beautiful green happy place. We spent a lovely hour or so there, biking round and sitting on the grass eating sausage rolls and Speculoos cookies, til it was time to return the bikes from where we got them, near Central Station.

If the trip to the park from the rental place had been hard, the return journey was a test of sheer willpower. For some reason that twenty minute bike ride felt much harder than the ten mile roundtrip hike I'd done on my recent backpacking/camping trip. It also afforded much cause for admiration for Judy, who led the way back. She somehow was biking at lightning speeds while simultaneously navigating us back to the rental without getting us lost. I watched her pedal easily from a distance behind her as she made it look effortless. It didn't seem fair.

We made it back with three minutes to spare before their closing time, and I spent the next ten minutes massaging my frozen ears to restore sensation while Judy asked the rental guy for recommendations on food, something she is very good at doing. Amid the torrent of information he poured out, he gave us one particularly cool tip: "Go walk into the Sky Lounge at the Hilton Doubletree Hotel and you'll see great views of the city from eleven floors up."

"We don't have to buy anything to be there?" Judy queried.

He pondered this for a moment.

"Well, if you're there for five hours they might make you buy a coffee, but you can just go in and come out," he assured us, after thinking it over.

So we went, and once again found ourselves sticking out as the painfully obvious group that did not belong, with our awed expressions, black North Face fleeces, and sneakers, in an environ of leather jackets, sophisticated, lofty smiles, and high heels. But we have so far built a pretty good track record of not caring one whit about sticking out, so we walked around, enjoyed the view, and walked back out as if we had, in fact, just eaten at the expensive Sky Lounge of the expensive Hilton Doubletree. And who would contradict us? No one who wanted to seem rude. So we walked in and back out, unchallenged.

Dinner was Indonesian food, which I have learned I greatly enjoy. During the meal we saw an adorable chubby cheeked little baby sitting at the next table, whom Judy, for the second time in so many hours, promptly lost her heart to. Of course, she tried to sneakily take a picture, and I watched her thinking how funny it would be if she got caught again. And of course, as soon as I thought that, she let out a guilty squeak, having just made eye contact with the baby's mother. I laughed unmercifully, but as I have already mentioned, Dutch people are all nice to an unfathomable degree, so the mother just laughed as well at Judy's discomfiture. Judy is good at riding a bike without getting tired and asking strangers for food recommendations, but her talents do not include furtive picture-taking of children and puppies.

She has also just brought me a lovely hot water bottle for bed, so I feel slightly bad for making fun of her. Oh well. She'll see this eventually anyway.

After dinner we were planning to get boba because going a full two weeks without boba is unthinkable to me and Judy - not Tiff, who is evidently made of stronger stuff than we are - but the place was closed, so we came back to our hostel instead, arriving at the totally wild time of 10:30pm, a solid two and a half hours later than our planned curfew. But that has been the one constant thing on this trip so far - a spectacular failure to return at a time even remotely close to the one planned. A long day, but another gorgeous one. Amsterdam is a gem.

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