Lessons Learned in Amsterdam

Speeding up the Learning Curve…

…..an essential skill or accomplishment if you want to survive a block on foot in Amsterdam!

Michael and I just returned from a hectic 2-day whirl through Amsterdam.  In many respects, Michael would say it’s a miracle I’m here to relate our experiences, given the number of near-misses I’ve/we’ve had in less than 48 hours.  In the parlance of business meetings and lecture halls, the “take aways” from our mini-trip are:

  1. Never, never, never step out of a “safe” pedestrian zone without checking and rechecking in all directions for tram, bus, car and – above all! – bicycle traffic.
  2. Cobblestones can cripple or maim you.
  3. Potholes are not a phenomenon of modern sidewalks and roadways;  i.e., cobblestones and pavers can be dislodged, creating little potholes just big enough for a size 7 ½ shoe to trip over.
  4. “Gawking while walking” is NOT okay.  Not only do you look stupid, you stand a better than 90% chance of screwing up learning point #1.  Need I say more?  Gawk only if seated in a café, bus, canal
    boat or propped up against a solid wall, preferably one that’s been standing at least 200 years so you know it won’t collapse under you.  Note: gawking while leaning against a less than 3-foot canal railing (where they exist) is not a good move, either. Not unless you are less than 3-foot, six inches or have a hankering to swim in the canal.
  5. Final caveat: If you’ve been drinking or imbibing in other available substances, your odds of tripping, falling or getting pulverized by some form of speeding vehicle on 2-, 3-, 4- or other multiple wheels goes straight to 100% if you don’t scrupulously follow numbers
    1-4.

Okay, since I’m writing this from the relative safety of our new apartment in Utrecht, I’ve obviously survived my first adult experience in
Amsterdam.  (Get your minds out of the gutter, my friends.  The last time I was in Amsterdam I was only 8 ½!  The “worst” I did in Amsterdam the last two days was drink two Jaegermeister shooters.  More on that later.)

Now that the safety stuff is out of the way, here are some more thoughts on Amsterdam:

  1. Michael would gladly move here in a heartbeat if
    offered a position.  He might even work
    for free.  As you can see, he’s already
    checking out the real estate:

Anyone recognize the plants on either side of Michael?  And he IS in front of a real estate office, not a “coffee shop”!

2. Amsterdam is awash in canals and bikes.  The city has several multi-story garages for bicycles only.  I kid you not.  Here’s a 4-level garage for just bikes at the central rail station.

We saw several such bicycle garages
in Amsterdam, as well as the standard “parking” of bikes against any lamppost,
gutter spout or rail, often 3 to 5 bikes deep.

And, speaking of bicycles being “awash” and “deep”,
Amsterdam has about 100 kilometers of canals, most of which do not have railings  along the banks.  Therefore, having happy bikers roll into the canals is a frequent and daily occurrence.  For that matter, an average of one car a week ends up in a canal.  With space at a premium throughout the Netherlands, bikes and cars squeeze into “parking” wherever the driver-operator perceives a space to be had, often within inches of the drink. 

IMHO, I would venture to suggest that the
frequency of bikers and auto drivers ending up in the canal has a lot more to do with the amount of substances consumed by the drivers than their observational or parking skills.  Or maybe better phrasing: it’s a matter of substances consumed impairing skills of any sort….

3. Amsterdam is not completely a biker’s paradise. In fact, bikes are at the heart of this beautiful city’s hottest crime wave:  60,000 bicycles per year are stolen in this city of 700,000.  You do the math.  Seriously, bike theft is the number one crime issue in Amsterdam (albeit a relatively innocuous one unless it’s your bike!).  Hello, police departments everywhere in the
U.S.? Have you checked your crime stats recently?  And, no, the Amsterdam P.D. is not taking foreign applicants right now.

4.  Amsterdam is a very happy city.  In fact, we learned that a recent study found that the Dutch, in general, are the happiest people in Europe, if not  the world.  The Dutch scored the highest on all kinds of “wellness”, “wellbeing” and “satisfaction” criteria, and from what I’ve experienced so far, the study is right on target.  Moreover, the “happy factor” extends to
expats who have chosen to live in the Netherlands.  We fell in with a bunch of friendly expats courtesy of our friend and medical compeñero, Terry Mulligan, who lived here for four years and, being a gregarious guy himself, made a lot of Dutch and expat friends alike.  Here we are with
some of them at a café in Amsterdam:

From the left:  Renée Mennie, 8 ¾ months pregnant, who is Dutch; her British husband, Stuart; Michael (notice the happy grin and the empty Heineken glass); and Terry Mulligan (American, and not yet so happy because his food’s late and he hasn’t drunk his beer). Special note:  the author wasn’t drinking anything stronger than coffee at this point, hence the clarity of the picture.

During the course of the afternoon and going into the evening, various other expats joined us at one café or another:  Allen, another Brit; Zach, a Canadian; and Richard, an Aussie. There’s a reason for giving their genealogy; continue reading.

5.  Beware of drinking with expats from the former British Empire.  And never, never, never think you can even keep up with them.  And besting a Brit or Aussie at swilling beer?  Fegeddaboutit!  Having learned those lessons eons ago, I stuck to wine with bottles of water chaser. Until about 11 p.m.  Ah, yes.  That’s where the Jaegermeister came in.  Michael and I wisely had our two shooters and hightailed it out the door to the relative safety of the streets.  And our hotel.

6.  Other “happy” factors from Amsterdam.  (Warning: the author personally hasn’t tried any of the following and can’t vouch for authenticity of any of these factors truly making one happy.)

When you travel in England, a striking observation is the number of pubs scattered throughout the cities and country towns, about one every block or so. The Brits refer to either the closest pub or their favorite,
within-walking-distance pub as their “local” (for obvious reasons, it must be walkable).  Amsterdam isn’t shy on establishments offering alcoholic beverages (but they’ve adopted the cooler French “café” nomenclature).  But the true “local” establishments here are the coffee shops, where one can purchase small amounts of marijuana for consumption on the premises.  Those you can find on nearly every block throughout downtown Amsterdam, thus contributing to the continued state of happiness of the Dutch people. At least, the people we observed lounging around in the coffee shops looked rather happy, if in a dreamy, zoned-out way. The Bulldog claims to be the oldest coffee shop in Amsterdam, begotten way back in 1975:

However, I was told that there were other coffee shops prior to this Bull Dog.  Supposedly, the original coffee shop was housed in a police station.  Talk about have the cops keeping a close watch on the action. Does this mean they had substations in the whore houses?

Renée and Stuart Mennie live on the edge of the Red Light District in Amsterdam, so in all our comings and goings and to-ings and fro-ings Michael and I saw quite a lot of the wares on display, as well as all the various establishments that sell the assistive accoutrements
of the world’s oldest act, whether performed by professionals or hapless
amateurs.  (OK, for the country hicks among you, I’m talking about the sex  shops, dummies!)

Being a good little tourist, I did not photograph any of the ladies in their windows or even the colorfully enticing door signs of their establishments.
Apparently, this is frowned upon and actively acted upon, as in you
could be relieved of your camera by an enraged madam/monsieur or the
establishment bouncer.  But I did sneak a photo of this unique little sign that was stuck in the corner of the door to one of the smaller assistive devices shops:
And now for the real reason we’re in the Netherlands….

Michael and Terry Mulligan have been working quite hard on their lecture series for the medical school class they are teaching.  Terry, who first taught this class a few years ago, will be here for another week, then returns to the States, where he’s a colleague of Michael’s at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.  The class they are teaching is for
second-year students, who have had little, if any, clinical experience, so to
have two experienced, high-powered clinicians giving them the scoop on real emergency medicine as practiced in the real world is rather thrilling.  At least none of them has fallen asleep yet.

On the other hand, teaching this class hasn’t exactly been a hardship for the two of them either.  Michael came home positively glowing after the first day.  Out of 29 students, all but about 4 were women and, to use his words, “they’re ALL BEAUTIFUL!”

Need I say more?

In all seriousness, Terry and Michael have their work cut out for them.
In this coming week they will meet with the Minister of Health for the
Netherlands; a representative from the U.S. Department of State with an interest in international health; and, Michael will be delivering a paper at the Dutch national convention for emergency physicians near Rotterdam.  And that’s just next week.  The goal is to help expand the University of
Maryland’s Emergency Department’s interests in international medicine – so it would seem they are off to an auspicious start!

So, stay tuned to future updates
from Michael and Carol!

Sunday, June 05, 2011

P.S.  Yesterday, as I was completing an earlier
section, our new friend Stuart Mennie, who had come back to Utrecht to carry on
the party, had arrived at our new apartment with Terry to initiate our first
happy hour in our new abode.  Stuart read over my shoulder with interest my quip, “Beware of drinking with expats from the former British Empire”, laughed and walked away muttering something about, “You would have to rub it in about the ‘former’ British Empire”!

Later on, in a continuation of expat British pride, Stuart tried to convince me (tongue in cheek) that the U.S. had not won the revolutionary war against the mother country.  As we bickered over that absurdity, I
reminded him we beat the pants off the Brits a second time in the war of 1812, which he also denied. To add ballast to the sinking ship of his claims, he finally countered that the land the White House is on is actually owned by Canada, formerly of the British Empire.  At that point I gave up the argument and we decamped to another café.  Anyone want to comment on that charge?

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