Amsterdamn

Tourists flock to Amsterdam for tulips, its liberal take on drugs and the infamous red light district. Yet there’s so much more to lure you to this fine city. Here’s some insights from a Kiwi who’s had a damn good year in the Dam.

The frequency of English, the easy lifestyle and the working holiday visa explain why people are calling Amsterdam the new London. The weather is marginally better, there’s no long daily commute, and Kiwi brunch places dominate the local cafe scene. It feels just like home, only a way cooler Euro version.

The Netherlands are not best known for great weather, so it’s a case of suns out boats out. None of those awful glass enclosed boats with tourists sardined in. People in the know have their local, who strategically cruises the waterways catching the revered sun rays. The BYO food, drinks and music strongly appeal to the Kiwi mentality. There is no better way to soak up the myriad of canals then boating with rosé tinted glasses.

Biking is perhaps the most defining attribute of Amsterdam. It’s a small city, with a population of roughly 850,000. That’s less than even Auckland. This gives it a quaint big village feel. A typical bike trip is about 10 minutes. If embarking on an arduous commute of twenty minutes or more a lot of self-motivation is required. The petite size and delightful means of transport give Amsterdam its easy way of life.

So many bikes means bike thieves. Amsterdam may be safe for you, but your bike isn’t going to be so lucky. Thieves are rampant. So much so, most bikes have two locks. Everyone has a tale of at least one stolen bike. But don’t fret, there’s such a thing as bike fixer. Give them a description of the bike you so desire, €20 and a few days later it’s yours. Just beware of bike karma. Yes this is a thing. I’ve only managed to have one bike stolen, so bike karma seems to be on my side.

Cycling is merely transport, not exercise. This and fortunate genes mean that despite most traditional delicacies being deep fried you won’t see overweight Dutchies. Local dishes include stoopwafels (baked sugar on sugar), kaasstengels (deep fried cheese sticks), bitterballen (deep fried balls with mystery meat contents). You get the gist. It’s not all bad though. Kale was cool here long before it made it to Australasia. It’s the esteemed recipe from Grandma. Raw eateries, cold pressed juice and grain bowls are all on trend, in stylish backdrops that’d make even the coolest Melbourne hipster swoon.

The Dutch are a good looking race, for the most parts tall and slender, blessed with wavy silky hair and great bone structure. The women meander about in minimal make up, unbrushed hair and look effortlessly beautiful. Dutch men’s mane of long locks defies gravity lifting off their face, even when the wind isn’t blowing. It leaves female expats with serious hair envy. How do they maintain that volume?

Dutch fashion is minimalist, with a real Scandinavian feel. Clean lines, quality fabrics and muted tones. Think greys, creams, black and white, with maybe a splash of colour like denim or navy thrown in. Patterns aren’t really appreciated, unless it’s a stripe. A minimal stripe obviously. Sneakers can be worn on any occasion, even clubbing. Nothing about their fashion screams out at you, except the animal faux fur coat. In New Zealand this would seem very bogan Westie, alluding to Outrageous Fortune days. Here women of all ages somehow make it look semi chic. I’ve not attempted to master the look.

The work life balance is incredible. That is if you can get the work side of the balance into the equation. If you can’t? No worries, there’s no shortage of incredibly cool cafes you can pretend to work in. If I counted the hours I’d spent dwelling in such establishments, it’s almost like I had a part time cafe job here. Almost.

On that note, cafes are not to be mistaken with a coffee shop. To avoid getting a perplexed stoner wondering what an almond piccolo is, head to a cafe if you’re looking for coffee. Coffee shops are just for weed. The logic behind this is still a mystery to me, but knowing the Dutch there is indeed a great rationale behind it.

If you’re ever missing the many Kiwi waterways there’s of course an amplitude of canals. I’ve spent many an hour canal sitting. Feeling the calming nature of the water minimises the stresses of life, such as not being able to find your bike, or wondering what sneakers to wear. Some of the canals are even swimmable, though they tend to be a hefty twenty minute bike ride away.

Amsterdam masters a quaint charm and outdoor vibe that most urban cities lack. Littered with green havens and terraces, the exterior spaces breath life into the city. Rooftops, parks and the canals are flooded with people chilling, chatting, drinking and listening to music. Sun basking and people watching against historic buildings proves to be the perfect pass time.

As my year here has come full circle, the tulip’s are once again in bloom. I feel very content with my slice of life this side of the world. I’ve become fully inducted in the Dutch ways, cycling about with my cold pressed juice donning pastel tones. I’ve had many a friend come visit, all falling for the magic of this place. Must be time to head on another boat trip, and drink in my appreciation of this damn fine city.FullSizeRender-13

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Viking Hunters

We journeyed far and wide, across many an ocean to Iceland in search of their infamous Vikings.

There’s something about the urban myth of tall, manly, blonde, bearded men that makes a girl swoon.

Viking explorers were said to have settled in Iceland in the late 9th Century. But were they still lingering about?

And thus, two Kiwis quest to find Vikings begins – of course at a bar in Reykjavik. We eye the swarms of modern day bearded men with curiosity.

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“Are you a Viking?” my friend Michaela asks the older bearded man seated beside us.

“Yes, of course” he slurs in a thick Icelandic accent emphasised by his drunkenness. So far, living up to the reputation.

He insists on buying us multiple shots of Icelandic Schnapps the true Viking liquor.

Michaela notices that our beautiful bearded barman is in fact pouring shots of Jim Bean and Vodka. Viking credibility is deteriorating rapidly.

We get one over him by convincing him I am in fact Keisha Castle Hughes New Zealand’s infamous Whale Rider. They eat whale in Iceland, so he has no issues with animal riding ethics.

We stealthily slip away to the other side of the bar to research the younger Norsemen.

They’re not overly tall, slim bordering on skinny, and don tight jeans, beards and lush long locks that give me hair envy.

These urban Vikings are surprisingly Hipster, straight out of a cool cafe that serves on point espresso.

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Michaela interviewing a Cafe Viking

We befriend a Norwegian Viking, he’s a brunette not a blonde but has the beard and hair down pact. We even convince him to get into costume for the cause.

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A modern day Norwegian Viking

He displays a natural talent for finding hot springs which seems like a useful Viking skill. We document our findings happily over champagne, but are determined there must be Icelandic Vikings lurking in the wilderness.

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We enlist the help of another huntress, Nicki from Seattle who embarks with us on the Viking road trip quest.

We circumnavigate Iceland over five days. We drive the Southern coast, the Eastern Fjords, through the Snowy mountains and the Northern highlands. We leave no waterfall, beach, glacier or hot pool unturned.

We even scour an old Viking village.

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And yet, there seems to be a severe shortage of not only Vikings but people in general. We are shocked to learn there are only 3.2 people per square kilometre. That’s even less than our beloved New Zealand deemed the Iceland of the South by locals.

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Maybe we’d be better off searching for Huldufolk – the hidden people. Better known as Elves, it’s claimed 80% of the population believe in them.

The Huldufolk are known for their environmental lobbyist stance, they whisper in the ears of influential individuals and have been said to help drastically reduce construction in Iceland.

I’m not sure Elves are quite a sexy as Vikings. Although no doubt we could be swayed. Time to head to the local cafe in search of urban Hipster Elves.

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#tbt Romania

After months of solo roaming, I’m chilling in Romania when I get a message from a school friend living in London.

“How much longer till you fly back to New Zealand? I might join ya.”

A few days later Michaela and I are wining and dining in Cluj-Napoca the infamous Romanian hub of the young and reckless.

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We start the night in true Balkan style, with shots of Rakija the local Brandy. From there everything is a blur of colour; from a surreal Bogan heavy metal underground club (the wrong sort of ponytails) to salsa dancing with a swoon-worthy Dutch man (good pony)

Fast forward a few nights and we’re trekking through Hoia Baciu deemed the world’s most haunted forest. Known as the Bermuda Triangle of Transylvania because of the harrowing tales of UFO sightings, disappearances, unexplained burns and feelings of nausea.

At midnight our group abandones us. Not because of eery happenings but as Google maps seemed set on us circumnavigating the forest only. Very suspicious.

Michaela, Dutchie, a Kiwi fella and I venture on, determined to find something remotely terrifying but after a few hours of lack lustre adventures we too make the long walk home.

Next day Michaela and I decide to Hitchhike east to Timișoara. I spend all morning crafting the perfect sign in my Rakija induced state. A Bla Bla car happens to be going our way, so we catch a ride with a few locals instead.

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Michaela is a sales woman by trade – all smiles, laughs and charm. From the back seat I can see a situation developing. Our Driver keeps bestowing us with gifts of home grown fruit. He starts casually touching her arm as he offers the fruit. And the offerings keep coming. Her laughs become feigned. Next thing he’s trying to book into our Hostel.

I’m no Sales Women, but I’ve mastered the art of elusive behaviour. When we stop to drop another passenger off in town we jump out graciously, bid our farewells and head on our merry way with fruit for days.

R o m a n i a. I went there in search of Dracula, haunted castles and Gypsies. Yet Dracula and Vlad the Impaler were long gone. And Gypsies was apparently a politically incorrect term. Sigh.

Instead I stumbled upon a colourful place enchanting in its own right. Mystical mountain towns. A lot of city slicking. One too many sleepless nights. A slice of old school Europe pastures. Copious amounts of coffee’n in hipster cafes. A chance encounter with a dodgy puppy dealer. And most importantly an accomplice.

 

Why travel (on reflection)

I draw inspiration from some great muses, as I nostalgically reflect on adventures been and journeys to come.

“We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life” George Santayana

Need is a strong word. And yet Santayana continues:

“There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour.”

I’m all for a nimble mind, and a good sense of humour.

“Abroad is the place where we stay up late, follow impulse and find ourselves as wide open as when we are in love” Pico Iyer

I stay up late at home, but generally disappoint myself with the sensibilities of life.

“We live without a past or future, for a moment at least, and are ourselves up for grabs and open to interpretation…” ]

You could be anyone. I inevitably always am myself. I think this is a good thing.

“There are, of course, great dangers to this, as to every kind of freedom, but the great promise of it is that, traveling, we are born again, and able to return at moments to a younger and a more open kind of self”

It’s not being young per se that attracts me, but the sense of freedom and ability to frolic frivolusly.

“Traveling is a way to reverse time, to a small extent, and make a day last a year”

It is true. One the road days last forever. The stresses of life wither away. I laugh constantly.

Friendships created in days, felt like friends of old. I felt at home. Broad smiles, sun kissed tans and friendships built on beer pyramids. Many are transient, short and sweet. Yet a collection of people I’ve meet over the years stay with me, there faces etched in my memory.

“All good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder….And that is why many of us travel not in search of answers, but of better questions”

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Bear necessities

If you’re hiking in the Romanian woods and run into a bear, apparently you should play dead.

I’m not sure I’d trust my acting skills in such a dire situation. Then again, lying in foetal position in a frozen state of panic probably wouldn’t involve that much acting.

If the bear proceeds to try and eat you, apparently it’s then time to talk in a firm voice. I can’t help but wonder if he’d understand the Kiwi accent?

Bear etiquette 101. This was quickly googled after many a traveller returned from Transylvanian hikes proclaiming they’d smelt bears.

Yes, no joke. Apparently you can litterally smell them.

“What sort of smell is it?” I enquired, ever so casually.

“You just know. Go the other way if you smell them.”

Great. Very reassuring. Honey face masks probably not be happening this week.

But bears are not all grrrrrrrr. Sometimes they get depressed. I learnt all about it at the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Brasov, Romania.

A lot of bears became depressed at the hands of cruel owners who used them to attract tourists. The bears would refuse to eat, or worse, self mutiliate – eating their own paws.

There were many other horrific stories as well. Bears with arthritis from being made to sit still for too long. Bears who had never been to the forest. Bears scared of other bears. Bears blinded from the flashes of tourist’s cameras.

When you see these fellas with their soulful eyes, playful paws and feigned cuddly ways you can’t help but feel incredibly sorry for them. But surely modern day tourists wouldn’t be so stupid.

At the sanctuary there were many huge signs, warning of the electric fences around the enclosures. Our guide kept reiterating not to get more than 1m close.

Next thing there’s a gasp, and everyone had gathered. As I got closer I realise someone had dropped their iPhone 6 in the enclosure.

“Who would be stupid enough to do that?” I muttered to myself.

“We did!” A couple next to me admitted sheepishly.

Opps. I feigned sympathy as they retold how he’d leaned too close with his phone, got electrocuted and phone went flying in.

Well at least now maybe the bear could take selfies? That seemed to help depressed people get a self-esteem boost.

I wonder what you should do if you come across a depressed bear in the wild? Give him a hug?

I’d like to hope they wouldn’t be depressed in nature. And luckily I follow the advice of google, not my desire to get the ultimate bear hug.

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