The first thing I noticed about Amsterdam was that our cab was a Tesla.
Your taxi’s make and model aren’t things you think about, like, ever. But when your first experience in a new place involves a (pretty attractive) driver in a suave gray suit and tie whisking you away to your canal-side hotel in your dream car, it makes an impression. After leaving the United States 26 hours before, I had begun my European adventure in style.
Well, really, it would be mostly an English adventure. Amsterdam and Paris were both three-day stops before starting my six-week study abroad program at the London School of Economics. My time on the mainland only made up one week of seven of my adventure.
So this is the part I call the prologue.
After checking in, my travel companion and I left the hotel to explore. Because of our naps on our flight out of Oslo, Norway, and our brains still being nine hours behind, neither of us felt tired. So we wandered out to see what the city was like. I didn’t really know what to expect from Amsterdam. I knew it was more than the Red Light District, canals and legal weed — but what else?
As soon as I stepped out into the warm summer night, I fell in love. I don’t know if it was the gently lapping waters of the canal, the row of bikes parked next to our hotel or the sound of late-night bar chatter, but I was enchanted. I felt this incredible energy — a magical mix of peace and vibrancy. We walked through the spacious yet crowded Leidseplein square in Amsterdam’s center feeling somehow immediately at home.
On our way to the Anne Frank House the next day, we walked over a canal bridge for the first time. The view made my breath catch in my chest. There’s just something about it — the iron railings, the bikes whizzing past you and the colorful array of houseboats on the green water — that made me feel as if I were in a fairy tale.
After a three-hour wait, I was inside the Anne Frank House. Climbing the stairs up to the annex, walking through the rooms they had hidden in for two years and seeing Anne’s carefully preserved diary pages were some of the most powerful things I’d ever experienced. It all felt so real. I could almost see Anne in that room with me. I tried to imagine hiding in that space for two years with seven others and my life at stake, but I couldn’t. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, purposely left those rooms empty to show the devastation and loss of the Holocaust — the millions of lives that could never be replaced.
After that humbling experience, we explored more. We ate Dutch food and eventually wandered into a cheese museum. We later boarded a cruise through the canals and traveled through the city, marveling at its beauty despite our exhaustion.
That evening, we made our way south through the Red Light District, and I finally saw the Amsterdam that everyone expects to see. But then again, I’m not sure I did.
Yes, in this about two-block area, there were scantily clad women in the windows. But we’d come across only two red-lit shops when we stumbled upon a small museum that advocated on behalf of sex workers. What I had already realized was re-affirmed: There was so much more to Amsterdam than what I had been told to expect.
The next day, our trip continued in the same comfortable fashion. After a full day exploring museums, we sought out the bench from “The Fault in Our Stars” and sat on it, just like Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters. We then etched notes onto the bench, which was already nearly covered with the scratches of tourists.
The next morning, I journeyed alone, my travel buddy having already flown out. I took a bit of a journey to the outer neighborhoods for a windmill tour. I spent my afternoon escaping the summer heat by relaxing pond-side in the spacious lawns of Vondelpark.
When I left Amsterdam, I said a somber goodbye to the beautiful city. And when I stepped off the train and into Paris for the first time, my immediate emotion was not awe but intimidation.
I quickly learned that Paris is loud. Paris is grungy. Paris is big and wants you to know that it’s big. It’s a bold, in-your-face sort of city. As it turned out, my three years of high school French were little help: Everyone spoke too quickly for me to understand them, and trying to decipher their thick accents when they begrudgingly spoke English wasn’t much easier. I quickly became aware of how grateful I was for the fact that everyone in Amsterdam spoke excellent English. The Parisian grittiness — compared with idyllic Amsterdam — was also hard to ignore. After all, I had seen no homeless people in Amsterdam.
But for me, the biggest difference was that I was in Paris alone. The idea had completely terrified me, but once I checked into my hostel and spent more than an hour talking to my roommates, I no longer felt afraid. They reassured me that it was amazing to travel solo, so the next day, I excitedly set out on my companionless adventure.
My first day alone in Paris was a bit unnerving. I felt self-conscious as I climbed the Arc de Triomphe by myself and no less so when I dined alone at a cafe. My arrival at the Eiffel Tower meant I would require help from another lonely traveler in order to take some touristy photos. I forced myself to journey over to the Notre Dame Cathedral, still yearning for someone to share my excursions with. I began to wonder if I could enjoy traveling alone. Was I just not cut out for this?
The next day, I finally started feeling comfortable with my lonely travel. Touring museums with a partner or group can require high levels of patience. Alone, it was liberating. I could go at my own pace, dwell on the paintings I loved and skip by those I didn’t. I could sit down for a break when I wanted and where I wanted.
And I quickly realized that I didn’t have to be alone. In the evening, I met up with a friend from my hostel for a tour of the Montmartre, the artistic district in the days of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. We walked from the Moulin Rouge cabaret theater up to the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, through the winding streets that had been the homes of artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. We ate a magnificent French dinner, and I marveled at the fact that it had taken two whole days for me to find this side of Paris — the picturesque, fairy tale city I had imagined.
On my last day in Paris, I visited Versailles. It felt like being thrust into my ninth-grade history book. The palace itself displayed the promised amount of superfluous dazzle, but it was the gardens that really got me: perfectly groomed hedges, fountains on fountains on fountains, sculptures, and careful craftsmanship. The image of the crown’s lavishness was so apparent that I could almost see the French revolutionaries breaking down the gates.
That evening, my prologue ended. I packed up my suitcase, went to the train station and, in a twist of irony, spent my Fourth of July evening traveling to London. But despite the excitement of London ahead of me, I couldn’t help but reflect on my week.
I realized that my adventures in each city really weren’t that different. I geeked out over impressionism and post-impressionism at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. I saw Rembrandt paintings at the Rijksmuseum, and I went to the Louvre and selfied with the Mona Lisa like a basic bitch. I had an obligatory Dutch pancake in Amsterdam and an obligatory French crepe in Paris. But they felt so different. Both defied expectations for me, but in opposite directions.
You always hear about how Paris is la ville de l’amour or whatever. But the riverboats cruising down the Amsterdam canals at sunset whispered “city of love” to me much more than chaotic Paris ever could.
Well … except for the food. I’d totally marry French food.
Contact Kelsi Krandel at [email protected].