“So it looks like I’m going to have a six hour layover in Amsterdam.”
It was my first time traveling for work, and I was sitting in my company’s DC office chatting via Skype with my husband, who was in Seattle. That afternoon, I would be heading to Dulles International Airport to board a flight to Amsterdam. After that, I would head to Delhi, where I would be spending a week.
“That’s cool,” he replied, “what are you going to do?”
“I think I’m going to try and go into the city.” I wrote back.
From my research, I found that central Amsterdam was less than an hour away from Schiphol airport by train. I would have plenty of time to drop off my bags, catch a train, and do some sight-seeing. And then I could catch a train back to the airport. It would be a perfect way to pass the time during my layover in Amsterdam.
Spending a layover in Amsterdam
I had been to Amsterdam before. Twice. Interestingly, both of those prior visits were day trips. Just like this one would be. The first time was in college, when I visited with my sister and her boyfriend during a week-long trip to Cologne, Germany.
We took a train from Cologne into Amsterdam and spent the afternoon walking along Damrak. We strolled through the Red Light District, and visited one of the infamous “coffee shops” (although all I ordered at the coffee shop was tea. Honest!).
The second time was on my way home to the States when I was in the Peace Corps. I had a few hours layover in Amsterdam, and ended up visiting the Sex Museum. It was a random choice, to be honest, but surprisingly interesting. This time around, I wanted to see a different side of the city during my layover in Amsterdam.
After a long flight, the plane landed in Schiphol airport. It was 7:35 in the morning, and I had only slept for an hour or so on the flight. But I was determined to make the most of my layover. I was getting per diem anyway, so I might as well have a little fun spending it. My flight to Delhi was set to leave at 1:50 pm. I figured I had at least four hours worth of sight-seeing I could do during my layover in Amsterdam. I had no time to waste!
Taking the train from Schiphol to Amsterdam
It had been a few years since I was at Schiphol, but I managed to find my way to the baggage storage area. I found an empty locker and stuffed my carry-on inside, and then headed towards the trains.
Since my last visit to Amsterdam, the ticketing system for the trains had changed a bit. I stood at the ticketing machine for several minutes trying to decipher what ticket I was supposed to buy. Once I had my ticket in hand, it was several more minutes trying to figure out what train I was supposed to board.
I ended up picking a train and hoping it was the right one. The train departed, and we were off, riding swiftly past the Dutch country side. I finally had a few moments to relax and enjoy the view.
Catching the wrong train
It turns out, I had caught the wrong train. I was heading towards Amsterdam Zuid, when I really should have been heading towards Amsterdam Centraal.
“Geez,” I thought, “at this rate, I’ll only have time get a cup of coffee and then have to turn around!” When the train arrived at Amsterdam Zuid station, I quickly deboarded the train, and bought a metro ticket to Amsterdam Centraal. It was about 9:15.
“It’s okay,” I told myself, “you wanted to see a different side of Amsterdam. So here it is.” I didn’t want my layover in Amsterdam to be ruined by a small mistake of mine.
Fortunately, my mess up turned out to be a good thing. From my vantage point on the metro platform, I could see industrial style apartment buildings and office buildings. This was definitely a different side of Amsterdam, a closer glimpse into every day life, compared to the tourist shops and cafes of Damrak.
A chance to see another way of life
I remembered why I enjoyed travel. It wasn’t for the museums or historical monuments. It wasn’t for bragging rights to say I’d been to this place or that. And it certainly wasn’t just to pass the time during a layover in Amsterdam. It was for this chance to see another way of life.
As I stood there waiting for the metro to come, I tried to imagine what it would be like if I lived in Amsterdam, if this was my morning commute. Since it was a Sunday, I imagined that I was heading into town to meet some friends for brunch.
I looked around at the other folks waiting for the metro. It was a brisk spring morning, and people were in light jackets and sweaters, but I noticed there were several people wearing orange. I happened to remember reading something about the King’s birthday on the plane, and realized the orange must have something to do with it. The metro arrived, and I quickly boarded, trying to not look too conspiciously touristy.
A festive mood in the air
When I arrived at Amsterdam Centraal, it was bustling with people in orange. There was a festive mood in the air, I followed the crowd of orange out the door of the station and onto the street, making my way towards Damrak.
According to Wikipedia (which has sadly now become the source of all my knowledge), the Damrak is an avenue and partially filled canal that runs through the center of Amsterdam. In the early 20th century, it was known as the Dutch version of Wall Street, but now is mainly filled with shops and cafes catering to tourists, and sprinkled with the occasional museum.
It was still relatively early when I walked along Damrak, and although there were plenty of people around, the shops and cafes were only just starting to open up. Damrak is characterized by a wide pedestrian sidewalk, and the last two times I had been to Amsterdam, cafes had set up tables along the sidewalk, providing outdoor seating for their patrons.
This time, however, the sidewalk was filled with vendor stalls selling tchotchkes for the King’s birthday celebration. Orange balloons, flags, and garlands. Orange sunglasses and wigs. There were even orange t-shirts.
Interspersed between these tchotchke stalls were food vendors selling falafel, hotdogs, and pretzels. In front of Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, an area of amusement rides had been set up, complete with a ferris wheel, carousel, and house of mirrors. It felt as if I’d walked into a carnival, with piped music blaring from the carousel.
Observing the festivities
I decided to find a cafe and grab some breakfast before heading back to the train station. As I sat there eating my breakfast sandwich, I watched the people dressed in orange walk by and tried to imagine what the American equivalent of this holiday would be.
I suppose, every country has their reasons for festivities. In America we have plenty of those kinds of holidays: Fourth of July, St. Patrick’s Day, even game day for the hometown football team. I remembered when the Seahawks won the Superbowl earlier this year and all of Seattle, it seemed, was on the streets in green and blue. Someone from another country watching this spectacle would have thought we were out of our minds. But in that moment, all that mattered was that we were celebrating with the collective group.
Here in Amsterdam, I wasn’t sure how many people actually cared about their monarch, but from seeing the festivities of the day, I could tell it was something that was relatively significant in their lives. If only from a commercial or material perspective.
After my breakfast, I paid for my food and headed back to the train station. The ride back to the airport was uneventful, and I was able to make it to the gate with an hour to spare.
As I sat waiting for my flight to board, I thought about my visit to Amsterdam. I actually didn’t end up venturing far from where I had visited before, but I felt like I did get to see a different side of the city. “One day,” I said to myself, “I’ll spend more than just a couple of hours in the city.” In the meantime, I’ll keep this experience of my layover in Amsterdam as mementos in my jar of memories.
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