Netherlands and Paris Vacation Reflections

It took me 42 years to make my first trip to Europe; then, my first two trips to Europe came within 3 weeks of each other. First, at the end of May, I went to a conference at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, followed by some time in Amsterdam. Then, about 10 days later, I returned to Paris for an OECD meeting. This post recaps some of my observations seeing Europe for the first time through 42 year old eyes.

The Netherlands

See my photo albums of Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

The Netherlands were a great introduction to Europe for an American who doesn’t speak any foreign languages. There was plenty of support for English-speakers. Most Dutch speak English flawlessly, and many of the museums and other tourist attractions had parallel English and Dutch explanations (indeed, many times they included French and German translations too). Plus, navigation by train/tram was mostly painless. I didn’t ride a bike but the seemingly every Dutch person did. I didn’t see a single bike helmet the whole trip, though.

I’m going to start with a seemingly small detail but one that colored my entire trip. For a country that has battled having too much water for centuries, the Dutch make it frustratingly hard to get drinking water. There are no drinking fountains, water was rarely presented as a free option at meals, and bottled water was overpriced. I guess the dutch lack of interest in drinking water makes some sense given that historically unprocessed water was unsafe to drink. Instead, at mealtimes, orange juice, beer and buttermilk were commonly served. Fizzy carbonated drinks were also popular.

Perhaps related to the difficulty getting hydrated, the Dutch approaches to bathrooms differ radically from American sensibilities. First, most bathrooms (public and private) are tiny. Public restrooms typically had an inadequate numbers of stalls/urinals. Second, it was almost impossible to find free public bathrooms. I figured the small and infrequent bathrooms completes a weird logic circle–the Dutch don’t drink water, so they don’t need bathrooms. The lack of public bathrooms has led to public urination problem in Amsterdam, which has responded with “pee guards” in dark corners that are designed to throw urine back on a (presumably drunk) offender. Pee guards have been through multiple innovation iterations. Apparently, it makes more sense to innovate ways to dump pee back on public urinators than to offer more free public bathrooms.

Consistent with the lack of Dutch freebies, it was virtually impossible to find cost-effective Internet access as a tourist. I didn’t find any open WiFi signals, the hotels gouged, and I didn’t see many cybercafes. Even Erasmus University wanted to charge me 30 EUROS for guest Internet access. No thanks.

My grades for some common tourist destinations:

[note: I'm generally a pretty tough grader, but my grades will look high because the tourist attractions I went to were, for the most part, world class.]

* Rotterdam Harbor tour. Grade: A-. A great look at a very active harbor. My only beef is that the recorded audio repeats everything in four languages, so on the hour-long tour, there was less than 15 minutes of English narration.

* Delfshaven. Grade: C. An old Rotterdam port–one of the few parts of Rotterdam that wasn’t obliterated by WW2 bombing. Unfortunately, there was no “there” there. It’s a small island in the middle of Rotterdam sprawl, and the remaining buildings were not worth the detour. Worse, I went to find the vegetarian restaurant Bla Bla, which was unexpectedly closed with no posted hours.

* Kinderdijk. Grade: B. This UNESCO World Heritage site is the remains of a windmill-powered drainage system for a polder. The area was studded with more windmills than you’ve ever seen in any one place. But other than the thrill of seeing lots of windmills near each other, there wasn’t much more to recommend the site.

* Slot Loevestein. Grade: B. A nice 14th century castle bordered by two scenic rivers. The renovations were nice but the tour itself was oddly unenlightening. Getting to the castle involved an adventurous tour through surprisingly bucolic Dutch countryside.

* Free walking tour of Amsterdam by New Amsterdam tours. Grade: A. This free walking tour was a great introduction to the city and visited most of the highlights in the central city, including Dam Square, the Royal Palace, the New Church, the Old Church and the Waag. The guides impress upon their audience that they work for tips, but our guide did work hard and it was a bargain even with the tip.

* Canal boat tour. Grade: B. This was a bit of a disappointment. The canals make for a pretty tour, but the boat tour was not much more insightful than just walking around.

* Red Light District walking tour (I also took a tour by New Amsterdam tours). Grade: A. The Red Light District is fascinating, but I was not comfortable walking around there on my own. Numerous people there were surly and unfriendly and, in many cases, drunk. Fortunately, the tour answered all of my questions. One note about the women in the windows: most of them looked incredibly bored–while waiting, they were smoking, filing their nails and checking their cellphones.

* Van Gogh Museum. Grade: A. At its core, a great museum requires great content, and this museum has that. Van Gogh’s work is moody and amazing, and it is so much more vibrant and electrifying in person than in washed-out reprints. His paintings virtually jumped off the walls crackling with excellence, even when placed side-by-side with works of other extremely talented artists. I spent several hours at this museum and enjoyed every minute. I bought my ticket in advance and skipped a 200 person long line. Afternoons are less crowded than mornings.

* Jewish History Museum. Grade: A-. On my trip, I wanted to understand why the Dutch were so tolerant of the Jews compared to all other Europeans. This museum did not directly answer the question, but it came close.

Amsterdam’s Jewish community initially populated by Portuguese Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Amsterdam had already established its economy on trading, and the Portuguese Jews brought valuable trading contacts (especially with other Jews spread out as part of the Diaspora). Plus, Amsterdam itself was already composed of plenty of transplants.

Thus, a symbiotic economic relationship developed. The Portuguese Jews brought significant extra wealth to Amsterdam, and thus they were tolerated. I missed the time window to see the Portuguese Synagogue (it has limited hours), but given its importance to the Portuguese Jewish community, I wish I could have seen it. Ironically, at the same time the Portuguese Jews were ascending in the Amsterdam community, Catholicism was officially banned in Amsterdam–creating a bizarre situation where Jews were legal and Catholics were not.

Counterintuitively, then, the Sephardic Jews initially were the wealthy Jewish community. Meanwhile, the Ashkenazim Jews from Eastern Europe were poor, but the Portuguese Jews provided economic support for them, which in turn meant that the Amsterdammers tolerated the Ashkenazim as well. Eventually, the Portuguese Jewish community was economically ruined by the Dutch East India company’s collapse, while the Ashkenazim Jews ascended in wealth and prominence and started providing economic support for the Sephardics. Eventually, the Holocaust destroyed the Amsterdam Jewish community.

If you’re at all interested in Jewish history, especially Amsterdam’s unique relationship with the Jewish community, I enthusiastically recommend the museum. I allocated only 70 minutes; it would have benefited from 2 hours or more.

* Anne Frank House. Grade: A. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable that Anne Frank’s story gets more attention than the stories of millions of other Holocaust victims. Nevertheless, Anne Frank’s story is poignant and heart-wrenching. The self-guided tour tells her story very well without being overly sentimental. It subtly communicates the tragedy of her death and how the world is less rich without her–and the millions of other Jews (and others) whose lives were cut short.

Meanwhile, the museum provides a glimpse into the duality that many Dutch feel towards the Jewish community–the Franks and van Pels were saved by Dutch gentiles, but many Dutch feel that they didn’t do enough to resist the German persecution of Dutch Jews. I sensed this psychological duality continues even today.

I bought my ticket in advance, which required me to set a specific time appointment. This helped skip a long line. Going in the late afternoon meant I wasn’t crowded in the small rooms.

* Rijksmuseum (the Dutch National Museum). Grade: A. What I loved most about this museum is that it didn’t try to cover all of Dutch history. Instead, it focused on the Dutch “golden age” in the 17th century when Amsterdam was one of the wealthiest and most sophisticated metropolises in the world. The amount of wealth that flowed into Amsterdam during that period is staggering, and the Rijksmuseum presented the opulence in all its glory. The silverwork, pottery, furniture and other craftworks were all remarkable; the dollhouses were especially mind-blowing. Also, in a collection of remarkable Renaissance paintings, Rembrandt’s skill, use of light and ability to manufacture drama stood out against his talented peers.

* Begijnhof. Grade: B-. This is an old part of the city, including the oldest wooden house from the 15th Century, an old convent-like community, and a 16th Century English Reformed church. It’s a peaceful oasis in a dense and crowded city. But there really wasn’t much of interest to see, although I did enjoy the church, which has catered to an English-speaking community for centuries. A bonus freebie: I went back through the Amsterdam Historical Museum, which has a free-admission hallway filled with 17th century old master paintings of militia companies (another rare freebie).

* Vondelpark. Grade: B. Vondelpark is the biggest park near Amsterdam’s city center, and it is well loved by Amsterdammers. On a warm early June evening about 7 pm (the high latitude means that the sun is still high in the sky at that time), the pathways were packed with bikers, runners, skaters and others. The park was laid out in a typical Europe manner–tightly constructed with every element carefully organized–although at least we could walk on the grass (unlike the Paris parks). I personally do not like these overly manicured parks very much. There’s something to be said for raw nature, not nature reinterpreted by people. I also got nervous for my personal safety in some of the less well-traveled parts of the park, especially around stoner hill where everyone was brashly toking up in public.

* Amsterdam’s Flea Markets. Grade: C. No bargains, but lots of junk. Cities in the Arctic joke that they are where cars go to die…Amsterdam flea markets are where junk goes to die.

* Amsterdam Architecture. Grade: A. Amsterdam is a beautiful city, especially in the city center. It has a beautiful foundation of 17th century architecture that has retained its feel, but the more recent additions–especially from the 19th century–are also beautiful.

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The vegetarian scene in the Netherlands was generally OK. Amsterdam had a number of good vegetarian destinations. I especially enjoyed a satisfying but basic meal at De Waaghals (“the dare devil”) near de Pijp, although at the cost of about 20 euros.

Some odd standardization issues. To turn on a light switch in the Netherlands, you press down (normally, in the US, you press up). And to flush a toilet typically requires a push button rather than depressing a lever. I wonder why there hasn’t been international standardization on these user interfaces? Also wondering why the Europeans don’t use a top sheet on their beds…?

A final observation: the Dutch are tall. I am about 5′ 8″, and I looked eye-to-eye with most Dutch women and looked up to just about every Dutch male. Even the bathroom urinals are set high, presumably for the tall Dutch men.

Paris

See my photo album of Paris.

There’s little I can say about Paris that hasn’t been said many times before. Let me group my overview reactions into “things I liked” and things I didn’t.

Things I liked:

* the tourist attractions. World class. More commentary on some of those attractions in a moment.

* walking around. Paris’ architecture is beautiful. I was surprised how much of the architecture dated to the mid-19th century and not earlier. This is due to the city’s redesign then. But the mid-19th century architecture was very aesthetically pleasing. I liked the flourish and details, the pretty stone, and the wrought iron fences around window balconies and patios. More generally, Paris was full of visual treats everywhere. I felt there was a surprise around every corner. The main attractions were also close together, making it easy to walk everywhere.

* the metro. It was PACKED during rush hour, but the metro gets high marks for convenience. There were stations everywhere, and the wait for another train was rarely more than 2-3 minutes.

Things I didn’t like:

* the crowds. More than anything, my dominant memory of Paris will be standing in line. There were lines for everything! Of course this is especially true for the tourist attractions, although I didn’t go during peak tourist season. I can understand why Parisians tire of Americans, because we overran the town. At the top of the Eiffel Tower, almost everyone was speaking American English. Paris is a pretty dense city and the ratio of tourists to resident Parisians is uncomfortably high in the summer.

* the weather. In a word, it sucked. At its best in mid-June, it was 70 and sunny but hazy and humid. More typically, it was overcast and humid, with drizzle, rain and even thunderstorms.

* the expense. Paris is expensive like any big city, but it was hard for tourists to find any bargains. Money just flies out of the wallet, especially when eating out. But I did like the cheap baguettes.

* Charles de Gaulle airport. I can’t recall a more baffling airport to navigate.

* all the smokers…everywhere (but fortunately not inside restaurants).

Some comments about the tourist attractions:

* Notre Dame Cathedral. Grade: A. This was a truly amazing building. The details were incredible. I would have loved to spend more time exploring this treasure. If my travels take me back to Paris, I will definitely revisit.

* Eiffel Tower. Grade: A. The Eiffel Tower is beautiful to look at, the views from it are spectacular, and it epitomizes superlatives (i.e., once the tallest building in the world). However, I was most impressed with its elegant engineering. Every design choice is a remarkable monument to late 19th century ingenuity. As a result, I’m giving it an A despite its two structural limitations as a tourist attraction. First, it is super-crowded, so the lines and overall mass of humanity can be ridiculously oppressive. Worse, in June the weather improves in the afternoon…exactly the peak time for crowds. Second, the Eiffel Tower has some interpretative material about its construction and engineering, mostly on the 1st floor (which they didn’t even merit a stop on the way up). However, the materials are poorly laid out and surprisingly thin. The Eiffel Tower would benefit from a bona fide museum to showcase its brilliance.

* Arc de Triomphe. Grade: B. The Arc de Triomphe is a stunning monument. It is a cultural icon and aesthetically beautiful–grand in scale but also replete with wonderful details. I was especially interested in the 500+ military generals permanently inscribed in the monument (some in larger lettering than others). It’s an interesting social statement about what the community rewarded (the leaders, not necessarily unexpected “heroes”). I saw similar celebrations of 19th century individual accomplishments throughout Paris.

The monument is an “A” attraction, but I downgraded it because the paid admission was surprisingly a tourist trap. For 9 euros, I got access to the interior, which was supposed to be a museum but was remarkably content-free, and the rooftop–a nice view but partially duplicative with the Eiffel Tower’s views. I could have gotten 90%+ of the value of visiting the monument from the free portions (which allow you to visit the exterior base) without paying the admission fee.

* Champs-Élysées. Grade: C. I’m not much of a shopper. especially at the high end, so this was not a place for me. It reminded me a lot of Magnificent Mile in Chicago (not a compliment). The most remarkable thing is that I saw at least 2 McDonalds within a few blocks of each other.

* the Louvre. Grade: A-. This is probably the most spectacular museum I’ve been to. The massive and palatial physical setting lets you know, before you even get started, that this is not your ordinary museum. Then, the collection. Wow. I started with some “highlights”–the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, etc. All cultural icons. Then I went a little deeper into the Roman and Greek antiquities, the 19th century French paintings, the Italian late medieval and Renaissance paintings, and the French sculptures. The Louvre’s collection is overwhelming, so perhaps it’s better to think of the Louvre as about 10 museums in one, each of which would be among the world’s finest if separated out.

I was blown away by the depth of each collection. It was dramatic evidence of the immense wealth that flows to the capital city of a colonial imperialist. The museum has so many treasures, it doesn’t know what to do with them all. The “throw-away” items stashed obscurely in a corner each would be the centerpiece attraction at almost every other museum. I ended up spending a couple extra hours at the Louvre more than I had planned, as I kept addictively negotiating with myself “just one more room.”

So why only an A-? Four knocks on the Louvre. First, they advertised an English highlights tour that I built my day’s schedule around, but it was canceled without any notice when I showed. Second, I got the audio tour, but the first machine konked out on me in the middle of the museum, costing me valuable time to go back to replace it (there were at least 3 of us who showed up simultaneously with failed machines–apparently the handheld devices aren’t very reliable). Third, the museum layout is thoroughly confusing. For example, it took me quite some time to figure out how to enter the sculpture garden. Finally, the Louvre is (surprise!) massively overcrowded, in many places oppressively so, although I did go to some rooms that were refreshingly quiet.

* Tuileries Garden. Grade: B. A typical and large Parisian manicured garden (no enjoying the grass) between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde. There were fewer flowers than I may have expected, but I got excellent views in every direction.

* The Jewish Quarter. Grade: B. An especially old part of the city with apartments towering over narrow streets. There was evidence of a robust Jewish community, including synagogues and kosher butchers, but the community is now a small fraction of its former self. Still, I liked poking around, but I would have benefited from taking a guided tour of the area.

* Walking along the Seine. Grade: B. Every walk in Paris is a treat, but walking along the Seine wasn’t clearly better than other walks. I got a little nervous for my personal safety going through dark underpasses.

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Paris was generally a disconcerting place for a vegetarian tourist. Although I found I was able to communicate successfully with most Parisian servers, I still inherently distrusted the vegetarianism of dishes at non-vegetarian restaurants no matter what the server said. I had competent vegetarian meals at Le Potager du Marais and Le Grenier de Notre Dame (Paris’ most venerable vegetarian restaurant–30+ years old). Both weren’t cheap (20+ euros), and each meal consisted mostly of unrelated mounds of different food on the same plate–a very different conception of a vegetarian meal than in the US.

Although generally it was easier for me to communicate in the Netherlands than Paris, Paris was a more friendly tourist destination in two ways. First, it was easier to find water and free public bathrooms. Second, it was easier to use credit cards in Paris than the Netherlands. The Dutch aren’t big fans of Mastercard/Visa. However, unlike the Netherlands, many French attractions only had narratives in French with no English translations.