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1 August, 2005

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In Amsterdam, even the dogs are more relaxed.


Most restaurants have a cat that usually interacts and visits with the customers. This one had three, all black.


No matter where you go, there are scores of bicycles parked all around.


One of the less touristy blocks where I found a launderette.

1 August, 2005

Day 16. I think I actually got more than five hours sleep which felt pretty amazing. Hanneke and Sasja (my future trans-Siberian travel partners) were kind enough to put no less than four of us in their Amsterdam flat: Mike, Redhackt, Redbird, and me. We talked and played with computers long into the night until we passed out one by one leaving only Redhackt to continue talking in his sleep. Arseny, Bernie, and Greg Newby stayed in a nearby hotel.

Today was basically a recuperation day where we just set out to relax and not worry about too much. Amsterdam is a great place for this. But one thing Mike and I had to worry about was doing laundry so we set out to find a laundromat. We found a launderette instead which I think means that they do your laundry for you. We were both disappointed that we wouldn't get to spend several hours sitting in an overheated room watching our clothes spin and feeding in all sorts of coins. Instead we handed our two bags to a group of Indian men who said we could come back in an hour. The whole transaction lasted no more than five seconds. No receipt, no name, nothing. They operated on pure recognition apparently. Once again, never in America.

Being one of my first tastes of Europe back in 1989, Amsterdam has always held a certain sort of magic for me. Here was a place where people seemed to trust one another, where fun wasn't a dirty word, and where diversity thrived. Unfortunately, in the ensuing years things have been changing. The government has grown more conservative leading to more restrictions, rules, and bureaucracy. The European Union has had an effect on the sovereignty of the Netherlands, with the newest changes more likely to come from Brussels than from The Hague. More recently there was the savage killing of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in November by an Islamic extremist (Mohammed Bouyeri) who was only last week sentenced to life in prison for the crime. Apparently this nut was offended by one of his films entitled "Submission" which deals with the way women are treated in fundamentalist Islamic households. Bouyeri is as representative of Islam as a box of Twinkies but that hasn't stopped a backlash against Muslims and an anti-immigration sentiment that appears to be growing. Ironically the killer was raised right here his whole life, not unlike the London bombers.

But the town and country are pretty far from going to shit in my opinion. All of the negativity can be reversed and there seems to be a much greater chance of that here than there is back home. It seems possible to at least have a dialogue in the Netherlands and bring these issues out. I don't often get that feeling in the States yet I always come back with a renewed sense of optimism after visiting this place. Between the coffeeshops, red light district, mixture of the really old with the really new, and the tourists from every part of the world imaginable, Amsterdam will always be a sort of transfer point between many different worlds. I hope the Dutch defend their unique way of doing things as fiercely as they can. Because the rest of us need them.

Near Centraal Station there is a really good soup place called the Soup Kitchen appropriately enough. A bunch of us met over there to get jump started and it worked quite well as it always does. We didn't really have a plan for the day so we were taking it slowly and one step at a time. It was Arseny who suggested that we do some more filming which I agreed to grudgingly since I was already drained from the weekend. So we got the camera and walked all the way to Dam Square and I'm really glad we did. We got quite a bit of good footage here with absolutely no harassment from the authorities which wasn't something I was really expecting. It's also so much easier to do this kind of thing with people helping you approach complete strangers asking them what they think about the world. Arseny and Redhackt did an effective job rounding up people. I'm not in Berlin long enough to really get anything and Warsaw and Minsk will both be tricky at best. So I'm really glad we got something here as it's a good representation of all parts of the globe in and of itself.

I picked up the laundry with no hassle or ID check of any sort and got ready to meet my afternoon train to Berlin. It was great to get a sendoff from all my friends and rather emotional too since I knew I wouldn't see most of them for quite a while and when I did I will have crossed the remainder of the globe. Train departures in Europe always have that emotional aspect to them and people often spend a great deal of time waving to those they are leaving.

At this point I feel compelled to make a correction about something I said last week when I claimed that the Dutch word for elevator was "trap." It's not. That's the word for staircase. Elevators are lifts here, just like in England. I hope that didn't cause too much unnecessary confusion.

The train left right on schedule and right away there was a bit of confusion. The conductor said that it wasn't necessary to change trains at Hannover like our tickets said since this train would also be going to Berlin. If we changed at Hannover, we could get a faster train (known as an ICE train) but we also had the option of just staying put. Well, that sounded just fine to me since I wasn't a big fan of lugging baggage from one place to another. I got a nice snack which consisted of two frankfurters and a small round bun. The German way of doing this involves running the frankfurter through the bun somehow which winds up leaving an obscene amount of frankfurter protruding from either end. It's just one of those things that doesn't make sense to me. But when in Rome....

We stopped at the border and I saw a couple of immigration people get on the next car. Yes, they still do have some sort of border check but it's about as loose as you can imagine. Not too loose though as I saw two guys get taken off the train. I'm not sure what kind of violation keeps you from moving between EU states. But whatever it was, it kept those immigration guys from ever making it into our car and we proceeded ahead into German territory.

We arrived in Hannover while I was busy working on my computer. After a few minutes of nothing happening, I realized that I was the only person in the car. Sure enough, the German conductor came by a couple of minutes later and said that the train was finished or German words to that effect. The Dutch conductor had been wrong. Either that or he enjoyed telling people impossible things would happen in distant lands while he was on his way back to Amsterdam. So I had to scramble to get off the train and catch the next one. Fortunately, the way things are set up here, you can immediately find out where the train you need will be arriving so the five minutes I had was more than enough time.

Unfortunately this new train was more crowded and my entire car was tormented by a screaming toddler who was given the run of the whole train apparently by her parents. We all just tolerated it and tried to bury ourselves in whatever we were doing.

About an hour later we arrived in Berlin and I hopped onto the S Bahn to get to the hotel I was staying at. Here's something cool: when you buy a ticket to Berlin you automatically get a pass on the city's suburban and underground train system (S Bahn and U Bahn). So there's no scrambling to buy another ticket. You just move from one platform to another and get where you have to go. There also isn't a turnstile so you can keep the thing in your pocket or wherever. If you get stopped without a ticket you'll have problems so people tend to buy them. These two ways of doing things really cuts down on congestion and panic. And it makes you feel like an adult.

As I was hopping onto a wireless network in the hotel, I had the TV on in the background tuned to some random German station when the weirdest thing happened. I heard the words "Queen Mary 2" and when I looked up, there it was on the television. The Germans were making a big deal of it as it was passing by Hamburg for the first time on its way to Norway. They did a 15 minute piece on it, most of which flew right by me. But it was pretty cool to think that the two of us are both still plodding eastward.