Spring Break, Part 1: The Mainland
Here I am, back at my desk in Dublin and facing the halfway point of the Spring Break that marks the halfway point of my time here in Ireland. So far, as any reader of this blog can probably tell, it’s been quite the adventure. And, despite all the great things I’ve done and seen, I think the happenings of this current break might just take the cake as the most enjoyable part of my time here thus far. Without further ado, let me fill you in on my recent adventures in the wonderful cities of Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
Early one Friday morning, I hopped on a flight from Dublin to the Amsterdam airport, where I met up with a close friend from my home university who is currently studying abroad elsewhere in Europe. After a joyful reunion outside of customs, the two of us dove right into what has to be one of the most unique and notorious cities on the planet. Unlike my friend, I had already had the pleasure of visiting Amsterdam once before, and came away from that first trip with a great impression of the place. And, fortunately for both my friend and I, this second visit to the Dutch capital was just as enjoyable, if not more so.
Amsterdam is a very old, canal-based city perched upon a dam across the Amstel River. Flat and accessible, the streets are mostly cobbled and the houses lean out over the street (a tactic devised to make moving furniture simpler), giving Amsterdam an intimate and old-world appearance that contrasts nicely with the modern-day bustle. Bikes are very popular among the Dutch, but the city is far from fast-paced. Traffic is intimidating, as crosswalks are irrelevant and close calls are frequent, but one of the things that stuck out to me about Amsterdam was that the foot traffic, the pedestrians, moved at a notably slower pace than those of most European cities that I’ve visited. The streets hummed with strolling, easy conversation, as opposed to the non-nonsense or matter-of-fact pace of cities like New York or London. This gave us plenty of time to take in the city from street level, catching up as friends and looking over the ornate and quirky Dutch architecture.
Over the course of five days, we spent countless hours wandering the city, catching some sun in the Vondelpark, chatting with friendly Amsterdammers, and checking out some very hip eateries with many delicious offerings (Pllek, Studio/K, and Burger Bar, to name just a few). For the most part we tried to stay off the beaten path of touristy locales, and as a result we stumbled across some very interesting parts of the city, such as the graffiti-covered NDSM Docklands and a university that had been taken over by students engaging in anti-capitalism protests and self-imposed, democratic learning. We also spent one afternoon on a fun and informative bike tour led by a witty Irish ex-pat with waist-length dreadlocks and a big smile.
Now, as you may know, Amsterdam is most infamous for legalizing just about everything. Weed is legal. Prostitution is legal. Gay marriage is legal. Even certain hallucinogens and other substances are legal. While I wont divulge the level to which I interacted with this side of the city, I will say that, as an experiment, the Dutch mindset is both fascinating and generally successful. Crime is relatively low and I felt very safe walking just about everywhere I went, including the presumably seedier streets of the Red Light District. Interestingly, all of the would-be-criminal industries are governmentally regulated and taxed just like any other. That means prostitutes have health insurance, drug dealers have pay property tax, and so on. From what I could tell, the success of these regulations is bolstered by a certain air of “live and let live” in Dutch society. Even if people aren’t interested in paying for sex or smoking joints themselves, no one really bats an eye at those who do, and they certainly don’t want them thrown in jail. Legalization carries with it gradual de-stigmatization, and over time that has led the people of Amsterdam to become some of the most accepting and open-minded I have ever come across. After five days, my friend and I were wiped out but still wide-eyed with content, and neither of us can wait to be back in Amsterdam again some day.
Flying from Amsterdam, my friend and I then headed north to spend a couple days in Copenhagen. Similar to Amsterdam, I had visited Copenhagen before. My sister spent her own study abroad semester there two years ago and I got the chance to meet up with here then. As a result, I was already somewhat familiar with the charming Danish capital. Upon landing, the two of us met up with a handful of other friends who are currently based in Copenhagen and we all set out to enjoy the town together.
I have always found Copenhagen to be a clean, spacious, and extremely welcoming city. Most Danes speak at least passable English and there is little evident hostility towards tourists. Architecturally, there is a fantastic mix of old and new, from the various church spires that dot the city’s skyline to the ultra-sleek Black Diamond library. Copenhagen is also considered to be one of the greenest cities in the world, with wind power rapidly gaining popularity and over 50 percent of commuters choosing bicycles over cars and public transport. Lucky for my friends and I, we got visited on one of the warmest days of the season, and we spent many highly enjoyable hours combing the streets from the vast Tivoli Gardens to the colorful Nyhavn harbor.
For me, one of the most fascinating areas of Copenhagen is a place known as Christiania. In the 1970’s, it was established by a group of squatters as being autonomous from both Denmark and the entire European Union. While this is not technically a reality, the goings-on within Christiania are incredibly distinct. People build and paint their own houses, almost all of the materials are recycled, and the residents live by a simple set of rules laid out on a hand-painted sign by the entrance. Dogs and farm animals roam freely, residents and tourists alike stroll around the scenic lake that lies within the property, and peddlers of all sorts ply their trade. Though life inside it might seem worlds away from the rest of modern Copenhagen, Christiania is a remarkable example of Denmark culture and is one of the aspects that makes the city one of my favorites in the world.
Finally, my time in Copenhagen held one of my favorite evenings in recent memory. As I mentioned, my sister briefly studied in Copenhagen. For her time there, she was lucky enough to be matched with a family homestay. And, in my own time, I was lucky enough to meet her family when I visited her. Through the wonders of the internet, I managed to reconnect with that same family, and they graciously opened their home to two of my close friends and I. The group of us, Americans and Danes together, spent a remarkably pleasant evening at the dinner table with a home-cooked meal and many hours of lively conversation. There is a very apt Danish word for this sort of thing: hygge. While direct translation is difficult, the idea of hygge is having a warm, cozy space that is completely devoid of nuisance or distraction where one can be perfectly comfortable and happy. Needless to say, that night was chock-full of hygge for everyone involved. That evening, I slept better than I have in many, many moons, my stomach full and my mind devoid of worry.
When it was all said and done, this visit to Copenhagen was an unforgettable one. Not only did I get to discover new aspects of the city, but I was also surrounded by warmth and friendship for the entirety of my stay. That, my dear readers, is the best way to travel the world. Take my word for it.
And now, I’m back on the Emerald Island, just in time for hoards of international visitors to descend onto Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day. Honestly, I’ve been here for two months, but I have no idea what to expect out of this holiday. It might get a bit hectic, but I think I’ll be able to navigate through and have my fun. Any way, I’m looking forward to it immensely. I’ll let you know how it goes in a couple days. Until then.