It felt like a proper European tour would not be complete without a stop in Amsterdam. With this in mind, we set off with our host, Michael, to visit his friend, Marijke, who lives in a town just outside Amsterdam. We timed our visit so that we would be in Holland for Queen’s Day, or Koninginnedag, which is a celebration on the scale of Canada Day at home, except the red and white is replaced with neon orange. This also meant that we were driving to Holland during tulip season, so the fields we passed in the car were filled with wide rows of multi-coloured tulips, which looked like rectangular rainbows.
The eve of Queen’s Day is a massive party in itself, so we walked through downtown Alkmaar, where the streets were congested with people. The weather was warm, and people were drinking beers in plastic cups, crowding around bar patio tables. It reminded me a little of a typical summer night in Ontario. We chatted with a Dutch couple who added to the chorus of locals who were warning us that it would be better to visit Amsterdam the day after Queen’s Day – unless being swallowed by a crowd of drunk Dutch people was our idea of a fun time. Everyone seemed to concur that Queen’s Day in Alkmaar would be equal the party of Amsterdam, but half the crowd, and so we decided to make Alkmaar our Queen’s Day headquarters.
We arrived downtown again early the next morning, and the party was already in full swing. The weather was perfect, summer-hot. There were street performers, fair-style food, and stands that sold tiny cans of Heinekan. Hundreds of locals had rolled out blankets on the street or set up small tables where they placed second hand items to sell. This is a Queen’s Day tradition – an almost city-wide yard sale. There wasn’t much to do besides allow ourselves to be swept up in the flow of people, drink some beer, enjoy all the live music and maximize the use of our only Dutch phrase “Dank-u-wel”. It was loud, crowded and exciting.
By late afternoon, exhausted by the crowd, the heat and the beers, we went back to Marijke’s house for a nap. A few hours later, we returned downtown to the mother of all post-party scenes. The streets were covered by a layer of discarded plastic cups. The canals were flooded with Heinekan cans and stray orange decorations. There were a few stragglers from the earlier crowd wading through the plastic cups with the disoriented walk of those who have been drinking since the early morning and haven’t stopped all day. It was as though the city itself was letting out a tired sigh after a long, busy day.
The next day, after a short train ride, we were in Amsterdam. We took a boat tour through the canals, which were lined to capacity with houseboats of every shape and size, from run-down canoes to full-on floating houses. Like in Alkmaar, there were bike paths everywhere. The streets were crammed with bikes; they were chained to every signpost and bridge; there were even entire parking garages designated for bike lock-up. We saw narrow buildings, cafes with marijuana leaf logos, and a multitude of bridges. The boat tour was the perfect way to take in Amsterdam as a whole, to feel it out. I liked its vibe.
Somehow, when I imagined the red light district, I thought there would be women peering out of small windows, partially hidden behind curtains, in houses with glowing red interior lighting. It turned out to be far less subtle. Instead, they stood in full-length, transparent glass doors that had neon red lights shining overhead like a cab’s available light. If a person knocked, the woman would open her door, invite him into her cubicle, and draw a thick red curtain across the glass. The rooms were lined up side-by-side down the street, allowing gawkers to compare and contrast each as they walked.
For our last week in Germany, Michael taught us Reiki, which is a hands on healing technique. He showed us the hand positions used to carry out a basic treatment and initiated us, which allows us to access the energy needed to perform treatments. Virtually everyone associated with the retreat centre is a Reiki practitioner or Master, so it seemed like an appropriate keepsake to take away from our time here. Once a person is initiated into Reiki, they carry the ability with them for the rest of their life.
It’s a strange feeling when we leave a host family. For a brief period when we’re with them, we become part of a community. There are moments of bonding, and moments when we are frustrated with one another; yet, for better or worse, they are the only home we know for a time. We share their joys and sorrows, and many intimate aspects of their lives. Then, just as suddenly as we integrated into their world, they drop us off at a train station and we say goodbye forever. We talk about where we’ll go next, and they talk about the next set of workawayers they have arriving. They easily smooth over the nook that we carved out in their lives. There’s a moment where Brent and I stand alone at the station, stripped again of a home and a family, and realize that it really is just the two of us and our bags.