01 September 2014

Amsterdam Tips and Hints


Every article I read about Amsterdam starts off telling saying there is more to the city than pot smoking and hookers. Since I'm not in the target market for either of those, I'm damn glad there was more or I'd have been pretty bored.

Actually, the image I had of Amsterdam was more of windmills and tulips. And cheese. Never forget the cheese.  By the time I left, the major image I had of the city was of young girls flying down the streets on bicycles with their blonde hair streaming out behind them.



I arrived in Amsterdam on a Friday night and spent the weekend then headed off to see more of the country, return for another two nights to meet up with friends. In retrospect, that was a bad, bad idea. I should've headed out of the city for the weekend.

Which brings me to Amsterdam tip number 1:

Do not spend the weekend in Amsterdam if you don't like crowds especially crowds of British chavs on bucks party weekends.

If you do visit on a weekend, don't even think of going to any major galleries or attractions without prebooked tickets. The lines for the Van Gogh gallery were insane. I quit and decided to go back later in the week.

Good things to do on the weekend in Amsterdam (with no crowds or lines):

These aren't off the beaten track ideas. With a few days to spend sightseeing, none of that I'm a traveller not a tourist crap for me. These were just some of the easiest things to do around town if you haven't rebooked or organised anything.

Stedelijk Museum


Stedelijk Museum

I'm not sure why this gallery lacked the lines of other galleries but I managed to walk straight in with no waiting and it ended up being my favourite out of the galleries I visited. I loved that the art work was accessible - no thick security glass over the paintings so all you see is reflections. I also loved that, while having a solid collection of paintings, the museum offers so much more - lots of design stuff including posters and furniture and even a lego room for you to create your own art (trust me, that was filled with adults not kids!)

The House of Bols

House of Bols

Play around with the liqueurs, doing smell tests and that kind of thing,then find out a bit about the history of genever and liqueur making..  At the end of the tour, you get a cocktail and a couple of shots. A good way of getting mellow to face the outside world again.

You can do cocktail making classes and hands on stuff but that didn't fit into my holiday timetable.

The Sex Museum

This exhibit blew out puffs of smoke!

It's as touristy as fuck (no pun intended) and you'll leave with your eyeballs oversaturated with sex but it seems like the kind of thing you should do on a weekend in Amsterdam. If you are a fan of Benny Hill, you'd probably love this place.

For me, the best part was the vintage porn -- gay guys with handlebar moustaches looking very grim about every position and 'dirty' beachside postcards.  The worst were the moving displays that glorified flashers and prostitution.

***

It's also good to head to some of the more interesting neighbourhoods outside the city centre and just walk around. If you do that, don't forget my second tip:

Do not even think about catching a tram in Amsterdam without validating your ticket.
Amsterdam trams have a conductor in a little booth on the tram. That makes it easy to buy tickets on board and ask questions.  But, if you get on board without a ticket or, like me, figure it's better to grab the only empty seat rather than head to the back to swipe your valid ticket, DON'T.  The conductor will yell stuff over the intercom like "hey you, the woman in the very cute polka dot dress, valid your ticket." Well I assume that's what she said since it was in Dutch. Then everyone on the tram glares you until you get up and valid your ticket.

When I returned to Amsterdam later in the week, it was a much better experience. I'm not sure if that was because the crowds weren't as intense or being with friends made it more comfortable. We did manage to fit in some more touristing though including:

NEMO Science Centre

Not the kind of place I'd normally go but one of the friends had her young son so we skipped the actual science part and hang out on the upper deck which is build with on levels with water flowing down the middle and lots of games, puzzles etc for big and little kids. The place also has awesome views of the city.

Red Light District Crime Tour

If you want to visit the Red Light District without feeling like you are just there to gawk at hookers, this is a great way to do it. To me, the whole area was kinda depressing and sad but then I find it difficult to work out the point of paying someone for sex.

Canal Cruise


I thought this would be as boring as all hell but it ended up being a heap of fun. You really do get to see a different side of Amsterdam from the canals. Because there was a group of us, we had our own boat and brought alone snacks and drinks. Our tour guide/driver kept us amused with his commentary about the history and culture of Amsterdam with some not so clean stories.

Accommodation:

The first few days in Amsterdam, I stayed at an AirBnB apartment near Vondelpark, which ended up being right out of the centre of the city but still close enough to walk if I wanted. I had my own space  except for sharing the bathroom with the owner (he had a separate toilet, he just used the shower).  It cost $47 a night, cheaper for me because I had a discount voucher, and I got two bedrooms plus a living area with basic cooking facilities (kettle, microwave and fridge) plus breakfast included.


For the last two nights, we stayed at the Lloyd Hotel which is unusual in that it has rooms from 1 to 5 stars. That worked out well for the group of us because you aren't forced into compromising to suit everyone.

It's also unusual because it's an institutional building converted into a hotel. We thought it'd been a mental hospital but did some research and found out otherwise. It had been used for many purposes including housing immigrants but no mental hospital history. It did have that feeling though.



It's not a hotel I'd wholeheartedly recommend. I felt like it had a vibe of "we are so hipster cool that if you don't like something, it's because you are not hipster enough to understand it."

The things it did well, it did really well but there were a few areas that were totally lacking. My room (the one centre bottom above) had an open shower - just a shower head on the wall. I'm not sure if you can see it in the photo but it's behind the sink. Now, having lived in Japan, I'm used to open showers.  Except that you'd assume with an open shower the floor would be designed to slope down to the drain. Nope. I got a squeegee to dry the floor with!

I retired for a short nap to refresh after a day of touristing and stupidly ate some chocolate peanuts while reading my book. Don't ever do that, especially at a hotel. If you drop one and don't realise, the chocolate melts into the sheets and it looks like you pooped the bed!

I tried to clean it with one of the towels then left it for housekeeping.

When I got back to my room later, the bed was made. Yay! Clean sheets. Except the sheets weren't clean. They were the same dirty ones. Even worse, after my shower the next day I got the clean, folded towel out of the cupboard and yep, it was the dirty one from the day before. I have no idea why housekeeping would take a used towel off the towel rack, fold it and put it back in the cupboard.

It was a charming building though with great public areas including play areas for kids. It was only a short tram ride to Central Station on one train and a longer tram ride on another tram to a lot of the tourist areas + gay area (we did hit the gay area for a few drinks). We also caught a bus back from NEMO.

Well, that's a huge post and pretty much everything I discovered about Amsterdam.  I felt like I barely scratched the surface during my time there and would love to return again some time.

30 August 2014

How do you deal with creeps?

When I was in Italy, I got into a situation that I reckon has happened to every woman on this planet at least once.

I'd been to dinner and was walking home, minding my own business when a guy popped up beside me and started chatting. I had no interest in him at all and felt uncomfortable with him walking beside me but he was just chatting politely. No need to over-react, right?

I answered his questions in mono-syllables and tried to shake him off. Enough to give any guy with perception the hint. He stuck by me. I tried to keep pace a few steps behind a family walking in front because there weren't many people around.

The guy asked if I felt lonely on my own. I told him I liked it.  He asked me to go for a drink with him. I said I wasn't interested.

The family stopped to buy cigarettes from a machine just before the turn to where I was staying. To get to my flat, I had to walk down an empty street that curved so you couldn't see it for the main street. By this stage, I just wanted the guy to piss off before I had to walk down that street. 

I said goodbye to him and he followed me.

He told me he wanted a kiss. He'd never kissed an Australian before. Just one kiss, just for a minute...

We had a skirmish and I wondered if he was interested in more than a kiss... not the sex stuff but in grabbing my handbag.

I hurried back to the main street in full view of the family, still trying to buy cigarettes and told the guy to leave me alone. I wasn't interested. I took my keys out of my bag and made sure it was well fastened and securely across my body.

He made as though he was walking off and I turned back down my street.  He followed me, threw me against the wall and tried to kiss me.

At that point, I yelled at him and he ran off like a little bitch.

Luckily, that was enough to scare him off.  Luckily also that the people I rented my flat from lived downstairs so I knew I had that security. If he'd kept following me, I could've ran their door bell when I returned to the building.

It fucks me off that I even have to deal with a situation like this. That I've had to deal with it in the past and will continue to deal with it in the future until maybe one day I become so aged, I achieve invisibility. 

The guy was obviously trolling the streets until he found a woman so drunk or scared of his bullying that she'd have sex with him. You can use a lot of fancy words for that, but it's rape.  Bullying or harassing a woman into saying yes is not consent.

At what point would you take action in a situation like this? 

I mean, he started out polite enough even if he did make me feel uncomfortable from the first. 

When he touched me, trying to kiss, when I'd told him not to, he'd definitely crossed the line but I still had a sense of wanting to be polite and keep things calm. Maybe I should've got angry then.

When I posted about this on facebook, a few people said I should've kicked him in the nuts. That's easy to say but there is no way I'm going to escalate the situation to that extend unnecessarily.  If you kick a guy in the nuts you need to be damn sure that a) you don't miss and b) you have somewhere safe to run to close by.

I'd love to know how other women would respond?  Guys too. I'd assume if you are reading my blog, you aren't the kind of guy who'd act like this but you know that women in your life will be in this situation throughout their lives.

28 August 2014

Geneva

Sometimes, you visit a city and are happy to soak in the surface charm knowing you'll never return, other cities invite further investigation.  Then there are places you go that make you think I could live here. Not in that way that is just a traveller's dream with no basis in reality -- I always dream of living in small coastal towns when I visit but I know it's just a daydream. I grew up in a place like that and the reality is harsh.

Geneva is a city where I could definitely see myself living. It's a incredibly beautiful city, situated on Lake Geneva and surrounded by mountains. It has some much charm and character but is a sophisticated city. I became totally in awe of the multi-lingual skills of seemingly every person in the city - shop assistants easily changing language to suit the customers. I wanted to wave my hand and say "hey, I can speak Japanese. I'm not totally stupid..."

Of course, my opinion might be coloured because I stayed with my friend. That always makes a place more accessible. You get the local knowledge on the best places to eat (and, in Geneva, the cheapest, because it's an expensive place to eat) and it becomes so much easier to go on random, wacky adventures.  Plus there's the built in group of friends of friends which beats the hell of the standard traveller conversation.

There are some less favourable aspects to Geneva that I discovered though - it's really fucking expensive. I don't think I could've afford my stay if I'd not been visiting my friend.  The combination of free accommodation, being able to eat at home and his Nespresso machine made it doable. Speaking of coffee, it is expensive and not great.  Maybe, if you take your coffee black, you can survive but I found, not just in Switzerland but everywhere apart from Italy, the coffee is incredibly milky and not delicious. 


After all the difficulties with my flights and having my feet swell up to the size of watermelons, you can imagine how awesome it was to have someone else taking control of my holiday arrangements (and loan me a pair of runners).  We did pack a fair bit in even though I had a helluva time walking.

After about the third or fourth day, we hit the local pharmacy because my feet weren't getting any better -- it'd actually become concerning.  I got some kind of drops to take which included cannabis extract. Not sure how cannabis helps reduce swelling but they worked a treat. The day I could fit into the shoes I'd packed was one of the happiest of my life!

Highlights of my Geneva trip:
  • There's a machine at the bag claim section of the airport where you can get a free train ticket into the city centre. Why don't all cities do this? It's extremely welcoming.
  • Swimming in Lake Geneva - I rarely go swimming but I grabbed some bathers on sale at H&M and hit the water. There's a roped off section for swimming (paid, of course) that includes a great place to eat - my friend says it's the cheapest place to eat in Geneva, and the food was fantastic.
  • Montreux Jazz Festival - apparently it's the most famous jazz festival in the world. We didn't see a single jazz band (the top bands are ticketed performances while we stuck to the free stuff) but the town and the ride on the train were amazingly beautiful and we did get to catch a huge range of music including a fab hip hop band. We also got to drink a lot and visit the little bars that are built out over the lake. My favourite had a cut out section at the bottom where you could sit with your feet in the water.
  • Taxidermied frogs from the 19th century. Hell yeah! My favourite, that you can see above, was the frog riding a squirrel but the collection also included a frog school and frogs playing poker.  The whole town (Estavayer-le-Lac), had frogs swinging between the incredibly charming buildings. 
  • Post-frogs, we headed to Gruyères, stopping for a cheesy lunch where I learned cow bells because incredibly uncharming after about 2 minutes!
  • The castle at Gruyères.


  • Mont Blanc - we went to Chamonix to look at Mont Blanc but the weather was shit and all the cable cars and other attractions were shut (except the Mont Blanc museum which is incredibly lame) so we headed to Italy to see it from the other side. I don't advise doing this because it was only when it was too late - ie. we were at the toll gates with cars banked up behind us -- that we discovered the toll was 50 euro! 
I did, however, much like Percy Shelley, get to write a poem about Mont Blanc:

Mont Blanc, we couldn't see you
because of low visibility
So we went to Italy
to have decent coffee

And the best part was that I got to eat cheese in three different countries on the one day. That was one of the highlights of my trip, if not my life. I'm so Australian that I get crazy excited about being able to go to another country so easily. I only took photos of two of the three cheese meals though :(


  • Geneva cathedral - I'm not sure if this is actually called Geneva cathedral but anyway it's the cathedral in Geneva. As well being able to go inside the cathedral, you can climb to the top but the stairs up are very old and narrow and it can be a bit freaky when you have to squeeze past fat Frenchmen. Totally worth it for the view though.  
You can also head underneath and see all the excavations of the original church and it's history. That was incredibly freaky because you wander around a maze-like pathway with not another tourist in sight.


I also did some other touristy shit like this little train thing that goes around the city but that was boring. I went to the Red Cross museum, which was well put together and thought provoking but didn't go on the United Nations tour because I'd been told it wasn't great.

You can see all of my Geneva photos on google. To be honest, I only used google because I hadn't set up any way of backing up my photos before I left home and, got to my friend's place and couldn't get my camera to register on either of his laptops. Google ended up being the only site I could access via the camera interface.  It's incredibly slow though and even worse because my camera only lets you upload 12 photos at a time. 

26 August 2014

Venice

My time in Venice was extremely limited.  I'd planned on having my first night in Italy to recover from my flight then two half days in Venice but, with the flight delays, I landed and had to head straight to catch my train from Milan to Venice with no rest. Arrived in Venice and lost a lot of time trying to find my Airbnb host (I left the station by the wrong exit and had no way of contacting him until I worked out there was another exit from the station and found a bar with wifi).

By the time everything got resolved, I was probably more exhausted than I'd been since giving birth and my feet had swollen up like balloons. I'd booked to do a ghost tour of Venice that night but realised, when I could barely make it from my room to the bathroom, that it wasn't going to happen.  I was staying in Mestre which is the train station just before you get to the island of Venice and mentally I wasn't even coping with catching that train.

My host got home from work, took one look at me and make me a lovely dinner so I didn't have to leave the house then helped me plan an itinerary for the next day. I went to bed early and got up early the next day to hit the sights before catching my flight to Geneva.


My sister went to Venice about a year or so ago and hated it.  I loved it.  I spend most of the morning wandering down streets with not another tourist in sight,watching shops set up for the day and locals out walking their dogs.

Stopped for my morning coffee and then took an obligatory selfie on the Rialto Bridge.

I hit Piazza San Marco around lunch time as the sun got intense so didn't linger for long and found a quiet spot to have a limone granita since I can't eat much in the heat.  Looking at my pictures now of the fantastic bakery treats, I regret not having a sample though.

Set off for more wandering. I'd wanted to check out the Peggy Guggenheim collection but figured I didn't have time to look for the gallery. Then I just happened to wander by and saw the sign. It's a fantastic collection in the building that was her own home.


I didn't ride a gondola because I figured, like Ferris wheels, they are better to look at than ride on. Also I hate boats.

When I finished my wandering for the day, I wanted to catch the vaporetto (water taxi) back to the station. These were big warning signs against getting on them without a ticket but no ticket machine or kiosk. Some people said you had to watch one of the little gondolas that go across the canal to the other side to buy tickets.

That was as scary as fuck. I have no balance and the driver man kept yelling at me. Then he had to row across, avoiding all the boats and gondolas going down the canal, with the little boat rocking like crazy. And you know those canals are not the cleanest water to fall into it. Got across and went to the ticket office only to find out that you can buy tickets on the vaporetto!



If you want to see all my Venice photos, check out my Venice album on google.

22 August 2014

Random Tips for Overseas Travel

I got back to Australia yesterday and am still catching up on my sleep so I'm just posting some random thoughts and tips that immediately come to mind.  I'll post more later when my head is fully functioning.

Do not fly Air China (see my previous post).

While my flight home wasn't nearly as bad as the one over (I did have a slight delay flying out of Shanghai but nothing major), I would never fly Air China again.  They were the cheapest airline flying from here to Europe at the time I booked but truly were not worth the few hundred dollars I saved.

I'd probably extend that to say never fly a non-English based airline (or language that you aren't fluent in, you know what I mean) on a long haul flight, especially one with transfers.  The staff on my flight were not English speaking, well not in any functional way.  I mean, I could probably learn to say "fish or chicken meal" in any language in about a day.  That doesn't mean I'm functional.

It was incredibly difficult to communicate with them, even when they got their best English-speaker on board, when I had problems and I'd hate to imagine what it'd be like in an emergency.

Do not go to Europe in summer.

If I'd not been going for my friend's wedding, I'd have never gone at this time of year. Italy especially was way too humid to be comfortable.  I'd say more humid than Tokyo in summer although at least the cities have some air flow.

Not only is it hot but popular places like Florence were just heaving with tourists and horrible great tour groups who thought they had some kind of privilege over other people.  Gross.

Take a back up ATM/credit card.

I lost mine. I used a self-serve check out at the station in Utrecht to buy some snack foods and am pretty sure I raced off to catch my train, leaving it in the machine.  I didn't realise until a few hours later.  Luckily, I had another card for another account. I got straight online and cancelled the card plus withdrew all the cash from that account so no one had access to it.  The back up account had much higher fees but I had to wear that for my own stupidity.  If I'd not had the back up card, I'd have been screwed.

Also, don't use self-service check outs!

Don't be paranoid about crime.

So many guidebooks and travel sites go on about pick-pocketing and other crime in Europe that you can get super paranoid, thinking that you'll be targeted as soon as you land. I actually bought one of those neck pouches! Never used it though.  I mean, you don't see locals walking around with money belts and neck pouches, worried about being robbed at every turn.

Just be smart about things (like you should be everywhere, even at home). Don't put your handbag on the ground under the table - don't anyway, it's a filthy habit! Don't leave your suitcase or other shit unattended.  Wear a cross-body bag so it can't be easily snatched.

Also, don't cart too much shit around with you.  If you have one bag you can be mindful of it.  If you start carrying around a heap of bags, you have too much to think about. And smaller is better. Really, what do you need for a day of sightseeing but some cash, your camera and keys?

Prebook Tickets.

I got skip the line tickets for the things I really wanted to see. When I got to places and saw the queues to buy tickets, I'm so glad I did. Who wants to spend half their day in a ticket line? Especially in the insane heat. Sure, it might take the spontaneity out of things, but if you really want to go somewhere it's worth booking it in. You can be all wild and fancy-free with the spare time you have left from not queuing.

Apps are awesome.

I got hold of the Eat Rome and Eat Florence apps before I left and used them a lot (I'll add links in later).  I could look up places to eat by how close they were to me and be sure I was going somewhere with good food.  You do not want to just randomly wander into places in Italy - there is a lot of bad and expensive especially around tourist areas.

Stay in less places

In Italy, I moved from Naples to Rome to Florence to Bologna to Milan.  That was too much moving around for me.  I spent a week in Rome but probably could've stayed there longer and done more day trips to other cities.  The trains are cheap and every convenient and it's a pain in the arse having to pack up all your stuff and lug it around, plus having to locate where you are staying and getting all that organised.

I could've skipped staying in Florence altogether and done that as a day trip plus maybe another day trip around Tuscany.


17 August 2014

it's that time

Ive got to the part of my holiday where I have more pairs of clean knickers than days of holiday left.  That's kinda sad yet it feels like an achievement too. I can soil myself if I so desired. Note: I do not desire!

I will be pleased to get home. I always feel sorry for people who get super depressed about their holiday ending. If your home life sucks that much, do something about it.

I am looking forward to beagle kisses and getting my modcloth order that arrived the day after I left and finally getting to see the arashi love concert dvd. I feel like I have been away forever!

09 August 2014

chikan

Never happened the whole time I lived in japan but last night in rome,  I got targetted by a creeper on the bus.

He didnt touch me enough or in the places that would make you yell or start throwing punches, but he kept touching me. I worried that he was a bag snatcher or pick pocket so kept my bag clutched tightly to my chest but he kept touching me and muttering things I couldnt hear or understand.  I waited for him to do something that couldnt be excused as just being on an overcrowded bus but he barely crossed that line.

I got to my stop and planned to kick him hard, but it was a struggle just to get off the bus.

I always thought I would be much more aggressive in that situation but I just tried to get away from him, totally freaked out.

Then, as I left the bus, he said "nice" in a really creepy voice to remove any doubt about his motives.