We went to the Netherlands this August(1). I went for work — the Neuroinformatics 2014 conference was held in Leiden — and Ritsuko came along to see the sights. No time for a real vacation this year so I took a weekend off at the end of the conference, and we spent that together in Amsterdam(2). Since we're leaving for our New Years trip tomorrow morning, it's well past time to post about this.
Japan is hot in summer. Europe, by and large, is not. I did vaguely remember this as we were packing, but we grossly underestimated just how miserable the weather can be. The moment we stepped off the plane to Schiphol, we realized we should have left t-shirts and sandals at home in favour of padded coats, scarves and umbrellas.
Leiden is a picturesque university town. It reminds me a lot of Lund and Uppsala in Sweden, with a lot more waterways. And frankly, like Lund, Leiden also seems to be the kind of place you love living in as a student for a few years but eventually outgrow.
The conference was held at the faculty of law. As the name "neuroinformatics" can tell you, it dealt less with pure neuroscience and more with modelling, data analysis and management and things like that. The talks and posters tended toward the concrete and practical. As many of us come from the informatics side, there was also a refreshingly positive attitude towards Open Source and data sharing, something that's unfortunately largely missing within much of the neuroscience field.
There are many places I like to visit. But there are only a few places I could imagine living permanently. Amsterdam may have become one of them. The city is a beautiful mix of old quarters and newer, and criss-crossed with canals. And the relaxed attitude among its inhabitants really grabs me. This is a place where "work-life balance" doesn't mean "the only balance is all work, no life".
We stayed at Bed and Breakfast Margot. It was the first time at a B&B for us, but we had nothing to worry about. A beautiful room with a view of the canal, and our host Margot served up a wonderful breakfast that could have kept us going all day had we only been able to eat it all. Highly recommended.
The Dutch language is sort-of, kind-of like Swedish. I feel I can almost understand it, and I probably could with just a few months practice. It was sometimes almost unnerving; I'd hear bits of a conversation, and without focusing on it I could pick out the overall meaning. But once I realized that and tried to listen in, I no longer understood. Margot, the bed and breakfast owner, said she sometimes watched Swedish television dramas, and had no problem following the story.
Amsterdam is famous for legal marijuana and legal prostitution — no, we didn't try either. I'm vaguely in favour of having it legal and controlled; it seems better than the alternative. The prostitution business seems to be fairly well controlled and run, and it's clearly a tourist draw not just for sad single guys. You can see entire families walking through the red light district, and couples shopping for toys and visiting the museums and exhibitions. No pictures, as that raises too many privacy issues.
The drug business, however, seems to be its own worst enemy. The shops look seedy, run-down and dirty. They're not charmingly disordered and hippie-like, just sad and depressing. The kind of places where you expect wet stains on the seat and cigarette butts in your coffee. Whatever the product, it would never cross my mind to enter a shop. When their legal status is already under attack, fulfilling every prejudice of catering only to the desperate and the addicted does not strike me as the wisest business approach.
Holland is not well known for its food. That's not because the food is bad - far from it - but simply because the traditional cuisine, like Swedish food, doesn't stand out as uniquely different from its neighbours. If you know German food you are not going to encounter any big surprises in Amsterdam. But the food we had was all good.
I love Japanese food. But one thing I do miss in Japan is the European pita kebab. I take every chance to eat this whenever I return to Europe. It's origins is vaguely middle-Eastern-Turkish-Greek, but it has spread across the continent, soaking up influences along the way, and now it has a strong claim to be one of the few true pan-European foods.
If you're looking for the germs of a new pan-European identity then forget old paintings or dusty culture. Look at the new cheap, popular foods - the bastard children of a dozen culture clashes - that we create and enjoy.
When foodies, cultural gatekeepers and the far right all hate and fear it — when everyone with a stake in national rather than European identity feel deathly threatened — then you know you're looking at the future of European identity. And it looks bright. Also delicious and covered in garlic sauce.
Sari Citra toward the southern end of the city center. It's an Indonesian restaurant; as it was a Dutch colony, there is a lot of food influences from there. This is a café-style place where you can eat in or take-out. Everything is fresh and very good, and it is well worth the trip. There's an outdoor market just around the corner worth a visit as well.
You can't throw a bottle of genever in this town without hitting an outdoor market. The narrow streets with small squares and open areas seem well-suited to stalls and carts, and they seem to happen everywhere. There's plenty of markets selling used goods, off-brand items, and cheap knockoffs. But there's also markets full of cheese-mongers, fruit and vegetable sellers, fish and meat.
I've flown into Kansai airport many times by now, and I've never seen a dog patrol of any kind. Except this time, flying in from Amsterdam, we had not one but two drug-sniffing dog patrols walking around in the baggage reclamation area. I couldn't imagine why.
#1.5 As are accurate quotations.
#2 Before anybody thinks we're living the high-life: My job pays for my coach ticket and my hotel room during the conference. All other costs, including any fare increase from not returning directly after the conference, is paid by ourselves. And no, I don't get any money back if the ticket ends up cheaper.