Tostis, Trams and Tulips: Our Week in Amsterdam

As a self-proclaimed expert in all things travel, I’ve taken the liberty of categorizing  tourists into two distinct groups : Box checkers and Absorbers. 2a17imBox checkers are busy. They visit 12 countries in 15 days, stop at every Rick Steves’ recommended tourist trap they can find and constantly harass the concierges with statements like, “we want to go where the locals eat.” Their primary objective is to put a completed stamp through every item on their bucket list including their hand-picked list of destinations without taking the time to actually experience what each place has to offer. This group has also been known to interject their travels into every conversation, think that a pair of Merrells and khaki socks will help them blend in and come home with an annoying habit of saying they had a great “holiday” instead of vacation.

The absorbers are the more laid back, enjoy the scenery, smell the roses type crowd. Their approach to travel is to soak in as much of a destination as possible; really trying to get a feel for every place they choose to visit. Snapseed copy 2This, of course, is the group I more identify with and why I’m not spending a paragraph making fun of their quirks and habits! This trip took my wife and I to Amsterdam, the canal covered, leaning house, jewel of the Netherlands that should absolutely be on the destination list for box checkers and absorbers alike. It’s charming scenery and friendly atmosphere made it a great place to visit; even for pessimistic and overly sarcastic travelers like me!

Alright, let’s get the annoying part over with: No, we didn’t smoke weed nor did we solicit services from the “ladies of the night” while in Amsterdam. I know…weird, right? Who wouldn’t want to travel halfway across the world to use a drug that is readily available everywhere else on the planet and potentially contract a venereal disease. emma-stone-wayfarer-sunglasses-easy-aIt’s a true shame that when you mention that you are traveling to or just returned from Amsterdam, the aforementioned activities are the first things asked about followed by a series of IQ lowering puns and chuckles. Much like the unsuspecting high school girl whose notoriety is sealed after just one back seat handy during the homecoming parade, Amsterdam suffers from a reputation that just never seems to go away. Even if the distinction is without merit (yeah right Nancy…you two were just “talking”), clearing that stink off and starting with a clean slate is a tough thing to do.

All that aside, Amsterdam exceeded our expectations on all fronts. Not that we had bad impressions going in, it’s just been my experience that this city is mostly a stopover on a long European itinerary and never a primary destination. The good impressions started at the airport (of course, I would mention that!). Schiphol Airport is an amazing facility. E8C0974E-5A4F-4617-84C0-B55905412BA2-420-0000001B057EFCA9It’s basically a shopping mall, train depot, supermarket and corporate business park all rolled together with a few hundred planes flying in and out in the background. Even the taxis were impressive. We rolled into town in a brand new Tesla Model X driven by a well-dressed, an extremely efficient chauffeur. It actually makes me feel bad for the Dutch people who visit America only to be met by taxi fleet made up of beaten up, old Buicks and minivans that smell like cigarettes, body odor and bad decisions.

 

I’m not going to bore anyone with every tiny detail of our trip but we our plan was to explore, experience and see as much of the city as we could. We opted out of the over-crowded, mass produced tour boats and instead took a nighttime tour on a private cruiser operated by Leemstar. hdrThis was a great way to see Amsterdam while also learning a good amount of history from our very charming and knowledgeable captain, Arnout. Not only did he point out the various interest spots, he dove into the rich heritage of the city with little anecdotes we never would have picked up on our own. As much as I would have enjoyed being packed in to a glass-topped, floating oven with a hundred of our closest friends, going the route of a classy and very much more pretentious private tour is more my style!

Coming from a car-centric part of the world, I’ve always enjoyed the public transit options in Europe. Amsterdam was no stranger to this and have many to choose from. Buses, trams, trains and even an underground rail (which is hard to believe since the entire country is basically underwater). Snapseed copy 5The trams were definitely our favorites. Think above-ground subways cars, hovering through the streets and completely ran on electricity. They were fast, efficient and you could count the seconds between one taking off and another one approaching. We learned quickly not to be in a hurry to catch the tram…sometimes they were actually sitting on top of each other.

The other transportation phenomenon in Amsterdam are bicycles. Oh my! Bikes were everywhere. They had dedicated lanes all throughout the city just for bikes (and mopeds) which were really where you had to pay the most attention when crossing the road. mr beanFor the safety of everybody in this city, we didn’t even dare rent bikes and try to navigate around. Within the first five minutes I would have caused a massive pile up that would have ended in nothing less than an international incident. The bikes definitely ruled the road and cars would yield to them on demand. That is so much different than in America where we have an unwritten points-system for how many cyclists you can take out on your daily commute!

When we booked the trip, we were ignorant to many things. One, it was the spring holiday season including May Day (the EU’s version of Labor Day) and the week leading up to Liberation and Remembrance Days. These are times the country celebrates the end of WWII and pays homage to those who lost their lives. Snapseed copyThis was also the height of tulip season which we learned the Netherlands is the largest producer of tulips in the world. We therefore took a day trip to Keukenhof Gardens and were blown away the grounds. Over 7 million bulbs make up the garden and are arranged in very unique and and varying displays which seem to have no end. As beautiful as it was, I think I’ve had my fill of flowers for the next few years!

In conclusion, any chance you get to spend time in Amsterdam…take it and take it all in. History, beauty, good food (tosti’s are the perfect light lunch) and, yes, the ability to sin on multiple levels are all available in one amazing spot. A big thank you to all the great people who helped make this trip a success and we hope this is not the only time we’ll spend time in your city. Until we meet again!

-DPW

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38 Miles, Broken French, and Beaucoup du Vin Rouge: Our Week in Paris!

The universe has a way of messing with us. Some people think it comes from a Devine source while others think it’s just purely coincidence. Either way it happens to us all eventually and we either deal with it or just give up. This was my thinking about a month before my wife and I took our first trip to Paris wondering if some force was either trying to stop us or just throw enough obstacles in our way so that we properly earn our ticket east. Whatever was going on I can now say…with all respect to everyone’s beliefs, dogmas and philosophies…EAT ME UNIVERSE, WE FUCKING MADE IT!

McDearmon-MuttA few weeks ago, I had started a post about a trip to Nashville, Tennessee which was abruptly ended with the passing of my grandfather. Stewart “Mutt” McDearmon died on April 19, 2017. Although it was an extremely hard time and difficult seeing someone larger than life as Mutt laying in a casket, we can all be thankful that he had a great life, a loving family and will leave a legacy that can never be matched.

One thing grandpa would never want us to do would be to grief to the point of missing an experience that he was never to have on his own. On top of losing a relative, we also battled bronchitis, a sick pet and my wife almost being denied entry into Canada (more on the Canada thing later). After all that, I’m happy to report that we did in fact make it to Paris and back in one piece.

My travel posts usually start at Indianapolis (IND) but for international trips it’s just as easy (and less expensive) for us to fly out of Chicago (ORD). We booked an Air Canada flight several months ago after seeing a deal via the Points Guy. BLAME_CANADAWhen trying to check in the day before the system kept asking me for our Canadian permanent residency card numbers which of course we do not have. Believing it was a glitch in the system I opted to wait until we arrived at O’Hare and deal with it there. Of course, no glitch. Somehow Air Canada decided my wife was a Canadian citizen and had her on the “no board” list until she could provide proof. The agent even called the consulate which determined this was an error and then we had to fix it with the airline. Luckily it all worked out and she was cleared but talk about an odd way to start your vacation!

The flight over was uneventful except for the unexpected complimentary wine which we eagerly took part. A few glasses down and we were out for the overnight portion of the trip. img_2389The Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport (at least the terminal we traversed) was nothing to write home about but I didn’t really care. I was just anxious about getting through customs seeing we had flown in the day after a heated Presidential election. I thought we would be there for hours but the agent gave me one look, stamped my passport and sent me on my way. Actually, I think she had to use the bathroom and she wasn’t going to let a nervous American cause her to shit her pants! After that we hopped in an Uber and headed to the city of lights (or love or whatever).

I have found that when people ask you about a trip like Paris, they always start with “did you go to ?” I’ll simplify this by listing the destinations we actually visited:

  • Eiffel Tower
  • Arc de Triomphe
  • Luxembourg Palace and Gardens
  • Paris Aquarium
  • Bois du Boulogne
  • Cathedral de Notre Dame
  • Isle St. Louis
  • The Louvre Museum (although it was closed for Victory in Europe Day)
  • Does the original Chanel Store count?Snapseed

I’m sure there are many people who visit Paris for less time than we did and have a much longer list but destination sightseeing is just not our thing. One thing you may notice is that there are no museums on the list. We don’t have anything against art, and especially the quality you can find in a place like Paris, but one little detail prevented us from making them a priority. THE WEATHER WAS FLIPPING GORGEOUS! How could you go indoors knowing that it was between 65-70 degrees (fahrenheit) and sunny outside.

SnapseedWe had the most fun just exploring new neighborhoods, sitting in random cafes enjoying a nice snack or beverage and just soaking in the culture of a great city. We specifically enjoyed wondering around what seemed to be an “old money” area in the 16th arrondissement (close to Bois to Boulogne) and the college town atmosphere in the 6th near Luxembourg. These contrasting neighborhoods along with the many more we traversed brought our experience full circle and allowed us to get a small glimpse into the diverse culture of the city.

For those who may be planning their own trips or if you’re just interested in my silly interpretations of the world around us, here are a few things I learned in Paris:

Contrary to popular belief (in the U.S. at least), Parisians are not rude. SnapseedThis is just one of those cultural differences that not enough people investigate before drawing a conclusion. Take for example going to a restaurant. In America, you are constantly waited on. You’re greeted promptly, given time to look over the menu, asked if you’re doing OK multiple times and then eagerly ushered out the door. In Paris it’s not this way at all. We were always greeted but never hassled to make an order until we prompted the server we were ready. If we needed anything, we had to ask and not just wait for them to come around again. And when we were done, we could sit there for hours if we didn’t ask for the check. From what I gathered, by bothering us during our meal/snack/drinks/whatever, that would be considered rude to the French. Once you realize this you’ll see that it’s just a different perspective than you may be used to.

If you speak bad enough French, anyone will address you in English. One of the tips I heard over and over was that most Parisians speak English but are appreciative if you at least try and talk in their native tongue. Therefore, in preparation for the trip, I dusted off my college level French by signing up for Rosetta Stone and Duolingo. In my head, I was fully prepared for speaking slowly and generally being understood by most people I encountered. That wasn’t the case. My words may have been on par but my accent wasn’t even close. My attempts seemed the frustrate more than communicate so eventually, just about every server/hostess/hotel concierge would just stop me and say “what do you want?” I did feel a sense of pride when I was able to have an even elementary French conversation and hope that this effort was not in vain. Either way, communicating was not an issue and am at the same time both happy with my performance and disgusted by the U.S. educational system.

American men need to come here and learn how to dress. Do I really need to write this? AfflicitionI mean, let’s call a spade a spade! I recognize that I am not the most fashionable person but I at least try to dress presentable and in clothing that is the correct fit. Unfortunately, that is not the mindset that prevails in the American male psyche. Pants that are too long, suits that are too big, camo, plastic shoes, Affliction t-shirts…where does it end? Parisian men really hit the mark on this one without having to work too hard. Even those in casual wear were put together, simply but in a way that displayed they had put some thought into the outfit before walking out of the door. The professionally dressed men were in well-fitted suits or sport coats supporting a “third” piece like a scarf or pocket-square. All-in-all, any man could take a lesson from the fashion in Paris and up their wardrobe without having to go on a spending spree. Of course, since I was there…I went on a spending spree!

Smoking dominates the landscape. With all the good things to say about Paris, the one obvious negative is the sheer amount of smokers in the city. Mad-Men-Don-barEverybody smoked; it was unavoidable. Every café was filled with smokers wall-to-wall and to the point where you eventually got used to it. Luckily the government was smart enough to ban smoking inside (or at least I think that’s the deal) so you could escape the second-hand clouds of death by walking through a set of doors. But again, the weather was great and we wanted to be outside so it was something we just tolerated for the time being. I can only imagine their lung cancer rates must be through the roof and hopefully they have a healthcare system that can sustain this habit. But again, it’s a cultural difference and not my place to judge. Of course, by the end of the week we felt left out and were tempted to start sparking up. Luckily the feeling passed and we didn’t pick up any bad habits.

Overall, our timg_2527rip was great! On the way back we were seated near some Griswolds who’s kids (ages around 18 months to 3 years) never slept or stopped moving in general. I actually started feeling bad for them. Here we are, on a flight or almost 8 hours and these two are constantly having to shift the kids around, get up and walk them around the plane and, as best as they could, try to get them to not scream bloody murder every five seconds. They did a pretty good job but it had to be exhausting (in their honor I decided to take a nap!). We flew through Montreal in route to Chicago which was a nice airport and our welcome back to the (North) American way of life. A meal larger than a family a four could handle, constant service at the airport restaurant and English…oh sweet English!

Thank you Paris for a wonderful time and we hope to visit again soon. There is much more for us to explore so we both decided that this would not be our last trip to the area. Au Revoir my new French friends…until we meet again!

PortTik – Reykjavik-Keflavik International (KEF)

Now that the economy seems to be back on track and more people are once again taking their annual vacations, odds are somebody you know has visited Iceland over the last few years. Dig past the almost never ending political rants on Facebook and you’ll probably find several posts from people who have taken the Arctic plunge and visited this small, volcanic island in the middle of the north Atlantic. Of course, for this blog, I will not bore you with our Icelandic adventures but instead turn my focus to the point of contact for most of the world who want to explore this mysteriously European gem for themselves: Keflavik International Airport (KEF).keflavik-international-airport

KEF, which is also goes by Reykjavik-Keflavik Airport, is the largest airport in Iceland and the country’s main hub for international transportation. Its claim to Reykjavik must be for name recognition only since the airport itself is nearly 45 minutes away from the capital city. This distance does not pose a problem for visitors as the country has made sure that there are an abundance of transportation options available to and from Reykjavik or any of the surrounding areas. Even the famous Blue Lagoon has shuttle options available almost around the clock so that the maximum amount of tourist can take advantage of the country’s most famous landmark. Rental cars are also readily available for those who wish to skip the public options and go out on their own. Speaking from personal experience, driving in Iceland is a very pleasurable experience; although unless you have extraordinary language abilities, opt for the pre-programmed GPS unit to help quickly access the best Iceland has to offer.

kef-wwiiWith its beginnings as a U.S. military base during WWII, KEF sits on about 10 square miles, with four runways in total (although they usually only operate on two). KEF has one two-storied passenger terminal named after Leifur Eiriksson the country’s symbolic founder (that’s Leif Erikson for you American readers). It consists of 35 gates with plans to expand extensively over the next several years. In 2015, almost 5 million passengers traveled through KEF which has been growing steadily since Iceland started emphasizing tourism as a major industry following the global financial collapse. KEF is almost exclusively used for international flights with the closet domestic airport located on the southern end of Reykjavik.fullsizerender

One of the most impressive aspects of KEF is the modernization found throughout the airport both from the building’s architectural design to its many services upon your initial entrance. For example, Icelandair’s flight check-in procedures are fully automated. By using self-directed kiosks, you can print out your boarding pass, retrieve you checked luggage tags and even weigh and send your luggage on its way all without ever needing to talk with an actual human. Once you print your luggage tags, you place them on the handles and move them to a conveyor belt that whisks it away to its designated flight. Because of Iceland’s international reach, all of these machines accommodate every language imaginable so even non-English or non-Icelandic speaking passengers can easily make it through the process (Icelanders are very well versed in English due to their proximity to the United Kingdom).

The modern design extends throughout the terminal with tall ceilings consisting of tilted glass panels in the main hub. hallwayThe wide corridors are fashioned with dark, metal-paneled walls that meet light hardwood floors creating an interesting contrast with an almost industrial like feel. The seating was limited around the actual gate areas but plenty could be found just down the hall. Brightly colored signs greet both arriving and departing passengers and are conveniently located enough to where you always seem to know which direction to head. Power stations are located everywhere and accommodate many different international plug-in types. This along with the airports free WIFI makes it a very tech-rich place which was very convenient for first-time international traveler like us. There was even a children’s play area which may be more attractive to families instead of their kids just hanging around watching an iPad.

It’s a hard call on whether or not I’m going to give KEF my seal of approval in regards to the restrooms (or water closets as they are referred to in Iceland). First and foremost, no dividers between the urinals. wc1Of course, this is usually my unforgivable sin but the restrooms did include a plentiful amount of fully stocked stalls meaning they had ceiling to floor doors, toilets and sinks all in one impressively sized room. The main sinks included the Dyson double-duty water dispenser/hand-dryer which I usually don’t care for but in this setting it was nice (Dyson, by the way, has a lock on all of Europe’s restrooms). The restrooms were clean and well-lit and could accommodate many travelers at once. We only found one set after we made it through security which we found quite odd. It was located away from many of the gates and down a flight of stairs. I’m sure there were more somewhere but we didn’t have time to explore around.

Of course, not everything about KEF was to be desired. Consider yourself lucky if your flight lands at a gate with an actual jet bridge. I imagine that I’ve been spoiled by American airports but it’s still a big enough deal for me to mention. This is especially relevant on a cold, rainy afternoon when getting wet before a six-hour flight is not exactly my preferred way to start a journey. Take the frustration of waiting on someone to cram their plus-sized carryon into the overhead bin and times that by 1,000 when you’re doing it in the freezing rain. This will turn you into a disgruntled passenger really quick.terminal

Also, the KEF staff did not seem to be very interested in keeping things organized. On both of our flights, instead of boarding by row or group like we usually experience, just calling out that the flight was preparing to board sent everyone into a free-for-all. Of course, everyone stayed civil (at least by my standards) but that seemed to completely lengthen the amount of time it took to fill up the plane. I would think that the organizational methods used by the same airline at other airports (in our case, O’Hare and Gatwick) would translate to KEF but I was wrong. You got in line regardless of where you were sitting and hoped for the best.

I should mention that even in the most chaotic areas of an airport (the ticketing area, security, right at the gate) the employees at KEF were amazingly calm and collected. Although I’m sure it’s frowned upon by the umbrella organization that makes up the Icelandic border control, the agent at customs could have cared less about who was wandering into their country. They did the normal checks of our passports but that was about it. I guess this could be looked at as a con (from a national security standpoint), but as a passenger, I was good to go.

All being said, KEF is a great facility and an embodiment of the direction Iceland is heading in the future. I can only imagine that every time I fly through this airport, the differences will be dramatic as they continue to become a first-rate international tourist destination. For those of you who want a truly unique experience, give Iceland a try and I doubt you will be disappointed.kef_overhead