At the beginning of August Renee and I traveled to Amsterdam, Netherlands; Lyon, France and Lausanne, Switzerland for our one week vacation from work. After almost thirty hours of traveling by bus, plane and train, the cool air hit my exhausted but excited body as I stepped into the city of Amsterdam. I looked around wide eyed at all of the people. I could understand some people speaking English, but the rest was a garble of European dialects. I took in this overwhelming scene: groups of people walking at a quick pace, everyone looking completely different from their clothing style, their hair colors and cuts, different eye colors, different body shapes, women walking dogs that were taller than their ankles, different architecture lined the city… the entire scene was completely opposite of South Korea. With a giant smile plastered on my face, Renee and I pushed forward between the crowds on a mission to find our hotel. We changed into a sweater and jeans (a nice change of weather from the always humid and rainy summer in Korea) then hit the town.
Our first stop was a coffee shop. After experiencing one of Amsterdam’s main tourist attractions (NOT the red light district) we decided to go walking around; however, the streets were jammed with people, neon lights left streaks in my vision, techno and trance music was blasting from every open door, their beats mixing and swirling in my head. I felt as if I were playing chicken with everyone rushing in my direction, their clothes and hair styles and loud voices left me feeling confused and taken aback. Needless to say, the combination of being awake and traveling for over a day, the realization that I am, in fact, not above culture shock, and of course indulging a bit too much in Amsterdam’s tourist attraction in one sitting, I was left standing on the sidewalk with an asthma attack – of course. I tried to remain calm and dismiss the fact that my throat was closing, that my tongue had somehow grown twice its size and the fact that my saliva had somehow gotten too thick to swallow.
You’re in Europe! Finally! Look how beautiful it all is! I tried to direct my mind. It fought back: you jerk! Get me some water and someplace quiet where you can freak out in private! You cannot freak out on a sidewalk in Amsterdam – it’s too cliché!
Let me explain some things about the hotel where we chose to stay. When we had originally booked this place we thought that we were getting a pretty “luxurious” spot. The pictures on the website looked clean and spacious with a window overlooking the streets and canals of Amsterdam. Also, the fact that we had our own bathroom and shower was a huge bonus, and sometimes quite hard to find when traveling in Europe, so we decided to pay a little extra; however, when we walked up the steep and narrow stairway to our room on the first floor (a bonus we thought since we didn’t have to haul our luggage up flights and flights of stairs) and turned the key, it wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. Everything about the room was small and not so luxurious, but hey, we were in Europe on vacation!
After our night out on the town I was thankful to have a quiet place to catch my breath. I sat on the bed allowing my mind to wander wherever it pleased in its haze. Holy crap, I thought, how did you not prepare for culture shock? You know it exists! You are so unprepared for this trip. We forgot to pick up water. My mouth is so sticky. I want something to munch on. Why am I so taken aback by everything? If I were living in the United States and then coming to Amsterdam would it be such a shock? Probably not; however, we picked the EXACT OPPOSITE location of Korea to vacation. Everything is so loud! And this hotel room is not luxurious. Yes, better than a hostel dorm room, but I could stay at a Motel 8 back home and it would cost way less and it’s probably nicer. I shook my head clear. The hotel is great! I’m on vacation in a completely new place. Sure, the window with a supposed beautiful view is about five feet from the next three buildings so all you can see is crumbling brick and cigarette butts. And sure, the bed is so soft you sink down about a foot and have a hard time crawling in and out of it, but that doesn’t matter. I am young and in love and in Europe, I thought to myself. Period.
I hoisted myself out of the bed and put a smile on my face. A shower will do me good, I thought. I closed the curtain that separated me from the toilet and turn around. Oh, look at that. The sink is in the shower. The sink where I’ll be brushing my teeth and putting on my makeup is in the same place where I’ll be washing the city dirt off of my entire body every night. Awesome.
As I laid in bed surrounded by… well… the mattress, I finally gave into my exhaustion and started to drift off to sleep. Just as I start to enter the word of dreams I was jerked awake by a crash. What the hell? Accompanying the crash was a fit of laughter, someone dragging themselves against the other side of the wall, and then stomping up the next flight of stairs. Ahh. I thought I noticed a hint of surprise in the front desk guy’s eyes when we said that we were great with staying on the first floor. I get it.
You Must Factor in Jetlag
That night and the next day Renee and I slept on and off due to the awesome eight hour time difference. A little hesitant to leave the room because of the hecticness of the previous night, we put on some clothes and started out to see the city. We got a simple, beautiful breakfast of meat, eggs and toast, then found a little coffee shop and had a fantastic real cup of coffee and a very special brownie. We walked around a bit more, searching for a nice place to just sit and read and have some more delicious coffee, but that didn’t seem to exist at 11 a.m. on a Sunday. Every coffee shop and most restaurants we came across were very dark inside with loud music blaring so you couldn’t even hear your thoughts, much less have a conversation. I wanted to relax on this nice afternoon – not get fucked up. We finally sat outside at a little lunch place and filled ourselves on a roasted veggie and goat cheese focaccia and of course, coffee. Renee and I, still struggling with jet lag, decided to grab some pastries, a mix container of cheese, goat cheese stuffed olives, Orangina and a huge bottle of water and headed back to our hotel. Originally we had big plans for Amsterdam – hit up the Ann Frank house, the Van Gogh museum, photography museum, etc; however, we were exhausted and we figured, hey, this is our vacation. If we need a nap, that is what we shall do. Then we passed out for the remainder of the day and night. Oops.
After we checked out of the hotel room the next morning we went to the sex museum before boarding a train that would take us to Lyon, France. As I sat on the train and waved goodbye to Amsterdam, I was happy to go on another adventure but sad that Amsterdam was not the city I had hoped it would be.
142 Stairs with a View
We arrived in Lyon about 10 p.m. Monday evening and were greeted at the train station by Renee’s cousin, Connie, and her flat mate, Michele. As we wound through the side streets of beautiful, quiet Lyon Connie turned to us and warned us that the flat was on the seventh floor with no lift, so it could be quite a trek up. Seven flights and one hundred forty-two stairs later we arrived breathless at the apartment; however, the view was well worth the climb. They had two large double windows that overlooked the entire city of Lyon. Even through the darkness we could see the red tile roofs lined up throughout the city with a cathedral to the right that sat atop a hill. Although the cathedral itself wasn’t totally lit up, the golden statue of Mary was, and it shown bright looking over the city, and I stood there in the cool night’s breeze happy that there were no neon lights in sight. We cracked open a bottle of French wine, had some good conversation then headed to bed to finally get on a regular sleep schedule.
The next day we woke up, refreshed, with a pot of coffee and that view. We headed out that afternoon, grabbed a sandwich and sat at a riverboat restaurant with a beer next to the Rhone River. Afterwards we met up with Michele and headed to the house where he grew up and where his mother still lives. The house was on the outskirts of Lyon and was covered in ivy with a beautiful garden on the back right side of the house. We picked a fresh tomato from the vine and let the hot sweetness roll over our tongues – this was perfection. We walked down the lane in back of his house, old brick walls lined the path overgrown with vegetation, got his horse and brought it to the pasture, which had a view overlooking the entire area. That night we fired up the grill and ate a feast of spicy sausage, mustard spiced chicken, a Mediterranean salad, bread, cheese, and of course, vino. The whole experience was exactly what I needed – being around wildlife, fresh air, good food, relaxing conversation – this was the definition of vacation.
My Tap Water is Evian
Of course we found a way to have a road trip on this little adventure! The four of us packed the car on Wednesday afternoon and started out towards Lausanne, Switzerland. Connie’s boyfriend lives and works there, and with it being a short three hours away, we hit the road. After the mere four flights of stairs we stepped into his flat and again… that view! We all stepped out onto the balcony with our jaws hitting the ground. Directly below us was Lake Geneva, which sat at the base of the Swiss Alps.
“See that area across the lake?” John asked, pointing to a little city at the base of the mountains. “That’s the town of Evian.”
“Like… the water company?” I asked looking at him.
“Yep.” he answered with a smile.
“So… basically your tap water is Evian?” I asked, still trying to understand what I was hearing. For someone who can not drink the tap water in South Korea because it is so chemically treated (and there have been recent reports of acquiring Hepatitis from doing so), I couldn’t seem to grasp this.
John laughed and nodded his head. “Yeah, basically.”
We turned back into the apartment and there sat a huge array of biscuits, meat and cheese with a fresh bottle of wine and some beer. I felt at home. That night John and Connie made us homemade Hawaiian pizza and we talked all about Switzerland, how the country is set up in case of war, the banking system, the culture. This is also a good time to say that I felt amazingly inadequate because I don’t know at least three different languages. I mean, seriously, most people in Europe know at least French, Spanish and English – and that’s just to get by on a regular. I see a lot of language learning in my future… anyone have a spare Rosetta Stone lying around?
We took a walk down to the lake and laid under some trees and just listened to the waves crash against the shore. We had to leave the next morning back to Lyon, but I was falling in love with European life. I wanted to stop moving around and just… be. Do you know what the general past time is of those who live around Lausanne? It’s not sitting mindlessly in front of a TV, but it’s “hey, I wonder what outside looks like right now” because the landscape looks totally different depending on the sun and clouds.
In the end, though, we did head back to Lyon and enjoyed frog legs the following night with Michele, Connie, their friend and Michele’s two sons.
We’re Here, We’re Queer… Let’s Party?
We said a sad goodbye to Connie and Michele, then headed back to Amsterdam to catch a plane the next evening. We stepped into the city once again and were greeted by Gay Pride weekend. We checked into our hotel and noticed a trance party going on outside of our room across the street. We were tired from the travel, but this was something we had to experience! We freshened up and headed out to the party. Loud beats filled your ears while people were either barely dressed or dressed for the festivities (hot pink feather boas, pasties, glitter everywhere, wild make up… and the girls were also dressed pretty crazy), and a laser light show flashed across the sky and event. We wandered the area for like… well… five minutes, decided we had experienced the height of gay pride and headed away from the party.
The next day we had a while before we needed to be at the airport, so we wandered the side streets of Amsterdam. What we found was the city I had been searching for. Old men sold old stamps and bobbles from their carts, little souvenir and trinket shops lined the narrow streets, and everything seemed calmer. Finally I found a place in this city outside of the little Vegas vibe to really enjoy.
We eventually made our way to the air port and boarded our plane to South Korea. I felt a mix of emotions about going back; on one hand I really loved my time in Europe, but on the other hand I have really become accustomed to South Korea and it is comfortable and familiar here. It’s my little home at the moment, and it was nice to go back to my own space and pace – until my next adventure, that is.