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Amsterdam – Being There Is Better Than Getting There

And so we’re back.

We’re still feeling the ravages of the flock of angry mussels we had in Ireland and the Maggmeister is still not too well but we’re home and as much as I love being away, I love coming home.

I truly enjoy visiting other countries but I hate the travelling part of travel.

Bulging Suitcase on BedIt starts before we leave. I hate packing. It doesn’t matter how long or how short the time we’ll be away; we pack like we’re getting ready to uproot our lives and trek across America in a covered wagon to start a new life out west. The only thing we didn’t pack for this trip was the piano and that was probably due only to the fact that we don’t own a piano.

It takes Maggie ten minutes to pack a suitcase, no doubt aided by the fact that she knows how to fold clothes. Folding is an essential part of packing – unlike fitted sheets that you can simply roll up into a ball and throw onto a shelf in the linen closet. I know this because I couldn’t get everything into my suitcase when I packed it but Maggie was able to fit it all in after she emptied my suitcase, folded my clothes and repacked my bag.

She can fold a fitted sheet too which absolutely impresses the hell out of me. The woman is amazing at times.

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The CEO of a major airline

The worst part of travelling is getting where you’re going and I absolutely detest the airline industry. What a mean-spirited, overly bureaucratic and disorganized gang of trolls. They’re like Orcs from a Tolkien novel, completely mindless, out of control and who seem be in a perpetual state of war with the human race.

I am convinced that Kim Dim Sum from North Korea owns most of the world’s major airlines and his cousins, Dim Dum and Dum Dim design airports and all of the processes they contain including airport security.

There is no such thing as standardization; absolutely nothing is consistent from one airport to the next or even from one line in any airport to the next. Airline security at one airport operates to completely different standards than it does at another and many of the rules and things they check border on insanity.

I had to send my laptop power cord through separately in Frankfurt. I spent an hour afterwards trying to figure out just exactly what potential threat an AC power cord could present.

Just about the only thing on which they all seem to agree, no matter which airport security I’m going through, is that they all want to run their hands over my body. I am convinced that my life will not be complete until every security agent in the industry  has stuck his hand down my pants. What I really resent is that not one of them has offered to buy me dinner or even a drink first.

It is a curse to be so physically attractive to others and I’m struggling to hold up under the strain of it.

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Another airline “Mystery Meal’

The food, the service and the attitude provided by most airlines – in particular Canada’s flagship, Air Canada – is abysmal. My dog has turned up his nose at better food than they serve and he eats out of the garbage can when I’m not looking and drinks out of the toilet.

When it comes to customer service – I’ve been better treated by Revenue Canada tax auditors.

The seating on most aircraft these days is designed for Hobbits with spinal bifida and most – although not all – airports are more poorly laid out and managed than a municipal budget. Heathrow, in London, is simply Purgatory – Hell’s waiting room where the damned wander aimlessly waiting for the down elevator to eternal misery.

There are times when we have sat on a plane endlessly waiting for a gate to become available. How is it possible for an airline and an airport to ‘forget’ that an aircraft with 300 + people is arriving as scheduled? Yesterday, our departure was delayed half an hour because the airport’s computer system went off line and as our pilot told us,

“Nobody seems to know what is wrong or how long it will take to figure out and fix what is wrong.”

In this era of technology, how is it possible for an airport that is so heavily dependent on computer systems to not have sufficient redundant back-up systems in place to ensure they never go off-line?  All I could think of at the time was that as bad as it might be for those of us with connecting flights to catch waiting to take off, it must have been more than a little worrisome for those poor buggers in the air circling the airport in planes that might be running out of fuel.

It seems excessively careless to me.

The only reason I tolerate it is because there is so much about traveling that I like. The experience of being somewhere else; a place where the people are the same but different, where the culture, the history and the modern lifestyle are separate but also connected to your own, is addictive. One thing I particularly like about travel is that it clears the mind – if not the bowels – and gives you a new perspective on your own country. Seeing how people in other countries live, the issues that they face and the manner in which they deal with those issues broadens both my understanding and my perspective on the world in which I live.BBC-News

It’s a big world, despite the best efforts of social media to make it appear much smaller and there are a wide range of issues facing people all over the world. Some issues we share in common, some are unique to individual countries, cities and cultures.

While we were in Europe, I read European newspapers and watched European news. The international stories are the international stories although the focus in one country might be different than the focus on that same story in another country. There is some news about North America – predominantly the United States. Canada, it seems, talks a lot more about Europe than Europe does about Canada. Justin Trudeau is a non-entity in Europe which was a refreshing break from the banal; Justin Beiber is a big deal which made me feel like I had to keep apologizing to my European hosts.

We arrived back in Canada to discover that not much has changed in a week. With the exception of the death of Margaret Thatcher, pretty much everything the media were talking about before we left is what they’re talking about this week. The only story that caught my eye was about two women in the United States who have started a petition to have the food colouring dye removed from Kraft Dinner. It is astounding to me that a national newspaper would even consider giving such a ridiculous item even a moment’s notice.

It illustrated once again, just how vacuous some news coverage is these days.

As if I needed reminding, it became even clearer to me this trip that North Americans are obsessed with the trivial. There is absolutely nothing we won’t turn into a major issue, or if we’re lucky, a crisis of some sort. Europeans, who have lots of problems and who make as many political and economic mistakes as the we do, have a much more laissez-faire attitude about life that can be summarized as “don’t sweat the small stuff”.

studying-abroad-amsterdam-summer-bridgesAmsterdam is a case in point.

The capital city of The Netherlands, Amsterdam is a very old city with a metropolitan population of more than 2 million people. It is considered an “alpha” world city by the Globalization and World Cities (GaWC) study group and is the economic, political and cultural centre of Holland.

The Amsterdam Stock Exchange is the oldest stock exchange in the world and the city is ranked #13 out of 229 cities in The Mercier Quality of Living Survey. Ottawa was ranked #14 and Toronto ranks #16.

Of the top twenty cities in the 2012 survey, more than half are in Europe.

Amsterdam is at the same time, a very old and a very modern city. It has a remarkable integrated transit system that accommodates personal vehicles, commercial trucks, bicycles, trams, buses and pedestrians and this despite the fact that many of its streets are still as they were three hundred years ago; narrow and cobblestoned.

More interesting to me is the fact that more than any other city in the world, Amsterdam is living proof that conservative values and having an open mind and a high degree of tolerance are not mutually exclusive.

In terms of its values and work ethic, The Netherlands is a reasonably conservative country. The Dutch are hard-working and self-reliant, practical and embrace a more conservative approach to how they are governed regardless of what political party is screwing up the governing. They are one of the few countries I know that can make conservatism seem liberal.

The trains run on time, the streets are clean and well-maintained and laws are consistently enforced.

But while they may embrace a pragmatic liberal conservatism in their basic approach to life, they keep open minds about things North Americans turn themselves inside out over. Marijuana, prostitution, abortion and euthanasia are all legal in Amsterdam. Same sex relationships are so common nobody notices or considers them an issue any more.

There are more than 600,000 bicycles in Amsterdam and they get used daily.images (1)

There are bike lanes everywhere but without the constant bickering, accidents and road rage caused by the handful of bike lanes in North American cities. There are no laws requiring anyone to wear a helmet when they ride their bikes – or their motorcycles and scooters for that matter. Despite this, there hasn’t been an epidemic of accidents with head injuries.

The Dutch tend to treat adults like – well – adults and let them make their own decisions about their personal safety.

Like everywhere these days, smoking is prohibited in public places but unlike Canadian cities, smokers are not demeaned and reviled nor are they required to slink out of the building and crawl on their bellies to a bush out back behind the building to light up.  Tolerance and common sense rule and the Dutch have found the balance that respects the rights of all when it comes to most issues like smoking. They even provide ventilated smoking rooms in most of their public buildings including the airport and most hotels.

In Europe, governments and activists aren’t constantly trying to engineer society. People live their lives, raise their families and go about their days without much bureaucratic or social activist interference.

But it is the quality and pace of life that are the most different. Europeans relate to their cities of Europe in a way we don’t in North America. They take pride in their cities and feel a strong sense of connection to them. Nothing exemplifies that more than Amsterdam’s slogan, “I AM AMSTERDAM!”

In Europe, people don’t see the city as being them – they see themselves as being the city. As a result, there is vitality we don’t capture in North America and cities like Amsterdam are as alive and active in the evening as they are during the day – sometimes even more so.

In Canada, most cities roll up their sidewalks by 6:00 pm and on the weekends; the downtown core of my city is like a ghost town.

In Europe, the great cities are exactly that – great cities but and this is the difference; they are lived in like they are small communities.

There is more tolerance because, quite simply, they don’t let the little things over shadow what is important. Few seem to feel the need to tell others how they should live and people feel free to go about their lives secure in the knowledge that despite the problems, the challenges and the issues they face, they have history on their side. They’ve survived countless wars, tyrants, natural disasters and religious upheaval and through it all, they not only survived – they never lost their sense of being human.

We’ve lost sight of that here in the North America. We define ourselves by economic class, race, political affiliation, religion, gender-orientation – all of the things that are less important than simply being alive. Visiting Europe reminds me that I am a human being and that I am alive. It’s a reminder that I never resent receiving.

As a result I love being in Europe; it’s getting there I hate.

————————————-—–—–RELATED—–—————————–——-—–

Ireland Day 1: Huddled Masses Yearning

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 Ireland Day 2: Camilla and Me

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Ireland Day 3 & 4 – The Dublin Two-Step

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