Amsterdam: “Oh my God, everything is Helvetica!”

On 27 July, 2008, I left Seattle to go to Amsterdam for a month-long study abroad program hosted by the University of Washington Honors Program, the International School for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Universiteit van Amsterdam, and the Virtual Knowledge Studio. I now sit at Amsterdam-Schipol airport, typing a small series of articles detailing some of the more interesting points of the trip; I will refrain from speaking about the program itself, however –– on that subject, suffice it to say that it was at times and alternately exciting, interesting, frustrating, tiring, and confusing. With that said –– Amsterdam!

Upon touching down at Amsterdam-Schipol nearly a month ago, my immediate thought was “oh my God, everything is Helvetica!” Schipol is a very impressive airport, even if it lacks the huge glass façades of Sea-Tac or the immense scale of O’Hare; it’s quite simply very modern, with a reasonable layout and cozy lounge areas. And everything is in Helvetica.

Not just Helvetica the font, however –– the overall design and aesthetics of the airport reflects strongly the Helvetica mentality: bold, vibrant, and modern, but not forceful. Cheerful yellow signs point you around the rather inviting lounge areas, which were substantial, even in the international terminal alone. And that wasn’t the only thing that was cheerful: the customs official let me through within ten seconds. After buying a ticket, I wandered downstairs to wait for a train to Amsterdam Centraal Station, which was about a 6 minute wait. The train was similarly nice; the sneltrains are almost all fairly new, and run fairly smoothly and pretty much completely quietly.

And along the way, that same Helvetica impression held. Building after building was modern, with shameless “look at me!” type architecture-for-architecture’s-sake. Cubes on top of cubes at ridiculous angles, glass panelling, and a curious combination of unique buildings juxtaposed with lines of identical condominium towers proceeded to interest, and almost even impress me. Sadly, I’m not a terribly huge fan of architecture that doesn’t have a point, and so “almost even” was about as close as it got.

As an aside, that train ride was also the first point at which I became very annoyed at tourists –– and my own home country. I had the distinct pleasure of sitting in front of a woman on the train, who absolutely could not cease babbling about how incredibly terrible and disgusting that honestly nice and clean train was. Her husband sat across the aisle –– I gave him what I hoped was a sympathetic glance.

Ah, but at last I arrived at glorious Amsterdam Centraal… and proceeded to walk out the back exit by accident.

Let me tell you about this back exit.

It’s bad. There used to be doors. Now, there very clearly aren’t –– and the exit opens up to a wide concrete path surrounded on both lateral sides by chain-link fence struggling to hold in abandoned construction, and on the top by a crumbling overpass. I can see why they’re redoing Oosterdokeiland. I ventured out into the semi-putrid air past the homeless people staggering about for about half a minute before determining that something was amiss and wandering back into the station, through the doors that were striving so hard to be.

Somewhere along the line, Helvetica wandered off and committed a sad, silent suicide.

But not to fear! After wandering back through the train station, I found the main exit. Happily, excitedly, I stepped out the sliding glass doors and into fresh ai––

––into a huge whiff of marijuana smoke?

“That bad?”

I should qualify my use of the word “bad.” I have absolutely no problems with pot: stoned people generally don’t get into cars and kill people (and themselves), and are also usually quite a bit quieter. But the first bit of proper air I breathe in Amsterdam and it’s a huge whiff of it? That’s a bit unexpected, for sure. I’m now fairly convinced that someone just stands in front of Centraal and smokes weed just to catch people like me off guard… this was pretty much the only such occurrence.

I then walked the mile and a bit to our dorms, failed to locate Albert Heijn to buy food (which I hadn’t consumed in about 14 hours), and collapsed. Go international travel.

More to follow…

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