Love Is in the Air: Vladimir Putin, the World's Greenest Politician?

An unexpected actor has more positive impact on the world's climate than Mr. Obama and the EU combined: Vladimir Putin.

Cutting Emissions in India

A look at the construction sector

Why Coal is Worse than Nuclear

Many people would prefer coal power generation over nuclear. Is this preference justified?

Energy: Empowering the Consumer?

A talk by MP Laura Sandys

Dieter Helm: The Carbon Crunch

My review of Dr. Dieter Helm's latest book on climate change.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Window Shopping in Amsterdam

From June 1 to 6, 2011, me and my friend Martin went on a small trip of three European cities; Brussels, Amsterdam, and Bremen. Because the cities themselves as well as our trip turned out to be extremely interesting, I decided to tell you a little bit of our story.
We woke up, at 2.50am on Wednesday, Jun 1, in order to make it to the airport for our 6am flight to Brussels. We would normally not wake up that early, but it so happens that most European low-cost airlines sell the cheapest tickets for Wednesday mornings. The ticket from Prague to Brussels cost us 684 CZK, or about €25 per person. Had we chosen any other day, the price would have easily doubled or even more. In fact, the reason why we flew to Brussels at all was that the ticket to the Brussels Charleroi Airport, the taxi from Charleroi to Brussels, and the bus from Brussels to Amsterdam, turned out to be significantly cheaper than any direct flight to Amsterdam, plus we got to see the European capital. But later about the city; first I will tell you about our experience with Belgian taxis.

We decided to share a cab with seven other people: three Africans and four other Europeans, in order to get to Brussels. We took a cab because it left earlier than the Airport shuttle, promised to cost only two Euros more (€15), and the driver said that he would get us into the city in thirty minutes instead of the usual hour. At the time of getting into the taxi, we did not know that the driver was willing to risk his life, and ours in turn, to keep his word. The driver stuffed our group of nine into a van which only had eight seats and no seatbelts, and before we knew it we were speeding down a Flemish highway at 150km/h, thirty kilometers per hour above the speed limit. The real danger, however, came when we got into a traffic jam on the same highway about ten minutes later.

Unlike the usually calm German drivers who just patiently suffer through long “Stauben” on their autobahns, the hot-blooded Arab who was our driver showed an incredible willingness to risk his life to fulfill his promise, getting us to downtown Brussels in half an hour. To go around the bottleneck, ha drove the van into and right through the rightmost lane of the highway, the thin stripe at the very edge of the road in which no cars ever drive and which must stay clear at all times during a jam for the ambulance and police to pass. In that lane, the road was quite damaged, and the line between the cracked road edge and the ditch next to it was far from straight and very thin. Twice we almost ended up falling straight into the ditch at a speed of about 110km/h. At one point, though, we almost got pushed straight into the ditch by a large truck whose driver also wanted to speed his way through the jam and did not seem to take into account that there was our car passing right next to him. Had our hot-blooded Arab not stepped on the brake pedal sharply, we would have likely ended up in that ditch with quite some damage to our bodies given the speed and the lack of seatbelts in our van.

The moment that the truck got back into its lane, our driver opened the van’s window and splashed the truck’s driver with a series of thick-accented, hardly comprehensible French swearing words. He told him “fils de pute, ta mère est une pute”, or “son of a bitch, your mother is a bitch.” About five or ten minutes later, we got to the end of the jam, the cause of which was incredibly amusing.

A man in his sixties was parking in the middle of the highway, taking a bike out of his car’s trunk and putting it together. “Tour de Belgique, peut-être,” I said aloud, lightening the atmosphere in the van. Twenty minutes later, an hour after we left the airport, we made it to Gare de Midi in downtown Brussels; the two extra Euros were well worth the experience. Had we taken the shuttle, who knows how many hours we would have been stuck in the jam caused by the passionate cyclist. Thanks to our hot-blooded Arab, we could afford to spend about ten hours in the city of Brussels, an opportunity which we used to the fullest.

video
A video I took during our crazy cab ride, which ends with a picture of the old man and his bike.

For some reason, I thought that as its capital, Brussels would be a clean, monumental city worthy of representing the proud bureaucratic colossus which is European Union. I am sorry to conclude that my hypothesis was largely incorrect. Other than the immediate city center and a few select spots like the surroundings of the European parliament and Brussels’ famous Atomium, the city was quite dirty, full of cigarette butts and other garbage polluting the streets. In addition, there were many homeless people who, because the use of public toilets is charged with a 40-50₵ fee, simply used the parks and corners of train stations to do their business, making it extremely unpleasant to venture into such places.

In addition to a shock in the form of a dirty Brussels, I was also surprised about the composition of the city’s  inhabitants. I had sure expected a large minority of immigrants and citizens of Arabic or African descent, but I was surprised that they in fact seemed to form a majority over the white inhabitants of the city. Also, I daresay that more women in Brussels’ metro wore Muslim habits than not. I will not judge whether what I saw was right or wrong. I do now understand, however, why so many neo-Nazi movements are emerging in those parts of western and northern Europe newly affected by immigration. They do not want to end up ruled by the descendants of those whose lands their own ancestors had colonized and impoverished a few centuries ago. It is incredible that we are still harvesting the bitter fruits of African colonization, centuries after Europeans started it. Given the amount of non-whites in Brussels and other EU cities, I wonder when the first black president of the European Union will emerge. My guess is that we will have the first one, and certainly not the last one, in less than fifteen years. If the EU continues to exist as we know it, that is.


The Brussels Town Hall.

Old Flemish houses at the main square.

The European Commission.

A sort of replica of the Brandenburger Tor in Brussels.

Brussels' famous Atomium.


Dirt at Brussels' Gare de Nord. 
After a day spent exploring the European capital, we left Brussels’ dirty Gare de Nord on a delayed bus to Amsterdam. Slightly less than four hours later, at about 10.30pm, we arrived to the Amstel station in Amsterdam. I had arranged accommodation with Sebastian, a Hollander friend of mine from Pearson College. We had the directions to his house and it was no problem to get there by 11.30pm. The problem emerged when we tried to get into his house, though: Sebastian was simply not at home. We tried calling him, but to no avail. After a few minutes of confusion and hesitation, Martin managed to connect to the internet using his smart phone. We found a Facebook message from Sebastian saying that he totally forgot but that he had to do something important out of town and thus would not be in Amsterdam that night. Tired and knowing we had little time to act before the last metro back to the city center left, we quickly looked up a hostel downtown and made our way to the Amsterdam central station at about 12.30 in the night.

Because we were tired, because the trams were no longer running, and because we had no map of the city, we decided to take the taxi to the hostel (the second that day already). We ended up paying €15 for a twenty minute taxi tour of the city. Funnily enough, the walk back to the central station the next morning took us fifteen minutes. I wonder what could be done to prevent cab drivers in Europe from ripping tourists off. At the hostel we each paid €22 for a night, four Euros more than its web page advertised. We were too tired to argue.

The next morning we woke up to a pleasant sunny day and met up with my old Pearson friend Svend from Greenland. The last time we had seen each other before then was two years ago, at the end of our month-long trip of Eastern Europe. We took the advantage of seeing each other and visited some of Amsterdam’s famous Coffee Shops, where marihuana can be smoked legally. We then went to Sebastian’s place, who had made it home in the meantime and had a happy Pearson reunion.

Other than the coffee shops, another interesting feature of Amsterdam is its legalized prostitution. Just like smoking marihuana, though, prostitution is well regulated by the city’s government. First, it is enclosed in a “red light district,” an area of no more than a few blocks. Second, you must use a condom. Third, prostitutes can only stay inside buildings while on the job. The prostitutes of course craftfully go around this rule by showing their splendid bodies behind red-lit glass windows, giving you winks, smiling at you, and seductively opening their mouths and licking their lips when you pass around their window. This creates an unforgettable atmosphere, which is indeed very hard to resist. However, we did not let these excellent women seduce us. Instead, we enjoyed a few hours of window shopping. Unfortunately, as we were reminded by a friendly couple of police officers, no pictures of the girls are allowed, and so all of those I took are in a bad quality and tilted in various ways as I tried to take pictures inconspicuously.

There is much more to Amsterdam than the drugs and prostitutes, though. The city itself in an architectural wonder, featuring a large historical center connected with canals, in many ways similar to Venice. The only difference is that there are also cars and trams and trains in the center, unlike in Venice. Another interesting feature were the historical houses themselves. Rather than standing perpendicular to the ground, they are tilted outwards, making the visitor feel like they are in a fairy tale. Apparently the reason for this shape of the houses is threefold. First, since space in Amsterdam is expensive, you gain a few free square meters in your houses’ upper floors. Second, when it rains, the walls get less washed and thus need less repairing. Third, when you come home after a long night and urgently need to vomit from the upper floors, the building’s shape ensures that your house’s walls stay clean. Practical in every possible way, isn’t it?

After leaving Amsterdam, we took the train to northern Germany’s city of Bremen. We unfortunately only had about two hours to spend in this historical city before making our way north to Germany’s coast on the Northern Sea. There we stayed a night with Martin’s German friend Kana, whose mom is Japanese. This gave me a great opportunity to practice both my German as well as my Japanese: the ideal multilingual experience. Then we drove to Jena, where Martin and his friend study, and from Jena I went back using German car pooling. I got driven for mere €5 to the Czech border by a nice German girl who was traveling in the same direction. It saved both of us money, saved German highways some clogging, and saved the planet some gas. The German carpooling system, Mitfahrgelegenheit, is truly amazing.

That’s it for the Martin & Martin trip, thanks for reading!


A cheese shop in Amsterdam.

The thing in the corner is designed to prevent you from peeing in the corners.

Red light district.

A canal in Amsterdam.

A bike repair shop on the streets. Because the city is flat, everybody bikes there. The XXX flag is the city's flag, and XXX the city's symbol.

A man smoking up in a coffee shop.

A half-naked guy sitting on top of a police car, smoking a joint. This is Amsterdam. 

A happy Pearson reunion. Me and Sebastian are in the middle, the other two are Sebastian's friends.


A Square in Amsterdam.

The Markt square in Bremen.