Amsterdam

Amsterdam had to be the most international city I’ve ever visited. It was also the busiest in terms of nightlife and general tourism, not that this is surprising given the reputation that city has picked up over the years. That being said, the weekend after Easter, two friends and I got ourselves on a plane and headed out to this magnificent city to spend a long weekend enjoying ourselves. That weekend was probably the most relaxing trip I took during the Spring semester. While we got a lot done, saw what we wanted to see, I never felt rushed.

Getting to Amsterdam was something of an adventure, (un)fortunately. We literally got to the airport via taxi (the bus was taking too damn long to show up) a half-hour before the gate closed, and while I had checked in online the night previously, Michelle and Francesca had not. Francesca managed to get her boarding pass just fine but, for whatever reason, the machine refused to read Michelle’s passport and didn’t give her the boarding pass. Arguments with most unhelpful ticket ladies led to the threat of tears and finally one saint of an attendent made some calls and got Michelle her boarding pass. We booked it through security and to the gate, fairly throwing ourselves onto the plane in sheer relief. Too say we started off like nutters would not be an understatement. It’s a good thing that none of us really put much stock in our public image (not that anyone was ever going to see us ever again) because we looked ridiculous.

Our first day in Amsterdam was spent on the free walking tour that took us through the main part of the city, including part of the infamous red light district. I won’t elaborate too much on that portion of the tour, even though we took a specialized red-light tour later that evening, because we learned that a lot of the stereotypes and “common” knowledge is in fact false. However, I’m not entirely sure on the actuality of the situations, whether the girls in the RLD are under madams or essentially freelancers, so don’t quote me on any of that! That being said, the city was definitely more picturesque than I expected. I had heard that Amsterdam was very clean, beautiful, and the people friendly but I was blown away by the buildings and canals and the people were great! Food was pretty good, too, though we were a bit more international in our food choices than usual, going for Chinese and Thai rather than typical Dutch food.

Oh dear, I’m looking through my photos now and of course, I’ve put them all up on FaceBook but they aren’t in my iPhotos albums. Naturally. Hopefully they’re of the same quality.

We had three target locations that we wanted to visit this weekend: Anne Frank’s House, the Heineken Factory, and the House of Bols. Unfortunately, we were forbidden from taking photos in Anne Frank’s House, so all I have to offer you is the sign outside of the building:

Having been to Auschwitz in my fall semester, it was interesting to see the living situation of a family that had been subjected to the horrors of the Holocaust, and being able to see original copies of Anne’s diary, short stories, and novel was bittersweet. Apparently she’d wanted to be a famous author, and it’s ironic that her trauma and death ultimately made that dream come true. Horrible irony, but true.

Our experiences with the House of Bols and the Heineken Factory were somewhat similar, though I enjoyed the prior more than the latter. I’ve become more partial to liquor over the year, and I still can’t stand beer in any shape or form (though I spent a bit of time in Dublin recently trying to get over that with my friend Guinness). However, we spent more time in the Heineken Factory due to it being massive and more historically based than the House of Bols. We were taken through the entire process of brewing, getting tastes along the way that ended in two “free” pints of Heineken at the end of our tour. Apparently hops is what makes the beer bitter, but before that’s added, it’s actually relatively sweet. I’d drink beer if it tasted like that!

There was also one of those 4D rides that put us in the perspective of the beer as it went from grain and hops to the can. Of course, our expectations for this ride had been built up by other friends visiting previously, so I was thinking that we were in for a beer-can rollert coaster. It was a bit of a let down to be sprayed in the face with a bit of water and “boiled” under infrared lights.

Going to the House of Bols was something like entering a fun house that could kill epileptics. There were so many multicolored lights everywhere! Our entrance fee gained us two shots and a cocktail at the end of the tour, and the innovative part of the House of Bols is the number of liquor flavors they boast, over 300 developed and counting. One of the rooms had bottles lined up, stripped of their labels, and you were supposed to try and identify them by smell alone. That was the trippy room. It looked like a mad scientist’s lab met gay pride parade. I was pretty impressed.

At the tasting bar, I decided on a Pomegranate Collins as my cocktail of choice, given the option between nearly thirty different kinds of drinks from the automated machines. We were provided with a recipe for every drink we were interested in trying, but since all of them have Bols liquor in them (it’s frustratingly difficult to find in the States, only in NYC or San Fran), I don’t foresee making any of them in the near future. I also picked the blood orange and butterscotch liquor taster shots. Butterscotch was definitely my favorite. It tasted like candy!

I had a fantastic time in Amsterdam. The city was beautiful and even though we stayed out late every night, I never felt unsafe. There were so many people around all the time and no one begrudged us asking for directions, even at 3 o’clock in the morning. Our tours were informative and entertaining, and the red-light district was not nearly as sordid as everyone makes it out to be. In fact, I think every woman could do with a glow-in-the-dark lingerie set at one point in her life! Christmas present, anyone? It’d be a riot. In any case, my time spent in Amsterdam has put it at in the list of my favorite cities, and I would love to go back one day. I certainly wouldn’t mind living there, if given the opportunity!

PS: You notice I don’t mention another major aspect of the Amsterdam reputation. Don’t worry. It was around and definitely . . . interesting. ;D

Rificolona – The Lantern Festival

Man, I’m really slackin’ on getting these posts up! I swear, I’ve had this one ready to go for a few days now. Real life has a bad habit of eating my time. Not that real life is bad. It’s just busy. Really busy.

Anyway, last Wednesday I had a chance to see one of Florence’s annual spectacles: the Rificolona. It’s essentially a festival by children for children. Granted, there’s a bit of adult fun later in the evening involving a cultural dance performance and street vendors peddling their delicious wares, but all in all, it’s for the kids. Now, that is. There are plenty of origin stories for this festival, which includes the toting of lanterns through the city streets, ranging from the triumph of Florence over Siena to celebrating the eve of the Feast of the Madonna. I didn’t see much of the actual procession, but apparently the Cardinal led it. I knew that those guys dressed in ceremonial robes were important!

While the cultural aspects of the festival were not lost on many, I’m fairly certain that the real allure was watching all the little boys running around with blow guns trying to pelt the lofty lanterns. The goal was essentially destruction. Not even going into the possible fire hazards this could be sanctioned for in the States (the lanterns are lit with candles), a bunch of rambunctious boys with permission to spit-wad anyone in the vicinity is just asking for trouble. But it was good trouble. Girls gave as good as they got, and everyone really just wanted to see the paper burn into a heap on the ground once the night was through.

Prior to the Rificolona, though, I saw with my new friend, Daniel, an exposition of some dance studio out in the square behind Piazza della Republica. I’m not entirely sure where they came from but I was excited to see some Argentine Tango. Maybe this weekend I’ll hunt down that studio. I’d be totally remiss to stop dancing. (I’ve been dancing the Argentine Tango for nearly two years now.) This show was interrupted by moments of crowd dancing led by the professionals and everyone really got into it. I had a hard time of it, seeing as dancing with an expensive camera around my neck is not the best of ideas, but photographing everyone else making fools of themselves was excellent fun. They even played “Bomba,” a song I recall fondly from our earlier years in Spain. I definitely danced to that one!

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Interlude: Spain: Barcelona

I’ve been to Barcelona a scant four times and never for a long duration. Mom hates driving the roads there, says they’re too confusing, and we admittedly don’t have any real reason to go other than, “Hey, it’s Barcelona.” That being said two out of the four times we’ve gone has been out of necessity, either as a stopping point in the drive to and from Paris or a rest stop after arriving. However, the other two were for much more exciting reasons, but this requires a bit of background history.

My favorite artist isn’t Beyonce or Sting or Adam Lambert or Lady Gaga (though she’s pretty damn awesome). I’m very into Japanese music, as anyone in my family could tell you, and I absolutely adore one particular man, GACKT. He’s a veteran of the Japanese music scene, having been part of one of the most influential underground bands “Malice Mizer,” and is currently the number one selling male solo artist in Japan. He sure as hell does not look 38, but he celebrated his birthday this past July 4. He looks fantastic for his age and his voice . . . wow.

Last year, GACKT put together a new band called “Yellow Fried Chickenz.” I know, don’t take it too seriously because he certainly doesn’t. At least, not in the way most people would immediately think of. Supposedly the meaning behind such a choice relates to the original Colonel of KFC having dedicated his restaurant chain to a most perfect version of his product. In a sense GACKT pursues the same thing, wanting to provide his fans with a most perfect version of his music. YFC is certainly different from his solo work, more on the heavier rock side of things but no less compelling in its intensity.

In 2010 he launched his first world tour, the first time GACKT had ever performed outside of Japan. I was lucky enough to attend the Barcelona show, one of five locations throughout four countries. His popularity outside of Japan is so much so that the Ticketmaster servers in France, Spain, and England crashed due to traffic, fans desperate to get one of the precious limited tickets to see our man.

The Barcelona live was phenomenal in a cathartic sense. I cried when GACKT came on stage and screamed myself hoarse and had that crazed fan hallucination that he actually looked at me out of everyone else. He certainly makes an impression. I wrote a longer review of this particular concert on my Facebook page, but it’s rather long and I wouldn’t want you to get too bogged down by my fangirlism. Besides, I did go to another concert recently, and yes, I saw GACKT again in Barcelona.

The 2011 performance was better than the 2010 live for specific reasons. In the summer of 2010, GACKT was working on the production of Hollywood movie, Bunraku, a theatre play “Nemuri Kyoshiro” called the Nemuri X Gackt Project, and putting out another single, EVER. Throwing together a European tour is certainly adding more to an already full plate. Not to mention the fact that he doesn’t exactly rest and his blogs detailed his throat bleeding and him passing out on stage. No sleep and very little to eat and lots of stress makes for tired GACKT, though given the circumstances, his performance still blew me away.

Now, the 2011 performance showed a much more rested performer with a few new band members and a support vocalist, Jon. Granted, the beginning was a relief mainly because everyone in line just wanted to get in the damn building. Barcelona saw some pretty bad weather that day, and we fools were stuck outside in the pouring rain and hail for an hour and a half, just to see this concert. It was totally worth it, though.

YFC produced some of its own music alongside GACKT classics like “Vanilla” and “Speed Master.” Their new single, “End of the Day” opened the show, and I definitely enjoyed GACKT’s newest solo release, “Episode.0.” The atmosphere was hot and lively, hardly allowing for a breathe of rest before the next fast-paced song jumped into play. Ian and I screamed ourselves dead, and we were aching the day after from the dancing and head-banging done in the back of the crowd. Shoving our way to the front wasn’t going to happen, but I think we attracted a fair amount of our own attention.

We had a blast and GACKT promised to come back next year since we were so enthusiastic. After the debut of new ballad, “SHOW YOUR HEART,” named after the charity fund established by GACKT for the Japan tsunami victims and the crazed encore song of “UNCONTROL,” we all filed out of the building feeling high on “kiai,” which really has no translation into English. The closest thing I can think of is “spirit love” or “heart strength,” as corny as that sounds, but it really is more something to be felt and experienced rather than explained.

Ian on the way home, sporting YFC merchandise