As I head to the airport for the first leg of my trip to Helsinki, I find myself overcome with many emotions. Nervousness, excitement and sadness all consume me. Its tough saying goodbye to my family, especially when I know I won’t see them wearing purple and supporting me at all my home games. With my mom tearing up immediately - whether at a sentimental TV commercial or seeing me to the security gate, looking at her gets me misty eyed. I’m able to hold back the tears as I pass through the gate and begin my journey to Finland.
The first part of my trip is an 8.5 hour plane ride to Amsterdam. During the flight I find myself chatting with a very friendly elderly gentleman born and raised in Greece, who now calls Vancouver home. Oddly enough he lived in Richmond for 10 years, 5 minutes away from where I grew up! As we chat during the long flight, I find myself thinking how much Kat would have loved to swap spots with me. This guy was a patriotic Greek who wanted to talk politics, Bush and the Iraq war. Wow! I’m sure Kat and him would have found themselves chatting until the plane touched down in Schiphol.
As we bid our farewells, I now find myself with 7 hours to kill before the connecting flight to Helsinki. Thinking 7 hours might give me enough time to explore Amsterdam, I call my good friend Amy (who played professionally in Amsterdam the previous season) and ask her about trains from the airport to the city’s center. She one ups me and says her friend Jesse can meet me at the airport and give me a tour of the city famously known for its Red Light District.
Walking through customs and into the arrival hall, I really have no idea who I’m looking for. After wandering around for a few minutes, a tall good looking blond guy calls out my name. Hmmm…this will work! Jesse turns out to be an awesome guy. At 24, he is the head coach of an under-18 state team in Amsterdam. Born in Holland, his mother is actually a Canadian who grew up in Burnaby. It’s crazy how small the world is sometimes. We jump into Jesse’s car, and after much insistence he finally allows me to pay the parking fee. As we drive toward the city talking basketball, music and traveling I discover he speaks 5 different languages fluently. Very impressive!
Parking the car in a free park zone north of the City Center, we hop on a (free) ferry crossing the canal to Central Station. Jesse is a great tour guide, sharing historical facts, entertaining stories and explaining the efficient transit system. I had never seen so many bikes in my life! They were everywhere you looked – literally. Bike parcades were setup next to train stations and bus depots, with bikers being a part of normal foot and road traffic. It was unbelievable. Bike lanes were paved nicely beside car traffic, often moving faster than their gas guzzling counterparts. Just like cars, don’t believe for a second that a biker will stop for a pedestrian! It was great to see people of all ages, shapes and sizes, dressed from sweatpants to Armani suites biking around as a means of transportation.
Walking me up and down the popular streets of Amsterdam, Jesse insists we get a “local sandwich” from his favorite delicatessen. I tell him I’m buying, but he ignores my statement and orders in Dutch. The sandwich is fantastic, with the meat full of flavor and the special mustard sauce making it memorable. After chowing down the late lunch, Jesse and I march on towards the Red Light District.
Prior to visiting Amsterdam, I had heard stories and what not about this well-known area, but after seeing it – it’s hard to put into words. Wow! When they say there are no limits, they aren’t joking! Its kind of surreal that a place like this exists – coffee shops that don’t sell coffee, only every type of marijuana imaginable and women literally standing half naked in windowed rooms. When a ‘customer’ walks in, the curtains close. I won’t discuss the rest in great detail, but I think you get the idea. This is not to say Amsterdam is not a cool place. The standard of living is very high and the city is very clean with an efficient transportation system. The buildings have tons of character, the churches are gorgeous and the canals are beautifully interconnected throughout the city. If I had more time, I’m sure I would have found the shopping great too ☺!
After not sleeping a wink since the night before, and arriving mid-afternoon in Holland, I’m starting to fade. We stop at The Hard Rock Café for a drink, so ‘I can feel at home.’ I order a coffee (my third of the day!) while Jesse drinks his tea. We discuss everything from Halloween to the NBA and college basketball. Not allowing me to pay again, Jesse truly is a gentleman. We ride the tram back to Central Station where we bid goodbye and promise to be in touch. Jesse has to leave for work, and I have about an hour and a half to burn before catching the train back to Schiphol.
After wondering around the city a little longer on my own and playing the tourist role with my camera glued to my right hand, I decide to head back to the train station. My feet are swollen and my back is killing me – with my laptop, personal training textbook and other random necessities weighing me down. Paying for a ticket, I hop on a train back to the airport and await my flight to Helsinki.
Five hours, a new friend and €4,10 Euros well spent was all I needed to experience and enjoy this unique city.