Each and every year Holland makes the list of top ten happiest countries in the world to live. US is third, on worst list, just behind India and China. Amsterdam is always listed on top happiest cities to live, as well. It is true, it is a happy city and country to visit or live. She has become my mistress, sometimes jealous. I first visited her over twenty-five years ago with a close friend from Germany. Ever since I have returned to her over and over, each time her seductive siren singing me home. Having traveled and lived all over the planet, including while injured, Amsterdam is still one of my top three favorite places in the world. And one reason I spend almost half each year living there living as a writer and speaker.
My eighteenth birthday had just passed and a friend from Europe invited me to visit. His family had a home in the mountains of Tyrol, Austria, where we would go skiing for fourteen days. Funny enough, this region is sometimes referred to as the Dutch Alps. He had some spare time available to travel within Europe after winter holiday. I extended my return flight home. He had an idea to take a trip to visit Holland. Sure, Tom, but where would we go? “Well, Steven,” he said, “I know you have always wanted to visit crazy and wild Amsterdam, so let’s do it!” Really? Finally – I get to visit Amsterdam?! I was overly excited with the idea of visiting a city I dreamed about finally coming true. That day arrived.
At the time, Tommy was living in Moenchengladbach, Germany, a few hour drive to Amsterdam. Originally we met while he was an AFS exchange student at our town high school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He was staying with friends of mine who frequently hosted foreign exchange students. My family friend was a bit older but since his younger brother, Baby-Snooks, was Tommy’s age, we often mingled among a similar group of shared friends. Over time our friendship grew and I began inviting him on weekend trips to the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. At my cabin, with so many other great friends, unforgettable memories were made. The woods of PA have never been the same.
Upon first entering Holland on our European road trip we found a nice local coffee shop. We pulled the car over by a field, parked, and smoked a celebratory true Dutch joint. It was my first, but not my last. At the time marijuana was still illegal in most the world. Amsterdam was the Mecca for all young partiers on the planet, for all things drugs. 1980s created a new type party scene, which Amsterdam was glad to have played a key part. Even though cannabis is not technically legal in Holland, it is treated as such, especially regarding tourists – as that is one of the great attractive draws to many visiting Amsterdam – the famous coffee shop, accounting for up to 30% of tourism. Pulp Fiction only perpetuated the image.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to experience. I traveled many places before but none paled in comparison to the feral times that weekend in Holland. Amsterdam is a free city, it is overly ecstatic; the people are happy there, as is the earth’s energy. The buildings and architecture, narrow houses with gabled facades, are breathtaking. With everyone outside enjoying summer solstice, the city takes on a unique energy and feel. The famed canals meander in all directions, weaving through cobblestone streets and tree-lined neighborhoods. Everyone rides a bike; museums are everywhere. The Red Light District, a place of famed debauchery – no doubt a place of Conception, just not Immaculate.
Amsterdam, located on and named after the river Amstel, cultural capital of the Netherlands, population 900,000 within city proper, originating as a small fishing village from the 12th Century, also called the Venice of the North, is currently a major city of worldwide influence. Many multinational companies have their headquarters there. And now with Brexit looming that number only seems to be growing larger. Amsterdam became an incredibly important world port during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century. Amsterdam is most known for its UNESCO historic canals, oldest stock exchange in existence, Rijks, Stedelijk and Van Gogh Museums, Anne Frank house, Heineken Brewery and the Royal Palace.
Since the year of my first visit much time has passed, and much has changed. No longer am I the young immature googly-eyed American traveler seeing the world for the first time. Now an older and more experienced world traveler, having lived all over the globe, suffering a serious accident eight years prior, rendering me a quadriplegic, who is now 80% recovered, traveling the world, blogging about injured travel. After my tragic accident in Philadelphia in 2011 I was unable to travel. At first, I was unable to move any limbs, and now I am learning to walk again. Amsterdam was to be my first trip abroad again in 2018, but this time as an injured traveler. What would she be like? Would she remember me?
A couple weeks before departure, a friend who was joining me on the trip canceled. It left me in a bad bind economically and physically. I was depending on his helping with hotel bills and assisting my injury. Having not traveled on a plane or abroad while injured, it was more comfortable having someone there to help assist me. Should I cancel or move forward, forge head-on into the storm and see the outcome? I was far enough ahead in my injury and recovery to understand the only true growth in life results through tackling our greatest obstacles, hardships that otherwise would knock us down. Only by facing our deepest darkest inner fears can we find our way to light. She remembered me. She still loved me.
She welcomed me back with both arms wide open. She missed me. I missed her; feelings were mutual. I was happy to be back in her sweet embrace. After a long trans-Atlantic flight, first thing after landing and clearing immigration and customs, I had to attach hand controls to my rental car. Twenty minutes later I was on the highway, on my way to a hostel in Amsterdam. It all seemed so uncannily familiar, very eerily comfortable, as if there in a prior lifetime. What was I doing here? Jesus, Steven, you love adventure but is this smart? These were the type thoughts going through my head. Deep inside I knew I was where I was meant to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing. A calm peace came upon me.
In no time I was navigating my rental car through the inner streets of Amsterdam. Shortly after, I was parking and checking myself into the hostel. I was doing The Dirty Dishes of Life – I was living my life without obstacles, I was living life again. It was only a matter of minutes before I felt an overwhelming happy and loving energy envelop me – I smiled. I was in the right place. There are no mistakes in life. That summer I made many new spectacular friends in Holland. As I state in my book, Unbreakable Mind, once the story ends, life begins. Get off the horse and start living! The tree of life was blossoming for me in new and exciting ways. Life was smiling down upon me. I was smiling back.
Later that summer I returned to Holland again for another five weeks. Europe was in the grips of a heat wave. It felt close to the same temperatures in Philadelphia – hot and sticky. This trip was even better. Friendships continued to blossom. As I felt closer to the energy and people of Amsterdam, every-day life became more relaxed. Life did not feel as if a tourist. My goal was never to feel like a tourist anywhere I traveled, but some places were harder to acclimate than others. Most of my time was spent around the hostel conversing with local friends and tourists. Each day a fresh supply of new personalities arrived, a veritable smorgasbord of people to observe and explore, especially for a newly minted psychologist.
Seven countries later, I was a bit more seasoned travelling in a wheelchair. This past summer I decided I would spend the whole period in Amsterdam. When I arrived at the airport someone was waiting for me. Denis, a taxi driver I had met the previous summer, was a friend of mine who now owned an airport transport company. Schiphol airport is easily accessible in a wheelchair, with assistant services available. Handicap bathrooms are plentiful – super clean too. This trip I was joined by the same friend who canceled on me the previous year, Joe. Love and forgiveness have ways of altering the sands of time. I was welcomed at the hostel by a friend Rich, Dominican and Norwegian, who recently moved to Amsterdam. We celebrated my arrival home.
This summer I rented a flat in a beautiful, tree-lined, quiet neighborhood, close to the park in East Amsterdam. An area previous undesirable had become very desirable, and expensive. Until my place became free I stayed at a hostel, a hostel I know all too well. They are based out of UK and have locations in over 14 major European cities. I have stayed at many locations. Generator Hostel in Amsterdam is the best choice you will find for an amazing balance of price and customer experience. It is more expensive than others as there are better guests. The hostel has accessible rooms, accessible bathrooms, a ramp out the back door, an auditorium and elevator; also a café, library and three bars.
The hostel is located on Oostpark, a park with ponds where you can swim (in between goose feathers and poop), with plenty of verdant space to lay about talking or puffing with friends. As with almost all parks in Amsterdam, there is a walk-path that is paved. So getting around in a chair in the many parks within the city is easy. A local tram line is also just a five minute walk from the hostel. To city-center by tram is twenty minutes. All new trams, most old, are wheelchair accessible – look for pink ITS symbol. All 33 Metro stations are accessible. Buses and trains are also accessible; trains require a reservation. There is handicap accessible parking in Amsterdam but it is inadequate. Normal parking is too.
The city might be called the ‘city of museums’. There are over fifty museums in Amsterdam, displaying some of the finest art collections in the world. All museums I visited were wheelchair accessible; though beware cobblestone streets in Centrum. MOCO has very steep steps and requires help getting you to the top. The Anne Frank house is not accessible, however the museum is by appointment. The Van Gogh Museum is a must see. South of Leidseplein square, the big major museums sit on Museumplein, a large grass filled square with a fountain and reflective water pool, where tourists and locals sit in the summer sun to drink and smoke, having conversation late into the midnight sun. Oh, het is heel leuk.
One night we went out in the club part of the city with my friend Sergio, a Surinamese eclectic music- man, show promoter. Another night at the flat I hosted a freestyle rap session with local wordsmith Silvio Cohen and Kanna Man from UK. Last summer I met Daniel from UK. It turns out he produces a well known rapper from UK. Our star-deck was a meeting place for good friends and even greater nightly philosophical and spiritual conversation. We hosted many guests this summer. Norbert and Ula, two good friends from Poland, came to visit for a week. We had so much fun. Though we did not make it to the Zoo this summer we did add an annual smoke-boat canal tour. Jolly times on the high-seas.
Two weeks of summer were spent at the beach region of Holland. A good friend, Thiandi, a local author, poet and activist, invited us to stay at her family beach home in Castricum. The town is a forty-minute drive by car, or twenty via train from Amsterdam. Castricum is a popular weekend beach getaway. The area has a lot of camping, including tent, pull-behind and RV. The beach is nearby and has an easily accessible wheelchair through-way. There is ample parking close-by. One weekend we were treated to a delicious BBQ with old friends in Bergen, Steffan, Rixt and Niels – with a village cheese market voted top in Holland. It was a splendid summer at the beach with our adopted Dutch family, Trix, Jose and Simba.
There are endless events to attend, places to visit and things to do and see in Amsterdam. I could write a book about my extraordinary experiences there. It is a great city as a base in which to plan smaller trips throughout Europe. This summer I was also able to visit Belgium, Germany and Spain. Holland is a progressive country that supports laws for handicap access, especially in public places. Amsterdam is a city that is wheelchair friendly. Just beware of the bikers – ALWAYS. The bike paths are sometimes better than the roads; and bikers have more rights than drivers – totally serious. Watch out for the bike lane – even while in a wheelchair I was screamed at. Welcome to Amsterdam. I am in love. I shall return.
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