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First-time travelers to Europe are often surprised by how different the cultures can be. Here’s Patty on a bridge in Amsterdam. First-time travelers to Europe are often surprised by how different the cultures can be. Here’s Patty on a bridge in Amsterdam. Photos by Peggy Sijswerda
2022 Jul

Open Your Eyes in Europe

It’s never too late to explore other cultures while learning about yourself.

For years I have been trying to talk my younger brother, Tom, into visiting Europe. After all, our older brother Dick has made Sweden his home since the 70s, and I’ve been coming to Sweden to see Dick and his wife, Nilla, since 1982. That summer—my first trip to the continent—I traveled with my mom using Eurail passes through eight countries in two weeks! At 24, I was wide-eyed with wonder. I also met my future husband in Amsterdam—but that’s another story.

Fast forward a few decades, and finally Tom and his wife Patty say they are ready to cross the pond to Europe in 2022. Yay! I immediately start planning: a week in the Netherlands and Germany and a week in Sweden at my brother’s farmstead in Ystad on the beautiful southern coast. This won’t be the first time I introduce Europe to newbies, but it’s always a thrill. Seeing a foreign country for the first time only happens once, but when you show it to others, you can relive the excitement of discovering different cultures and learning new ways of doing things.

That’s what international travel is all about: leaving your comfort zone behind and becoming part of a new culture with different norms. When you’re young, it’s a bit easier to adapt, to be spontaneous, to live in the moment. That’s why I always encourage young people to backpack through Europe in their 20s. It’s a learning experience equal to a year in university, maybe even more valuable because you learn to accept differences and to recognize that not everyone is the same as you. You learn humility and you learn respect.

Leaving your comfort zone and adapting to change becomes a bit harder when you’re not as young and carefree as you used to be. But I knew my easy-going brother Tom and his laid-back wife Patty would do great. Come along on our adventure, and hopefully you’ll be inspired to pack your bags and fly to Europe soon, whether it’s your first time or your 15th. The world is waiting, and it’s never too late to discover more about other cultures while learning more about yourself.

Find Oranges to Underwear at Albert Cuyp Market

Then Relax at Café Slijterij Oosterling
Café Slijterij Oosterling
Café Slijterij Oosterling, a classic brown café, has been owned by the same family since 1877.

Peter and I arrive in Amsterdam a week earlier since we are planning to do some camping in Europe this summer and need to buy some equipment. Soon enough, we’re standing outside customs at Schiphol Airport, and here come Tom and Patty, slightly jet-lagged but happy to be on the ground.

The first rule of thumb for new arrivals in Europe is not to go to sleep early. It’s best to stay awake all day and then hit the hay the first night close to your normal bedtime. So our first job is to keep Tom and Patty entertained so they won’t get too sleepy. A nearby town, Zaandam, is the perfect stopover before heading to our lodgings. We walk on the shopping street and then find a cute boat-café floating on a canal and happily sit down for a cold beer. The sun’s out, and life is good.

After doing some grocery shopping, we head to a bungalow park called Poort van Amsterdam, where Peter and I have stayed before. I’ve written about these vacation villages before and highly recommend them. You stay in your own furnished house complete with a kitchen, yard, and everything you need for a first-class stay. There’s even a state-of-the-art expresso machine, which also makes great bean-to-cup coffee. The best part is the architecture is pure Dutch: brick homes with gabled red-tile roofs, tidy gardens, and, in our case, a lovely view of the Ijsselmeer, a large inland lake.

After a good night’s sleep, we hop on the tram to Amsterdam Saturday morning. On the way, I tell Tom and Patty about my first reaction to Amsterdam when I arrived at Central Station in 1982. I remember walking into the middle of a circus—or so it seemed. Calliope music was playing on a street organ, trams and bikes and cars and canal boats were all going in different directions, and people were everywhere!

Now fewer cars travel the streets. Amsterdam is crowded, so making it hard for cars to navigate inside the city is the ideal solution, according to the pragmatic Dutch. We hop on another tram toward the southern side of Amsterdam, which is less touristy, and walk along the Albert Cuyp Market, where you can find everything from oranges to underwear. Peter buys some socks with marijuana leaves, and Tom picks up a ball cap. Before long it’s time for a beer.

We walk and talk and show Tom and Patty sights. No one wants to do serious sightseeing. Instead we’re happy people watching, terrace sitting, and strolling the streets of Amsterdam. Eventually we end up at a bar we affectionately call “Uncle’s Bar,” in honor of Peter’s uncle who used to patronize it. It’s a typical tiny “brown café,” and a crowd of men are celebrating a friend’s 50th birthday. The men welcome us—the birthday man even says to put our drinks on his tab—and we find a table in the back. It’s a jovial scene, and suddenly I realize MY uncle’s favorite song is playing: “Amsterdam met poep op de stoop.” Tom tells me later “Uncle’s Bar” was his favorite stop.

Travel Around the World at Floriade 2022

This International Flower Expo is a Must-See!
A Cable car
Take a cable car journey across Floriade and get an overview of all there is to see and do.

Weather is always a concern in the Netherlands, where the North Sea and below-sea-level terrain tend to attract frequent rain. Sunday the sky looks threatening, but we decide to visit a nearby small town, Vollendam, anyway, and are we glad we do. The sun comes out, and we enjoy exploring this fishing village on the Ijsselmeer. We order kibbeling (fried fish nuggets) at a stand overlooking the harbor, and they are delicious.

The next day I have a special treat planned. I’ve been looking forward to visiting Floriade, an international flower exposition in nearby Almere, since hearing about it during a travel writer’s conference in NY in January. Floriade is held every 10 years in the Netherlands and rotates to other countries when it’s not in NL. The theme for this year’s expo is growing green cities, and what’s unique about the 150-acre setting is that after the expo ends in October, the area will be converted to a new city called Hortus.

Annemarie, Floriade’s marketing director, says that the new city is excited to welcome residents. Already a high school, an apartment building, and a nursing home have been built on site. There’s also a huge greenhouse, where sustainable crops will be grown for the city’s residents. During the expo, the 170-meter long greenhouse offers educational exhibits and flower displays.

After we park, we duck into the giant greenhouse near the entrance since raindrops are beginning to fall. The colorful flower arrangements are dazzling, and we take tons of photos. We also learn about efficient Dutch agricultural practices and taste samples of sweet-as-candy tomatoes. We decide they are the most flavorful we’ve ever tasted.

Next we take a cable car ride across the campus to Utopia Island on the north side of Floriade. The sun peeks out, and we walk through a variety of exhibits and art installations. I love the Horn of Wishes, a fanciful over-sized horn through which you shout your wish for helping the environment, and it repeats as an echo across the water.

In addition to exhibits. there are also pavilions sponsored by various countries: Thailand, India, Japan, Cyprus, Germany, France, Italy, Czech Republic and more. Each one features lovely flower displays, as well as information about the country’s culture and sustainability efforts. It’s like a trip around the world all in one place. I love Japan’s exhibit, especially their beautiful bonsai trees. Flower arranging is an art form in Japan, so their flower installations are also exquisite.

A one-day visit to Floriade isn’t enough. There’s so much to see and learn. Families with kids also have lots of options for interactive fun, including storytelling and entertainment. Tasty food and beverages are available throughout Floriade at cozy cafes and restaurants. I suggest planning your visit in advance, arriving early, and taking breaks throughout the day. Even better you can buy a two-day pass and take your time seeing this unique attraction.

All told, Peter and I feel pretty proud of ourselves after showing Tom and Patty highlights of the Dutch culture and lifestyle the past four days. No matter how often I visit the Netherlands, I am always impressed with how this small, densely populated country maintains such a high standard of living for its residents. I know Tom and Patty’s eyes have been opened to new ways of doing things, and I can’t wait to show them more of Europe.

Design Your Trip to Europe

Helpful Information for a Visit to the Netherlands
Europarc's Poort Van Amsterdam
Stay in a cozy bungalow at EuroParcs’ Poort Van Amsterdam. Book in advance for best rates.

Stay in a cozy bungalow at EuroParcs’ Poort Van Amsterdam. Visit www.europarcsresorts.com to find out more about prices, styles of houses, and availability.

Enjoy Amsterdam, one of Europe’s most popular destinations. For tips on visiting Amsterdam, how to get around, and what to see, go to www.iamsterdam.com

In Noord Holland, you’ll find darling fishing villages and in spring, it’s the perfect time for viewing tuliips in bloom. To plan your stay, go to www.holland.com/global/tourism/destinations/provinces/north-holland.htm

Plan your visit to Floriade 2022, an international horticultural exhibition that showcases the latest in agricultural best practices around the world as well as creative, green, sustainable solutions to help our planet. If you’re planning a visit to the Netherlands this summer, don’t miss this celebration of green living. Visit www.floriade.com to buy your tickets and learn more.

Next Month: Part 2 - Germany and Sweden

Enjoy more of Peggy’s adventures at www.tidewaterfamily.com/travel.

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and publisher of Tidewater Family Plus magazine. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com

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