Travelogue: Amsterdam

Note: I took a two week trip to Ireland, the Netherlands and England.  This post is the second in a short series about where I went, along with observations about how Europe and the UK compare to the US.  You can find the first here.

Amsterdam is an amazing city that gets a crazy reputation in the United States because of its portrayal in movies and popular culture.  While there are areas that are about as crazy as it gets, the vast majority of Amsterdam is a laid back, historic, beautiful city.  In fact, if you did not know the red light district was there and did not wander into its few square blocks, you would never suspect anything.

We spent four days in Amsterdam, wandering around the canals, looking at old buildings and people watching.  We stayed about two blocks from the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum in a quiet neighborhood on the southwestern side of the city.  We talked with the desk clerk about what we should see and do in Amsterdam and he gave us a bunch of places to go.  Like most Dutch people, he spoke perfect English.  Unlike America where John Kerry was mocked for being able to speak French, most Europeans highly value being able to speak foreign languages.  The hotel clerk could speak Dutch, German, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French and a little Arabic and he thought it was no big deal.  In the US, his mastery of languages would be extremely rare, but in the Netherlands, its not that rare: many Dutch citizens speak more than three languages.

I love to cook and eat good food, so one of my favorite parts about traveling is eating great local food.  The Netherlands does not have much traditional food to speak of, but has a long history of immigration and foreign food.  Indonesia was a Dutch colony and when it declared independence, the Netherlands allowed hundreds of thousands of Indonesians to immigrate.  One of the best benefits, at least for tourists, is amazing Indonesian food.

A traditional Indonesian meal called Rijjsttafel, or rice table, is the best way to experience this interesting cuisine.  A rice table consists of between 12 and 30 small portions of different Indonesian specialties.  Indonesian cuisine has lots of coconut milk, peanuts and curry used in a myriad of different ways.  My favorite dishes were beef satay with peanut sauce, a spicy hard-boiled then fried egg, Indonesian chicken soup and coconut milk chicken.  We went to two different places and both were really good, but the second place we went was simply amazing.  It was the rated as one of the top Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam and we could tell.  We ate early and were the only people in the restaurant, so we were able to ask the owner/waiter lots of questions.  We could tell he loved talking to people who liked to cook and after a few questions, he stopped by and told us all about each dish and how to prepare them.  The food was great, but the owner explaining all of the dishes to us made the experience even more memorable.

The Netherlands is a biking country and Amsterdam has more bikes than people, but that has not stopped some from gaining weight.  The Dutch weight problem is no where near American proportions, but it is a growing problem that many have started to pay attention to.  The Dutch also have been revamping their health care system, much like the US is trying to do at the moment.  There is a newer story about how well the system is working that I saw on BBC World News while I was in London, but all I can find is an older Wall Street Journal article explaining the system.  Here is how it works:

Starting in 2006, the Netherlands has required all adults to buy their own health insurance, or pay a penalty. And insurers must offer policy to all comers, no matter how sick or old they are, WSJ’s Gautam Naik reports.

The government subsidizes policies for adults who can’t afford to pay premiums and makes “risk-equalization” payments to insurers that cover the elderly and those with some chronic conditions such as diabetes.

According to the BBC, this plan led to more competition and lower rates for Dutch citizens.  Insurance companies have to compete out in the open and have come up with many interesting ways of attracting customers.  Most companies now have gyms that are included in the health insurance plan.  Customers get swipe cards to use each time they go and work out and receive discounts based on how much exercise they are doing.  Saving money is powerful motivator for people to go to the gym and it would be interesting to see how it would work in the US.  Instead of trying to pass a massive health care bill like congress is trying to do now, it would be interesting to see a more open debate with more time to check out other options.  I will save my health care thoughts for another post, but I think the Dutch solution is a very innovative model for America to at least consider before implementing more changes.  Traveling usually helps showcase different perspectives on problems in the United States and this trip to Amsterdam was no different.  I am thankful that I was able to spend time in Amsterdam.  It is definitely one of my favorite places I have ever been.

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