Sunday, February 3, 2008

Bikes, The Boss, and Bongs

I walk out of the train station (above) and notice an odd scent wafting through the night air. As I navigate all the construction and dodge crazy cyclists, I recognize the odor: marijuana. Yep, I'm in Amsterdam!
But I'm getting ahead of myself. My latest travels started last Sunday morning when I headed to Heathrow airport for a 45 minute flight to Amsterdam, followed by a 25 minute flight on a propeller plane to Maastricht, which is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands (It fights for the title with Nijmegen). I can't remember the last time I took a connecting flight rather than a direct one, but it did allow me to walk through the nice Amsterdam airport, which amusingly has cheese counters everywhere.
When I arrived in Maastricht, I looked for the bus that went into town. But I got nervous about how often it ran on a winter Sunday night so I went back to the taxi stand. Uh-oh--empty. The airport is small enough that the taxis know when the few flights arrive and they had already left with the passengers smart enough to quickly grab a cab. But then a Finnish couple came to my rescue. The husband saw my plight and when his wife rolled up, they offered me ride to my hotel. As I hopped into their car, I briefly wondered if this was the smartest idea but they were very nice and we had a delightful chat on U.S. politics.

I went to Maastricht for a 2 day workshop on whether prizes can stimulate medical innovation i.e. could offering a billion dollar prize for a AIDS vaccine do more than, say, working through the normal drug patent system. Some see prizes as a way to stimulate drug research on neglected diseases; other see prizes as a way to break monopolies held by pharmaceutical companies and to lower drug prices overall. Interesting debate.

Maastrich itself was nice, though I had little time to play tourist. The city is in the most southern part of the Netherlands and almost as French and German as Dutch. A university town, Maastrich thankfully has many open restaurants on winter nights--unlike our experience in Provence! After I checked into my hotel--across the street from the train station!--I walked the cute cobble-stone streets and eventually settled into an Argentinian steakhouse where I curiously watched groups of people walk by in clown garb and other costumes. A trio dressed in wigs and colorful outfits at one point strolled won the street playing a tuba and 2 other horns. After talking to various waiters, I learned everyone is preparing for carnival in Maastricht. While Brazil may be most famous for its Carnival, many other places also have the pre-Lent festivities. Every weekend people are "practicing" for the big event in Maastricht, I was told. And during carnival, the whole town--cabbies, shopkeepers--are in costume. Indeed, anyone out of costume looks odd, a waiter told me. I liked Maastricht's whimsy--fun storefronts and cafes with amusing decorations, and some intriguing public art throughout the squares.

After my meeting ended Tuesday, I walked back to the hotel, picked up my luggage, walked across the street, jumped on a trained and 3 minutes later was on my way to Amsterdam. The train systems are something I really envy Europe. I read a newspaper, watched a DVD, and 2.5 hours later I arrived in Amsterdam, where I had a Wednesday meeting of science policy VIPs, including my publication's new head honcho who I was going to meet for the first time.

Again settling in was easy. I walked about 7 minutes from the central station to the delightful tropical-themed B&B I had booked when I found few decent hotels available at the last minute. The next morning I strolled over the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, which occupied a beautiful building (far left). To be honest, I have mixed feelings about Amsterdam. It can be a beautiful city, with gorgeous canals, great museums, and fun cafes open later. But it's also riddled with drugs and panhandlers--it's, well, sketchy in too many areas for my comfort. Note that just a block away from the prestigious academy was the city's famous red-light district (left), where prositution is legal, live sex shows draw gaping tourists all year round, and window-shopping takes on a whole new meaning (Wikipedia tells me several stories on the origin of the term red-light district ). The owners of the B&B I stayed at surprised me with the news that the city had just bought out a number of brothels in the red-light district and was converting them to fashion design houses as part of an attempt to slightly clean up area. No open expects the red-light district to completely disappear, however.
Given that I had a 8am flight back to London and my lovely wife, I carefully skirted the red-light district when I walked home after dinner with my new boss. And that's about all I did on my brief jaunt. KT has never been to Amsterdam so I'm sure we'll back with some time to explore. By the way, for those curious about just how cycle-crazy Amsterdam is, check out this three-tier bicycle parking structure built on the canal just outside the train station entrance. Bikes whiz up and down it like cars in a multi-story parking garage. --JT

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