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Amsterdam: ‘This city is truly a gem’

TODAY producer (and funnyman) Sean Reis spent three weeks in Amsterdam in preparation for “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” In the following travel journal, Reis shares his sketches of a city of bikes and vice.

What’s in a name?
The correct name is the Netherlands. Holland only refers to the provinces that ring Amsterdam. The flag's red, white and blue. The national color — and one you'll see a lot of — is orange. Why? Because the House of Orange, led by fun kids like William of Orange, who got the country out from under Spanish rule. My favorite leader's name is Willem the Silent. How'd they know what he thought?

The Red Light District Now, SIMPLY BECAUSE THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT IS BEHIND MY HOTEL, I have to pass through it from time to time, to have dinner, go to the grocery store, that kind of thing. People talk about the girls in the windows, and I thought they'd be right on the canals. Not so. They are in the alleys, and because I haven't made a study of it, I don't know which alley is going to have girls in the windows and which isn't. It's rather like a pathetic lottery that you have to play, even if you don't want to, to get from point A to point B.

The windows — they are doors actually — (AND NO, I DON'T HAVE ANY PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE WITH THAT, it's just a simple elementary observation), are always bordered by dark, polished wood, with polished brass doorknobs. And the girls stand there, and tap on the glass, like YOU are the one in the pet store, to get your attention.

Not to be a high-minded American moralist, but I cannot help but look at them and think, "How'd you end up here? What was this situation better than?"

DrugsIt is worth noting that marijuana and hashish are NOT legal here. They are merely tolerated.

The city
I know we write the line "this city is truly a gem" all the time, but it really means something. Around every corner, across every bridge, there is something new to behold — something old, something well cared for, and people are proud to be the caretakers of history, rather than just, you know, tearing it down and starting all over again.

Another weird thing: Maps are pretty deceiving. Ninety small islands, 165 canals, 1,200 bridges. You could probably cross from one side of the canal part of the city to the other in a 30-minute walk. Everything's close, but the difference, in my view, is that, while lots of cities have an old part that's cutesy-poo, in this city, it's all the old part, so there are some adaptations and easements given to today, and lots of respect given to the past. That's pretty cool.

Queen’s DayI'm very, very, very, very curious about Queen's Day. It's the day after the show, but if this legend is to be believed, the city itself will shut down, law and order as we know it will cease to exist, and Amsterdam and its proud citizenry will devolve into a sea of orange and debauchery, the likes of which the Western world hasn't seen since the liberation of Paris.

The people from the city have scared the pants off us about this. They've even said that they cannot guarantee that our bus is going to be able to leave our hotel and get to the airport. That's crazy talk. They've offered the idea of SENDING US A BOAT to get us out of the center of the city and to a place where a bus can get to us, guaranteed. Are you kidding me?

As far as the holiday goes, Koninginnedag (Queen's Day) is actually the birthday of the current queen's mother, Juliana; the current queen is Beatrix (Queen Bea?). On that day the city shuts down, and the whole place becomes an open-air flea market where people stake out space to sell their (tawdry?) wares.

Everyone wears orange and drinks, well, a lot. I've heard it described as everything from their Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Mardi Gras all rolled into one. Everyone's out in the streets, but it's also a celebration for families, and a way to welcome the sun back to this northern clime. The population of the city of 700,000 swells to 2 million, evidently.

The other thing is that apparently the craziness starts the afternoon/night before. The closest thing I can compare it to is the night before Thanksgiving in Massachusetts. For young 20- and 30-somethings, it's probably the single biggest going-out night of the year, and you end up at The Hibernian, drinking beer out of a plastic cup and thinking about punching A. J. Reilly for the time he ditched you at Obe's house and took off with the car when the cops came and you had to walk all the way to your cousin's house, sleep on the porch and explain to your parents, aunt and uncle why you were there in the morning. That jerk.

Surrender Dorothy
I rented a bike for a couple of days while I was here. Rode around the city some, rode out in the sticks some. Now these people are serious about their bikes. There are some 600,000 of them in Amsterdam for 700,000 residents. So you'd think their bikes would be awesome — kick-ass and tricked-out, and light and fast.

You'd be wrong. Honestly, I think the Germans rode into Amsterdam on the one I rented. Maybe the Von Trapp Family singers. They are big and heavy and old. But they are sturdy. They are three-speeds, the kind that Margaret Hamilton rode in ”The Wizard of Oz,” when she was Almira Gulch, and not the Wicked Witch of the West. I DEFY YOU to get on one of these bikes and not think “Dun da dun duh da da, dun da dun duh da da."”

Why these behemoth bikes and not some sleek ride? Because bike theft is so incredibly common. The bikes are really cars for city dwellers here. Let's face it, a city built in the 16th and 17th centuries really can't accommodate an SUV. You've got mothers bringing their kids to school, sometimes three at once, on a bike, and no one's got a helmet on, and you know what? Everyone here is fine with that.

That being said, there is something about a bike. One day we went around and looked at some places to shoot, and we had a meeting and this and that. And in between it all, we'd have these little five- to 10-minute rides through the city. You'd be dodging cars, other bike riders and, of course, pedestrians. It certainly does focus the mind and get the blood pumping. It certainly would make life a little more interesting and active.

Now those bikes are fun for tooling around the city, but out in the country, no thank you.

I took a 20-mile ride on one to scout something out, and about two-thirds of the way through, I literally prayed for the cold, clammy hand of death. Twenty miles, three gears. Handlebars too low. Seat too high. Welcome to sucktown, population me.

But riding around the dikes north of Amsterdam was pretty cool. Just you and a narrow spit of land and the ocean on one side and a marshy death on the other if you fall! I kid, I kid. It was beautiful.