We touched down in Amsterdam at the Schipol airport early on Saturday morning, dragging our feet by this point. Tom always does his homework for these trips. In Greece, the printouts of maps and bus schedules and museum info and everything else culminated into a white binder that was consulted almost religiously. It’s not so much an itinerary as it is something to give us a sense of the territory and pacing. There’s usually never a language barrier when we travel. In Athens, everyone spoke English. Most locals did in that major cities of Italy. Accents were almost unrecognizable in Amsterdam.
We stayed at the Ibis Hotel in Central Amsterdam, and it was especially convenient to the train, which in turn was convenient to the airport. At first, the plan was that we would leave our bags in lockers at the airport and then head over to the Arboretum and that area, killing time before we could check in to our hotel at 3pm. I quietly cringed when I heard this, so desperate for a shower and a few hours of not having to sit upright to enjoy a nap. It surprised me that there were even lockers at the airport. Not with changes in airport security in the last eight years.
Maybe we were the odd ones. Amsterdam was a whole other place. Laid back like I’d never seen before, and not just because otherwise typical contraband was legalized for public consumption. (More on this later). The only instance of real paranoia that caused any of us concern was when we were going through last minute customs and security checks prior to boarding the plane back home to America. We were asked who packed our bags. Were they ever let out of our site during the trip? Did we accept packages from strangers? Things like that. In retrospect, it seems more like a caution for drug smuggling more than anything else.
We abandoned the idea of going to the Arboretum after a short stare out the window. The drizzling rain and chilly weather that persisted most of the time we were there, only solidified our half-hearted desire to do anything but go to catch up on sleep. Somehow, we’d just give the airport a try. If we still had to wait to check in later that afternoon, at least we could leave our luggage there and walk around the city in the meantime.
BUT IS YOUR COSTUME AUTHENTIC?
We probably picked a bad weekend to show up in Amsterdam, at least since we’re not rabid fans of European football, or more precisely, the Scottish team. We had started to notice them as we were going to the ticketing kiosks at the airport, waiting to buy our tickets for the train. A young guy in a navy blue shirt wearing a kilt flanked by an older man and young boy. I figured he was taking part in some sort of cultural demonstration. More of them began to dot the platform of the trains as we tried to figure out which one was ours. Now they stood in pairs and groups of three or four, some with inflatable orange party favors and ridiculous hats.
But it became a pure storm of blue shirted kilt wearers once we reached our hotel. The lobby was packed. The bar too. My brother and I found a small spot to sit along the railing of the black tiled ramp that led toward the bar while we waited for Tom to check in. Everyone seemed to know each other or at least had the common ground to be social to each other. It was a loud and slovenly kind of social, but festive nonetheless. One of the kilt-wearers sat across from me with his legs spread and like a curious kid, I quickly darted my eyes back and forth just to see if it was an authentic costume.
The Scots who showed up in kilts must not have packed anything else for the weekend. It was all they wore for the next few days that they stayed in Amsterdam. Tom assumed them to be there for some sort of convention, although I wasn’t sure how he maintained that conclusion after we saw their Scottish mob in the city square standing around chanting and proudly waving flags. Some had already gotten so drunk that early in the evening that they were blocking traffic, standing in the road to yell at passing cars or ask people to join them in celebration. My brother and I passed by one young Scot leading three others in song. But we lost interest when the traditional, beer-drenched shanties gave way to a sloppy version of “The Roof is On Fire.”
I got a little scared by the sheer numbers of Scottish football fans, having been educated solely by movies and television that riots start up easily and end quite badly. I thought this was even more likely given the addition of copious amounts of booze, weed, and not too far away, sex for sale. I was particularly aware that there were hardly any cops around.
I kept close to my brother, although Tom, certain of what he wanted to see on our first day in and probably desperate to get away from the glut of football fans gathered in the street and the square, had kept us losing us, walking so far and fast ahead. It was new territory. I wanted to document everything and point out all the oddities to my brother like the public urinals, the food vendors on the street shrouded in advertisements of happy Dutch eating raw, beheaded herring, and the chubby girls in lingerie dancing in the window who shut the curtains the second they see your camera rise up. (My brother would later explain that the prostitutes have a union, and for protection, they have bodyguards, some of whom have been known to come out of the building and break the spectator’s cameras who try to violate the unspoken No Photography Rule).
REWIND A LITTLE BIT…
The Ibis Hotel was built in two attached buildings. To get the top floor, you had to go to the top-most floor of the lobby side of the building, then walk over and go up whatever floor you were on beyond that. The picture-front windows along the way provided an almost bleak, cold war-era view of the train station below and further beyond, the city wrapped around the canal.
Our room was small and modestly decorated — modern minimalism, the way you see in IKEA ads, but without all of the bold colors and tacky decoration. It overlooked the canal (where weren’t you overlooking a canal?) and below, you could see the bike parking garages on either side. It is no joke that the primary mode of transportation is a bicycle in Amsterdam. In NEMO, the science museum we went to on our last full day in town, I had come across an exhibit teaching kids about facial expressions as an indicator of emotion. “This is what someone who just had their bike stolen might look like,” the clue said below the picture of a sad looking man who might have been in his mid-30s. That alone didn’t seem universal enough to make sense. In the states, they might have to change bike to a car to make his disappointment register in the minds of the science museum visitors.
At the hotel, we all shared one room, and I took the pull out bed near the window, sleeping as far from the flood of germs my brother had brought with him, stuck with a pretty awful cold for most of the trip. Tom reasoned that he wasn’t bothered by it, because he’d just gotten over a cold. I wasn’t sure that’s how it worked – that you couldn’t double up on illnesses. And whatever Matt had, I definitely didn’t want. And especially not while we were on holiday.
Matt almost immediately fell asleep once we got in the room. Tom was already loading the photos he’d taken thus far onto his laptop. I barely got a few pages further into my latest Richard Russo novel before I passed out, too. It felt like a lot longer than three hours. But we were refreshed, or at least, deluded ourselves on this point. But, who the hell comes all this way only to spend the day in the hotel? Not us. We were almost immediately down on the street and ready to stroll around the city, with no particular goal in mind except to, at some point, see Anne Frank’s house (the line wrapped around the block for most of the afternoon) and get dinner. The interim would be filled with browsing.
JUST GOING, FOREVER
A couple months before I had come on this trip, I was in a bagel shop where an old man, a lonely and sociable regular, sitting next to me struck up conversation. One of the things he asked me was what I would do with myself if I had the means for it. Travel was the first thought that comes to mind. Tom and Matt would probably say the same. “Just going, forever” is how my brother once said, perfectly described the lure. I’m sure it says a lot about our personalities. The therapeutic sense of continuous, semi-anonymous existence where you can’t destroy the romanticism of that environment. It’s left to be admired at arms length. For Matt, it doesn’t matter if “travel” encompasses trivial distances like a walk around the neighborhood, or something more significant like international travel. It’s not just about going somewhere. It’s about getting somewhere else.
CANALS AND BIKE PATHS
The buildings and streets of Amsterdam are all built along the canal. Boats are docked along nearly every spot of canal walls. Some of them half-sinking in the brown, murky water. But most were active houseboats. I’d never seen so many before, most of them little boxy house boats so traditionally decorated (like a house) on the inside and for some, even on the outside. Some with a patio spread on the roof. A many that looked to be permanently docked. They had small yards enclosed by fences and topped off with a mailbox. Just like a regular house, except it might float away some day. The canal in Amsterdam is a man-made one, and although that means that the tide never changes, it also means that the same filthy water is continuously recirculating. One evening after dinner we took advantage of a free boat tour along the canal. Whenever the driver had to do a three point turn to allign the boat to pass through the tunnels, the motors roared to a deafening volume and kicked up a disgusting brown water. There’s about 2,000 houseboats docked in the canal, according to the female announcer. And that’s likely it where it will stay, lest there is some rogue boat docking since the government denies permit requests otherwise.
And all along the canals are narrow, three and four story homes. With rounded, bold, colorful arched against the red brick structures, they looked like something out of old photographs of the Netherlands as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. They stand at a visible tilt, sometimes so far forward they look as though it won’t be long before they plummet right over across the canal and smash into a million pieces. Tom pointed out that the homes were so narrow that the only way furniture could be moved in was from a pulley that attached to a hook just under the roof, at the center. As soon as we started getting into the heavier residential sections, I started noticing a lack of window covering. With the homes that had kitchens on lower levels from the street, you could pass by and peer right in. Someone once pointed out that Frank Lloyd Wright was an architect that liked to design homes with a lot of windows to emphasize the fusion of living space with nature. “What is the disadvantage of this?” our tour guide once asked.
“You can’t hide from unwanted visitors.”
As we were walking back to the hotel late one night after eating dinner, I noticed this again. The homes along the street had large, unobstructed windows and with the lights on, you could see everything. It started to dawn on me just how laid back the Dutch were. How tolerant. Sure, it’s probably obvious, considering the legal backing of activities otherwise criminalized or simply taboo elsewhere. There’s the public drinking. The “Coffee Houses.” The sex shops where unionized prostitutes stand on display in the windows trying to attract a speculator. Certainly, someone must have decried that by doing this, Amsterdam would become as seedy as the areas where these things are rampant, but illegal. Largely existing in a particular zone, the seediness of the Red Light District, which unfortunately tends to overshadow everything else in Amsterdam, actually has a campy quality. The souvenir shops are like walking into Spencer’s Gifts.
But, go further out. Go beyond that. We hardly saw police offers on patrol. At least not the extent that you do in the States. Even the crowd of rowdy Scots never erupted into much trouble (though they did leave quite a disgusting mess in their celebratory wake). Of course, all of this was indicative of something else – a lack of concern for home invasions and B & E.
BETWEEN THE LINES
The line to the Anne Frank Museum wrapped around the block as we passed by earlier. Tom heard it kept a steady stream of visitors, though we’d come back later that night, after we’d sufficiently worn ourselves walking as far as we could around the city. The building surprisingly stayed open past 8 PM, though not much else did around there. When we were in Athens, we used to have late dinners. Sometimes 10 PM, and it was never a problem to find a restaurant open. After, we could stroll the streets and still find the shops open, the shopkeepers winding down the evening as they stood near the entrances talking with one another. But that wasn’t unusual. The Greeks have the custom of midnight dinners. Siesta I think they called it. But Amsterdam was different. The bars would remain open. Some of the coffeehouses and restaurants after 10 PM. The Aurthur Heinz market in the train station. But almost all of the shops closed their doors by 6 or so. Most of the museums, too.
The Anne Frank Museum was an incredibly small home to begin with. It reminded me of how narrow everything looked to the point of being distorted when I first came to DC. Narrow four-story town homes perched so high above the street. The Museum was Otto Frank’s offices, the attic of which was the Secret Annex. The building was so incredibly narrow, probably most evident by the scariest looking staircases (Amsterdam’s trademark is the spiral staircase!), that the Museum was extended to the adjoining building. You start at the offices and walk all the way up through the house, to the Annex, which the Franks shared with a father and son who, like all but Otto Frank, died in the concentration camps after the family was discovered in 1944, two years after they went into hiding. The museum is a relatively short experience of what someone else’s lives and it’s hard to comfortably move along know they were destroyed out of the sheer desire for others to control someone. It’s hard to explain – that root of the most basic human right to simply exist.
I read Anne Frank’s diary in middle school, but didn’t remember anything specific from it. Otto Frank was the lone survivor of the concentration camps. After he returned to Amsterdam in 1945, Miep Geis, one of the four who had helped the family, gave him Anne’s diary. They have footage of a documentary playing towards the end of the exhibit where he was discussing the diary, the pivotal reason for transforming the house into a museum.
We had seen passages from the diary all throughout the museum, many of them corresponding with the sections of the house and the office that we passed through. She was only about 12 or 13 when she wrote the diary, and as I read the excerpts on the wall and in the display cases, particularly those that were most personal in their emotion, they seemed like something that would have been expressed by someone much older. I can’t remember having that sophisticated an outlook when I was twelve, but obviously her circumstances might have sped up emotional and mental maturity. Her father was surprised by this too, saying that she was a quiet child. Never too extreme in outward emotion, so he never realized any of these things she confesses to her diary, maybe to someone else. Basically, paying witness to the essence of his daughter and especially at a crucial point in her life. In the end, he observes, “A parent never really knows their child.” I thought that was a pretty remarkable note to end on.
PANCAKES AND BEER… A HEAVENLY COMBINATION
By the end of our first night in Amsterdam, we were completely wiped out, certain that a good night’s sleep was on it’s way. We didn’t stary too far in search of a resturant when we left, although Tom already had a few in mind. We had heard that the Dutch had a few pancake places in the area, one of them being buffet style on a boat. But our only indulgence of Dutch pancakes were that first night, whenwe wound up at the Pancake Bakery. A Dutch pancake is actually more like a French crepe, which makes it more exotic, and hence understandable that so many places specialized in just that.
The Pancake Bakery was just around the corner from the Anne Frank Museum. It was a small place that looked like a traditional German resturant (minus all the Duetschland bric a brac) and probably had no more than ten tables. I ordered a beer, and realized that the brand of beer was never listed on the menus in the resturant. It was just beer. Not that it was bad beer. And in Amsterdam, where Heinekin and Amstel were brewed, it seemed possible that at least the cheap stuff might be the good stuff. Tom ordered coffee, and I forgot that European coffee is more like an espresso. And in Amsterdam, they always served it with a cracker or a cookie or something.
The menu was extensive. There were traditional pancakes with powedered sugar and syrup that you drizzled from a pot that sat on the table like any other standard condiment. I remembered Compton talking about the donut shop in Portland (Oregon) that served the maple frosted bacon donut, and started picturing something to that effect as I read further down the menu. The pancakes were starting to sound more like pizza. Of course, this was before I knew that a Dutch pancake was more like a French crepe than the American version. In the end, we all stuck with pancakes. Tom the traditional ones. Me, lemon. And Matt had something topped with apples. They only gave you one, but they made them as big as the plate they were served on. And with a generous helping of the toppings.
Pancakes and beer…. yummy!
GOOD NIGHT, JOHNBOY
The Scotsman partied hard back in that section around the hotel. One of the kiltsmen had completely passed out in the middle of our floor. Almost nonchalantly, we stepped over him and went to our room.
(To be continued).