All good things must come to an end as they say. And this time in Holland has been one of the best. I didn't expect a whole lot out of this trip since I was mostly set on going home. But I am very happy that I did take some time out here. It turned out to be one of the best and rejuvenating places I've been. Amsterdam was never high on my list of must-sees, but I wanted a small trip, a short time in Europe after the stresses of living in Africa. I had a personal connection here, friends I've had for a long time but don't get to see or talk to often, so it seemed like the perfect time and place to go.
Leon and Lina and I all met when I was in Scotland in 2003. Leon and I were students at Napier University for a term and Lina was there on a work program and living in the hostel Leon was at. Soon after they started dating and have been together ever since. Quite remarkable in many ways least of all the fact that Leon is from Holland and Lina is from Sweden. We've talked sporadically throughout those years and I've seen them 3 or 4 times since. Last year, when I had a long layover in Amsterdam, I asked them if they wanted to meet somewhere in the airport for a few hours of catching up. We got so well—like, where had the years gone?--and I realized how much I missed them so I thought a short COS trip to Amsterdam would be just what the doctor ordered.
Leon and Lina live in Haarlem, a stylishly historical town about fifteen minutes from Amsterdam. I arrived on Friday, so we spent the first couple of days just wandering around the winding streets and shops. Modern shops selling the latest fashions, stores with knick knacks and souvenirs, creative shops with boutique-like merchandise, foreign restaurants, Dutch and Irish pubs, and numerous cafes line the streets on the ground floors of buildings that have been there for centuries. Brick work flows from the buildings to the streets where pedestrians try not to get run over by an endless stream of bicycles. Dogs on leashes, kids in cars and lot of flowers and bread and cheese and wine. On Saturday, vendors selling clothes, seafood, bread, cheese, stroopwaffles, flowers and fruits and veggies erect stalls in the Grote Markt for the weekly market in front of the gigantic Gothic church that dominates the old part of Haarlem. And bad weather deters no one. Weather in the Netherlands in the winter seems really similar to Seattle. There is snow occasionally, but mostly it is just drizzling rain with a biting wind coming off the sea. But that's the worst of it. Occasionally the sun comes out or the clouds stay high up and immobile in the sky and weather is tolerable for walking around. And of course it is the middle of autumn to trees turn colors and lose their leaves, framing the many canals and old buildings with many shades of orange and yellow and green.
On Sunday, Lina had to work on a theatre project so Leon decided he wanted to show me the natural bits of the Netherlands. Haarlem lies between Amsterdam and the sea so we headed west into the national park and towards the beach. Somewhere between a natural park and a city park, many paths meander through miles of wooded land reminding me of a flatter kind of Virginia with trees of orange leaves interspersed with bushes. I kept expecting a black bear to emerge from behind a bush, but I got Highland cows instead. On this weekend day the park was chockabock full of joggers. Groups of runners and solo joggers in track duds were enjoying the cool, sunny weather, but my favorite by far was the little 8 year old blond headed girl jogging alongside her grandfather. After a walk through the park, we headed towards the beach. We never really got there because as we drove through Zandfoort, a small seaside town, we noticed steam coming from beneath the hood of Leon's car. We pulled into a parking place on a side street lined with townhouses. After a peek under the hood, Leon decided he had to call help, the Dutch equivalent of AAA. But because the universe works like that, his cell phone battery died halfway through the conversation. So we went old-school and Leon tried a doorbell and asked to borrow a phone. (Who's had to do THAT in the last fifteen years in the age of cell phones?) And thus we met Connie, a very kind woman in her 60s who had no qualms about inviting two strangers in for tea and coffee while waiting for the fix-it guy, after Leon borrowed her phone to call him of course. So we sat in this kind lady's living room, drank tea, and talked through the mixture of English and Dutch about the safe things kind strangers say about themselves. At one point she even said that she had to out on an errand but we were welcome to say and wait for the repair guy, but he came before we needed to accept that offer.
Monday was the start of the work week so I was going to into Amsterdam and walk around on my own. I took the train in with Lina and got off in the Museumplein, the big square with most of the city's most famous museums. I had planned to go into the Rijksmuseum to see the famous larger-than-life Starry Night while the weather was questionable, then walk to the Centraal station by way of the city center, but by the time I got there the weather turned nice, so I decided to just start walking. There's really nothing interesting here to mention except I quite enjoyed just soaking in a city wandering down whatever street looked interesting, through picturesque neighborhoods, over bridges spanning canals, and bicycles, bicycles, bicycles. I did some shopping, walked through the flower market selling enough tulip bulbs to fill the moon, bought some cheese, found the “High” street where all the cannabis shops were, rested in cafes over a hot cup of tea, enjoyed a white beer in a square full of pigeons, trams, and happy shoppers. Exactly the kind of European atmosphere I'd been looking forward to for months.
I saved the most important museum for Tuesday. As good as the weather was, I knew that if I missed the Anne Frank Huis I would regret it. I had hoped to see it since I found out there was such a place. I first read The Diary of Anne Frank in 8th grade English class during a phase when I was interest in that time of history. Going to the museum was never high on my list of must do's, but I always knew that if I got to Amsterdam, I would have to go there. And it didn't disappoint. It's a very simple and moving museum and I was surprised by its emotional impact. I remember hearing stories of people having near-incapacitating reactions in the Holocaust Museum in DC, which is a graphic testament to the horrors and atrocities of those years. And I never shared such an intense reaction to that place. But walking into the first room of the Anne Frank House with only her portraits displayed on the wall—the famous ones you've seen a million times—I felt the same way I did when I saw Dachau in Germany as a teenager. A sense of awe that this actually happened, right here, not in a book or a movie but right in this very place. A young girl unknowingly wrote what was to become the most celebrated testament of oppression. Tears linger behind the eyes and a catch stays in your throat. She dies hopeless and alone in a concentration camp not knowing the icon she would become.
After that sobering journey through history, I continued my destination-less walk through the city, enjoying some shopping and searching for the best canal and building front picture. The night was spent camped out in front of the TV waiting for CNN to give some election results before we got too tired to stay up. We made it to the closing of the first polls and that was it. We were awake early enough to watch Obama's victory speech, however, and get the whole story which was a better idea than trying to pull and all-nighter. Lina had the day off so we spent my last day in Holland wandering around Haarlem again. We found the small but intriguing Ten Boom Museum that commemorated the heroics of Corrie Ten Boom, the author of The Hiding Place, who hid 6 Jews behind a fake wall in her bedroom and helped hundreds of others go underground during WWII and spent many months in a concentration camp for her troubles. We also went into the church in the square, had a drink in one of the cafes near the church, and took in some more shops. Amsterdam is magnificent, but Haarlem is charmingly Dutch and easily lovable. We capped off my trip with an indulgence in sushi for dinner, a great end to a great trip.