“Hoi” from Amsterdam!
Bikes and Canals…. this gorgeous city is teeming with both. Amsterdam seems like a more “Euro” version of Copenhagen – a bit grittier, a bit less structure than its Scandinavian counterpart, yet equally as charming and wonderful to explore. Again, we find ourselves in a city surrounded by waterways, and the canals that thread through Amsterdam are delightful. They are lined with houseboats and cafes, with bridges intersecting every so often allowing pedestrians, cars and bikes to cross over. We were surprised to learn as we explored the canals by boat that Amsterdam lies mostly below sea level. In fact, the term “Netherlands” translates into Dutch as “low country.” An extensive system of dikes, canals, and pumping stations (windmills are often used for this) keep much of the country afloat. It’s no wonder that global warming and the rising sea levels are of great concern to the Dutch.
And the bikes! How wonderful to be in another city where cars are second class citizens. We loved seeing the Dutch children riding in every imaginable type of baby seat (front, back, cargo bins, slings, you name it). Entire families seem to fit onto one bike sometimes. You see every member of society pedaling away, including the elderly and the disabled (we saw bikes pushing wheelchairs!). As in Copenhagen, bike paths line the streets and give cyclists their own system of travel throughout the city. In the Netherlands, it is apparently very expensive to get your driver’s license, much less to own a car, so the young people take advantage of the free public transportation for students and youth along with their trusty bicycles. A 30-minute bike ride is considered a “very short” distance around here; in the country, some children bike 15 miles to school (and back again) each day, in all types of weather. Holland is a land of fit and hardy people (all of whom speak English, by the way, which is a good thing because Dutch is impossible to speak unless you have a ball of mucus permanently residing in the back of your throat).
We spent our four days in the city living on a houseboat along a lovely canal. Our great friend from England, Rosi Howes, has joined us and is a fabulous addition to our traveling crew. Life on a houseboat is similar to life in a tiny apartment, except when you open the back door you can feed swans and ducks, and when you lie down to sleep you can occasionally feel the bed move because of canal boat traffic. It’s a lifestyle that would be easy to get used to!
Houseboats did not become a popular way to live in Amsterdam until the 1960’s, when some starving artists and students decided to turn an old cargo boat into a living space. A trend was started for the less fortunate city dwellers to refurbish boats and turn them into houses. Eventually, the city caught on and it became legal to buy water “plots” and live on the canals. Now, houseboats are among the most expensive dwellings in Amsterdam. As there are only apartments in the city (no stand-alone houses), houseboats are a solution for people who want to feel as though they have a home all to themselves. A nondescript houseboat in need of improvement would sell for around $450,000. Many houseboat owners also have a smaller motorboat from which to explore their backyards (the canals). We saw some rooftop decks and gardens on of some of the more glamorous houseboats that looked divine. Really, houseboats come in all shapes and sizes (well, size is relative, because they are all quite small), and you could walk the canals for days just gazing at the real estate along the way.
Of course, across the street from the canals you’ll find another architectural delight – the apartments and buildings of Amsterdam! We wandered the streets ooh-ing and aah-ing over the design, colors, and rich history in the buildings. Jeff is posting some photos in the architecture gallery below, if you’d like to see more.
The Van Gogh Museum:
To back-track for a minute, when we arrived at our houseboat the owner showed us her secret stash of dress-up accessories which the girls immediately enjoyed.
Jeff, Rosi, Schuyler and Zoe thought Vincent would be pleased if they visited his works in a style befitting his love of color, so they journeyed to the Van Gogh Museum dressed like this.
This venture involved public transportation, 2 hours at the museum, and a very warm and friendly welcome from the museum staff who seemed delighted by the new approach to museum fashion.
The girls learned about Van Gogh’s life and were surprised to learn that when he died, he was an undiscovered and destitute artist who felt like a great failure. Seeing some of his most famous paintings in person was a thrill for everyone.
The Anne Frank House Museum
Jeff, Blair, Schuyler and Zoe spent a few hours one evening at the Anne Frank Huis (house), where the Frank family hid for two years before being turned over to the Gestapo in 1944. Following are some reflections and photographs. As you will read, this was a very special experience for us to share.
Zoe: The Anne Frank Museum was an amazing experience. I feel like I learned a lot about the Holocaust and the concentration camps because I didn’t know much about that period of history before I went. I put myself in Anne’s shoes while I was in her hiding spot and I tried to picture myself having to stay inside for 2 years, never being allowed to make noise during the daytime hours. I felt so badly that Anne died not knowing that her father was still alive. I wonder if maybe she would have fought harder to live if she hadn’t felt all alone at the end. I also realized that a lot of famous people don’t become famous until after they die. Anne would have been so proud to know that her dream of being a published author came true. It was hard to take it all in but it was truly extraordinary to be there in person.
Schuyler: At the Anne Frank House I learned about how the Frank family hid for two years in a secret annex during the Holocaust. The secret annex was a small apartment with a loft, located on the top floor in the rear of Mr. Frank’s business warehouse. The two families in hiding there had to be silent all day because employees working in the warehouse might discover them and give them away to the police. Only the office staff new of the families in hiding. A bookcase concealed the door to the annex so no one would be suspicious. It was such an amazing experience to go inside the annex and see the original bookcase and to wander through the tight spaces that 8 people called home for two years. Anne Frank loved movie stars so she pasted pictures of them on her bedroom walls, and they are still there along with the original wallpaper. I tried to imagine not being able to see daylight for two whole years — I would probably suffocate in the crammed area and the silence all day long! It is so sad that Anne and everyone in hiding with her (other than her father) died in the concentration camps so shortly before the camps were liberated. What I respect about Anne is that she was filled with so much hope and did not lose her faith in humanity while she was in hiding. She was confident that she would survive the Holocaust, and that one day peace would return for her countrymen and fellow Jews. Right now I am reading her diary which I highly recommend, and here are two of my favorite quotes so far:
“One day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we’ll be people again not just Jews!”
“I know what I want, I have a goal, I have opinions, religion, and love.”
Blair: I literally finished re-reading Anne’s diary, and two hours later stepped through the door of the Annex and directly into her world. It was both overwhelming and emotional for all of us to explore this beautiful museum. We could see the pencil markings on the wall where Otto Frank charted his daughters’ growth while they hid. We saw Anne’s original diary, and countless pages of her meticulous cursive entries in additional notebooks which she filled over the years. We watched video clips of childhood friends, now elderly women, describing Anne as a young girl. I was particularly struck by an interview with Anne’s best friend as a child, Hanneli (whom she mentions often in her diary), who had fleeting yet poignant contact with Anne in Bergen-Belsen just before her death. How astonishing, considering the throngs of Jewish women and girls to filter through the camps, for Anne and her best friend to connect with each other one last time. I think it’s safe to say that we all felt upon leaving the museum that we had shared time together in a sacred place. It was an honor to experience the Annex as a family and to witness the depth of interest and emotion from both Schuyler and Zoe.
After four days in Amsterdam, we are packing up and taking a train 30 minutes north to the beautiful town of Bergen, where we will spend a week relaxing in the Dutch countryside. Stay tuned for our next post, filled with farmlands, windmills, and the white sandy beaches of the coast!