What I will henceforth remember as the most nightmarish trip ever started on the 15 hour overnight journey to Amsterdam, Holland, on Thursday night, March 13th. Maybe we (myself and three of my classmates) jinxed ourselves by telling too many ghost stories on the first leg of the trip. Maybe the spirits decided they needed to teach us some manners. Whatever the cause, we learned two big lessons this weekend, that not everything always has an easy explanation, and that sometimes European public transportation is enough to drive even the most travel-savvy crazy. Needless to say, this weekend was filled with strange encounters and colorful language.
Friday, March 14th
We were within seconds of missing our connection in Hannover, Germany, but we made it by a stroke of sheer luck, and finally, after over half a day of being squished into second-class compartments, we arrived in Amsterdam. The first thing we had to do when we arrived was purchase our 48 hour passes for the public transportation. We were in the tourist office at Amsterdam Central Station for nearly an hour trying to figure out how to get the ticket machines to take our credit cards. The display screen had a convenient English option, but when it came time to pay, we had to refer to the instructions on the card scanner, for which there was no English option. Every time I put my card in, it spit it right back out and flashed me an alert message I could not comprehend in Dutch. Three different strangers, all tourists, tried to help me to no avail, so I had to take a number and wait in line to talk to an actual human being. When it was finally my turn, I learned that my credit card wouldn’t work because it didn’t have a special chip imbedded in it that apparently is all the rage now in Europe. So basically, I wouldn’t be able to use my credit card almost anywhere in Amsterdam. Great. Strike one for Amsterdam.
When we finally acquired our transportation passes and went down to the subway station, we had to wait over 20 minutes for our train to show up. And when it did, it was screeching across the tracks with a sound I can only loosely compare to nails on a chalkboard (this sound was by far worse). Moreover, the train looked like a tin can. We found out really fast that the public transportation here is very confusing and very inconvenient. Trams and metro trains do not run nearly as often as we are used to in Vienna where a train shows up every five to ten minutes during most times of the day on almost every day of the week.. Also in Amsterdam, metro stations are few and far between.
Eventually we did make it to our hostel. One thing that has surprised me about hostels in Europe is that there are always large amounts of young people just hanging out in the hostels in the middle of the day. What are you doing, kids? You’re traveling Europe! You’re visiting awesome cities! Why are you sitting in your hostel all day!? After just a few hours in Amsterdam, I realized that getting around is so difficult, its no wonder some people choose to stay inside.
We checked into our room only to find that one of the beds was occupied by a sleeping lady. It was 1pm when we got into the room. She must’ve had a rough night. In fact, she was still asleep when we came back to the hostel for the night around 9pm after exploring the city for a few hours. Our return promted her to get out of bed and shower, after which she came back into the room dripping wet, totally naked, and completely unabashed. She then proceeded to lather her entire body with a multitude of lotions from her night stand (it literally looked like she was living there) as we tried our hardest not to stare out of sheer astonishment. She looked like she could’ve been in her 40s just judging by her face, but her body looked much younger. She was unnaturally tan and blonde, and her face looked like leather, like she had been a fan of tanning beds and caked-on makeup for quite a while. After she was clothed we attempted to introduce ourselves and make conversation with her so as to relieve some of the awkwardness, but she continued to be extremely reserved and slightly standoffish, so we felt even weirder around her. Oddly enough, after she left for the evening, she didn’t return for the rest of the night…
When we left the hostel earlier that day, we had another 10 minute wait for the subway train, after which we finally made it downtown. This city was definitely dirtier than Vienna, Salzburg, or Lucerne, maybe even Munich, but not to the extent that it was unsanitary. In fact, Amsterdam is a beautiful city. It is the capital and most populous city in the Netherlands with over 1.5 million citizens in the greater metropolitan area. It originated as a small fishing village in the 12th century, but it became one of the most important ports in the world during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th Century. The city expanded in the 19th and 20th centuries by adding many new suburbs and neighborhoods and today is one of the top financial centers in Europe. It is the cultural capital of the Netherlands, and in 2012 it was ranked the 2nd best city to live in by the Economist Intelligence Unit and 12th globally for quality of living.
One of the things Amsterdam is known for is its canals. They are an integral and beautiful part of the city’s identity, and as we saw first-hand, full of tour boats in high demand by visitors no matter the time of year (and it was pretty Amsterdam cold when we were there). The canal system is the result of city planning done in the 17th century, and while the original plans were lost, historians speculate that the layout of four concentric half circles of canals with their ends merging at the IJ Bay (known as Amsterdam’s waterfront) was done so for practical and defensive purposes.
Another notable characteristic is that everywhere you turn, you will find Amsterdam’s streets lined with bicycles. They are parked everywhere, and they are the kings of the roads. Everyone in Amsterdam rides bikes, even in the freezing cold. This was understandable to us considering the impossible public transportation system. In many places, there is no separation between the street, the bike lane, and the sidewalk. That is to say that every lane seems to be a bike lane, whether or not it was made for bikes, cars, or people. One must constantly be on the lookout for bikes, because the drivers are maniacs. The automobile drivers are not much better, but at least cars have better brakes than bikes, and there are not nearly as many cars on the roads. If I haven’t made my point clear by now, here is it: AMSTERDAM IS A TRANSPORTATION NIGHTMARE. Moreover, we almost got killed by cars, bikes, and silent street trams multiple times this weekend.
Nevertheless, people in Amsterdam seem very cheerful, more so than the citizens of any other European city I have seen thus far. Every local we exchanged a few words with, from our waiters to the tram conductors to anyone on the street, was extremely kind and helpful. And practically everyone spoke English. I heard more English this weekend than I heard Dutch or any other language, but this is probably to be expected in one of the top tourist destinations in Europe. There is no doubt that Amsterdam is a happy place. People are active , and they are tolerant of all cultures and worldviews. More than half the city’s population is of foreign origin. And of course, everyone knows that the Dutch are also very open and tolerant about two things traditional America can hardly stomach to speak of – sex and drugs. I’ll talk about sex later, but for now, I’ll zoom in a bit on drugs.
When someone asks you how the coffee shops are in Amsterdam, it is important to know that they are not wondering if the Dutch make good lattes. We did see many small establishments with the words “Coffee Shop” labeled above their entrances, and it became obvious from the odor (I went to public high school, so it is a fairly familiar stench), that the ones with the signs in the windows half colored green and the other half white, separated by a diagonal line, weren’t serving macchiatos. I had heard that regardless of Amsterdam’s reputation for drug tolerance, it is not customary to smell marijuana when walking down city streets. But I am here to say that I did in fact inhale many strong whiffs multiple times per day while I was there. There was no smoking in the street, but it was pretty easy to tell when we passed by someone stoned. However, no Dutch person we spoke to seemed to have a problem with it. The coffee shops we saw were always full, and like I said before, everyone in town was happy and lively and active, and not just those partaking in Coffee Shop Culture.
When I think about how much money the US spends on its self-proclaimed War on Drugs, over one billion dollars annually, it makes me a little bit ashamed. I’ve done my research on marijuana, and I know that it is no more dangerous to abuse than to is to abuse alcohol. So, I fail to see the disconnect in the common American mind when it comes to marijuana vs. alcohol. It seems to be more of a dogmatism issue than anything else. I think the Dutch have a noble perspective, legalize and regulate to keep people safe, and hey, why not allow it to contribute to the economy as well? As obsessed with money as Americans are, it is a wonder that this particular argument towards legalization hasn’t yet had a more powerful effect. Not only can legalization boost economic interests solely through sales and taxation, we would be keeping countless non-violent “criminals” out of our jails, which means less tax money out of Americans’ pockets and more of a chance to focus on things that really matter (for example, our 56 trillion dollar financial hole). But, I digress. Back to Amsterdam.
Another aspect of Amsterdam that is impossible to miss is the unique architecture. Amsterdam actually has quite the diverse architectural history. The oldest building still standing is the Oude Kerk (Old Church), which was consecrated in 1306. Only two wooden buildings from the 15th Century still stand in Amsterdam, and they are among the very few remaining examples of Gothic architecture in the city. In the 16th century many brick buildings were erected in the Dutch Renaissance style. The most famous Renaissance building in Amsterdam is the Westerkerk, designed in 1631 by famous Dutch architect Hendrick de Keyser. It’s “Westertoren” steeple is the highest in Amsterdam. During the 17th and 18th centuries most of the buildings, which included merchants’ houses overlooking the canals, were done in the baroque style. Then around 1815, the architects began designing in many neo-styles, including neo-Gothic. Amsterdam’s street buildings look so unique because they express various influences from these different time periods side by side.
My favorite part of this day, however, was not contemplating the architecture or the coffee shops; it was visiting one of Amsterdam’s most significant destinations, the Anne Frank House. We waited in a long line outside for over an hour, but when we finally got in, it was completely worth the wait. I had always known that Anne Frank was a girl who hid with her family from the Nazis during the Holocaust, but I had never read her diary, nor did I know much about the actual story, so this experience was especially enlightening as well as inspiring.
The Frank family moved from Germany to Amsterdam in 1933 when the Nazis gained control of Germany. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, worked for a spice company and a gelling company in Amsterdam, the offices of which he moved to Prinsengracht 263 (today the location of the museum) in 1940. By July 1942, as persecutions of the Jewish population in Amsterdam increased, the Frank family went into hiding in concealed rooms in the back of the building. This “Secret Annex,” as it became known after the publishing of Anne’s diary, was concealed from view by houses on all four sides. From the interior of the house, the entrance to the Secret Annex was blocked by a movable bookcase. Otto and his wife Edith and their two daughters Margot and Anne were hidden there by Otto’s employees Miep Gies, Bep Voskuiji, Johannes Kleimamm, and Victor Kugler for two years until the family was betrayed (to this day no one mows by whom) and transported to concentration camps.
Anne and her sister Margot died a year later, most likely from a typhus outbreak, in Bergen-Belsen. Edith died in January 1945 in Auschwitz. Otto Frank was the only family member to survive the Holocaust. When he returned to Amsterdam after the war, he found that Anne’s diary had been saved by Miep and Bep, and made it his life’s mission to get it published, which he succeeded in doing in 1947. In 1957, he set up the Anne Frank Foundation for the purpose of collecting enough money to purchase and restore the building at Prinsengracht 263. It was opened as a museum in 1960.
I got to see the entrance, the offices in the front, and the Secret Annex. I saw how tiny the space was that the whole family shared. I saw the magazine clippings that Anne and Margot taped to the walls of their room to make it seem happier. I saw the black barriers placed in front of all the windows so that no one could see inside, or out. And I saw the diary, the original pages. I was taken aback by the eloquence with which a 13 year old girl was able to express herself, and saddened that any young girl or boy should’ve had to endure such a thing.
One of the most moving parts of the museum for me was watching a video featuring Anne’s childhood friend, Hanneli Goslar. Hanneli was also in Bergen-Belsen at the same time as Anne, but in a section of the camp where the prisoners were given more provisions and treated much better than those on Anne’s side. Hanneli was able to talk to Anne several times through the barrier, and a couple times even throw provisions over for Anne. Hanneli reported in the video that Anne had been convinced her parents were dead for a while. She revealed to Hanneli through the barrier that she had nothing more to live for. Hanneli was tormented her whole life by this, always believing that if Anne had only known her father was still alive, she might have found the strength to survive until the camp was liberated just weeks later.
After my tour through the museum, I bought The Diary of Anne Frank because it only seemed right to do so since I had never read it. I cannot wait to read it because I think it will make the experience even more meaningful than it already was.
To be continued…