Amsterdam was the third city on our whirlwind 2013 European adventure, and the first that I’d fallen in love with. I liked our days in London and appreciated our one-night layover in Bruges, Belgium, but it was in Amsterdam that I got my sea legs under me and felt that familiar euphoria that the best magical European cities can instill.
The city truly is all things: it has a rich, complicated, and deep history, like many European cities do. It has aesthetic beauty in spades. It has a funky vibe. Great food. Parties. Gorgeous scenery outside the city. A progressive view. An open-mindedness. Bikes.
Bikes. Boy, does Amsterdam have bikes. Not far from the train station we saw what was essentially a bicycle parking garage—level upon level of metal ramps and posts, the biggest bike rack on the planet. There were literally thousands of bicycles on it, which wasn’t surprising given that, like Copenhagen, the city embraces its two-wheel pedal culture. Biking isn’t merely exercise: it’s a green way to commute, better for the environment and traffic congestion, but also an opportunity for more fresh air and sunshine, a way to feel a connected part of the community and not an isolated and angry soul lost behind a dirty windshield.
We see this appreciation for community all over the city. Boats cruise the canals, some loaded with people celebrating—singing and cheering, especially as the boats cruise underneath one of the hundreds of beautiful bridges. Even on a weekday afternoon you’ll find this kind of appreciation for the day, for life, an appreciation for being together. Above, friends congregate on the bridges, talking and laughing. Happiness above; happiness below.
But the bridges. Amsterdam is famous for its canal bridges, ancient stone masterworks of half-moon architecture, their reflections in the canal giving them the appearance of being complete circles. At night, strung lights illuminate their shapes like a Lite Brite set, and the city becomes magic. On even the warmest of summer evenings, it can give you chills.
Besides aesthetic beauty, Amsterdam is, of course, rich with history. The Anne Frank Haus, most notably, draws visitors from around the globe. It’s a haunting preserved tribute to the lives uprooted and taken during the Nazi atrocities of World War II. Christine and I would later visit the Dauchau Concentration Camp just outside of Munich and shed tears at the scope of the horror, but the intimacy of the compact annex to the Frank attic rooms drove home the personal tragedies of the Holocaust. We glimpse the top attic room and window where a young Anne once watched over a specific tree, her one solitary connection to nature over a two-year period. We learn she used to watch a young family through this window, a family that lived on one of the canal houseboats. Anne worried that the child, a toddler, might fall into the water. In the entryway to another room, we pass Mr. Frank’s pencil markings where he charted the growth of Anne, her sister Margot, and also Peter. A sheet of Plexiglass protects it. I stare at the series of lines and dates and initials, struck by how small they were, how young, that they were still of course growing, that they weren’t yet who they should have one day become. The lines remind me of just how much time the two families had spent here. Two years. Two years. The furniture has been removed, mostly to make room for visitors in these small rooms, but artifacts remain, like Anne’s movie star photos still glued to bedroom walls. I feel as though I’m trespassing, snooping through someone else’s home, though it was never in fact a home in the true sense, but a hideout. The rooms are all tight and the walls are close, the floorboards creak, and the narrow staircase is uneven and steep and treacherous. I feel transported. I feel hollow. I feel sick.
When we leave, the sun feels intrusive and rude. Around the corner we come upon a small statue of a young, petite girl. It’s Anne Frank, with the years 1929-1945 chiseled simply on its pedestal. We stop and stare at it, so unlike the majestic statues of war heroes on horseback, statues you have to crane your neck to look up at. This one is minute, not even eye-level. Such a small, young girl. Her head is tilted slightly back. It’s a look of pride, of compassion, a look that says “I am here. I am one of you.”
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Back when I was a graduate student studying in the south of France, a group of my American classmates ventured to Amsterdam for a weekend of celebration. The city has a reputation as being a destination as an anything-goes party town, especially through American eyes. For one, marijuana is legal and sold all over the city in “coffee shops,” the signature green pot leaf glowing from signs down almost any avenue. This isn’t as big a deal now with so many U.S. states legalizing it, but back then it was something to see. And then of course there’s the Red Light district, with its prostitutes legally selling themselves in window fronts like real-life mannequins. So of course the city has been flagged as kind of a Pleasure Island of sorts, the alluring isle of taboo delights that Pinocchio is lured to. But to the Dutch, this isn’t the case. The Netherlands just takes a different philosophy when it comes to drugs and other vices: rather than criminalize them, they aim to regulate. It’s safer and less of a strain on the criminal justice system. It’s one of the eye-opening benefits of international travel—to see firsthand how other societies approach these complex issues. Things we take at home to be undisputed truths, other places—well, they might not.
We bought ice cream cones and walked the Red Light District, passing the partially-dressed women in the windows, fascinated. We tried not to stare but did. They stared back, trying to lure me away from Christine like poor Pinocchio. On one sidewalk were saw the four walls of what turned out to be a men’s urinal—right smack in the middle of the sidewalk. We could see legs through the exposed bottom section, like a bathroom stall. Christine thought it was gross, but it did address the problem of drunken public urination. Different strokes for different folks. I’d pretty much gotten used to varied approaches to peeing when I was in France for my MFA program back in 2005 and visited my first Paris bathroom to find both men and women using the same facilities, our privacy kept intact by the individual stalls. Not better. Not worse. Just different.
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When we visit a city in Europe we need to decide, of course, whether we will visit just the city itself or make time for day trips. When we do decide to venture out, we then need to consider our options: figure it out on our own and take the train, like we’ve done many times; or perhaps rent a car and explore like we did in the French/German border towns of the Alsace, or to pay for a guided bus tour. All three have their pluses and minuses. We’ve had great days doing it ourselves but also frustrating days. Same with the guided tours: they’re consistently hit-or-miss. But on the Amsterdam leg of our 2013 adventure, our guided day trip to the island of Volendam and then the picturesque windmill village of Zaanse Schans was a winner.
The guided bus tours save you time, which, for many Americans carry a lot of weight. Americans like to see the sights and then move onto the next neat thing. I’ve been guilty of this myself. Europeans often puzzle at Americans’ busy and pressure-filled touristic itineraries, their checklists of must-sees. So for that reason many of these bus tours are filled with Americans. They’re going to get you there, show you what you paid to see, and then get you back to your hotel with a bunch of new and awesome photos on your phone. Christine and I have learned over the years that in taking this approach, we lose some of the adventure and pride of figuring it out on our own; of feeling like we’re more integrated into the country we’re visiting. When we DIY, we end up walking more, we wait in train stations, figuring out maps and schedules, asking questions. We’re not in the protective bubble of the bus, we’re not listening to an audio recording of what we’re looking at (“Press two for English”). We also know that doing it ourselves is almost certainly going to have wild emotional swings over the course of the day, from elation to frustration. There’s a good chance we’ll hold hands at some satisfied point, maybe kiss, certainly connect, sharing some moment of discovery. But we’ll also probably get in a couple heated arguments. One of us will walk off for a time, collecting ourselves.
The guided bus tours are a way to play it safe, and that can sometimes be a good thing, depending on where you are, how much time you have, how tired or energetic you are, and what leg of the journey are you on. All important factors to consider. But the tour from Amsterdam was one of the successes. Volendam is a stunningly picturesque village, surrounded by water, quaint, quiet—really a living oil painting. We had time to meander on our own, the urge to rush about washing away, the afternoon stretching out before us. Later we stopped at Zaanse Schans to see the working windmills, and again you couldn’t help but think you were walking through a million-dollar Monet. The camera filled up quickly.
I try to recommend getting out of the city, if even just for an afternoon. While you might have come to see Amsterdam, or Paris, or Vienna, or Madrid, there is often an entirely different vibe and aesthetic waiting for those who take the time to find it. My wife and I don’t always heed this advice, but more and more we try to. Some of our best and most memorable experiences have been in not the cities we’ve traveled so far to see, but in the rural villages, mountains, and quaint beach towns that are waiting nearby. I imagine someone visiting my home city of Boston, touring Faneuil Hall, Fenway Park, the U.S.S. Constitution, eating at a North End restaurant, checking box after box over the course of two or three days, and then taking a taxi to Logan Airport and leaving, never venturing out to see the North Shore towns of Gloucester and Rockport, or Cape Cod to the south, or the White Mountains of New Hampshire two hours to the north. Not only would they miss some beautiful places, they’d be missing the best part of coming here.
We were back in the city after our day trip, satisfied and buzzing with memories we’d captured like butterflies. Celebratory and content, we went and found that ice cream shop and ordered two more cones, and we wandered the cobblestoned streets and crossed the arched bridges. We watched the lights of the city reflecting off the canals, the night alive with beauty and romance and laughter. Then I suggested we take a walk across town to see the girls in the windows one more time. And Christine—man, she’s the best—she said, “Sure.”