Monday, January 11, 2010

Windmills and Tulips and Clogs...Oh My!

The name of this blog is pretty funny because of all the windmills in the country, I only saw one. There were no tulips in the countryside because it is obviously winter. And, no Dutch people actually wear clogs around, but I did manage to get a blue and white porcelain pair for my Christmas tree. Other than these three things, my second country in my winter travels was fantastic.

After seeing all I could see in Edinburgh, I hopped on a flight to Amsterdam to meet up with Lotte, a girl from Holland who I became friends with last year in Spain. We have always kept in touch, so I was really excited that I was finally going to see her, as I had promised when she moved back to the Netherlands!

Upon arrival we jumped right onto the train and headed for her town - Tilburg. I'm sure none of you have actually heard about Tilburg, but it is in the south of the country about 2 hours from Amsterdam. Known as the wool capital in Holland, Lotte grew up here and for the next months will live here after which she will move to Amsterdam. The first night we went by bus to a goodbye party for her friend. By this point in the day I had used a plane, train and a bus - I was quite the transportation junkie!

The party was for her friend Aniek (pronounced Uh-neek) who was going traveling for 7 months and was starting with NYC for New Year's Eve. As a result, I was getting asked questions all night about cool things to do and see in NYC. I think that Dutch people speak the best English of all Europeans, so it was very easy to talk to everyone at the party. After a few drinks, the group decided they wanted to show me the best of classic Dutch music and started playing old songs and singing at the top of their lungs. Each person picked a song and without fail, someone was always embarrassed with the song that their friend picked. Because I couldn't understand any of the songs, I assume it would be like showing a Dutch person: Achy Breaky Heart, Macarena, Stayin Alive and maybe the Titanic theme song. Laughing and dancing, I enjoyed my first night, but after the trip, was happy to get back to Lotte's place and get some much-needed rest.

The next morning we woke up early and headed into Amsterdam for some sight-seeing! We arrived at Centraal Station, where they have a 3-story building just for bike parking. Of the 16 million people in Holland, there are equally as many bike - and normally they are kept in pretty bad shape, as to ward away the ubiquitous bike thieves. With hundreds of bicycles spinning around in my head we headed towards Dam Square. Amsterdam was named from it's origins as a Dam on the River Amstel. Dam Square was originally built in 1260 and now is home to the Royal Palace (which was sadly completely under construction), a gorgeous 15th century Cathedral (that inside is now a museum we had no interest in seeing), a huge white monument to the victims of WWII and shopping shopping and more shopping!
As soon as we started walking more towards the center, I immediatley fell in love with all of the canals. While we crossed over the first one, I of course took a picture and didn't really love how it turned out, and Lotte assured me that there would be more photo opportunities - 'This is what Amsterdam is' she said. I really wasn't expecting SO many canals though! The city was just a small village in 1275 and as the Dutch became more important in the trading the city grew. By the 17th century, city planners laid out a new Amsterdam. Being as that it was the richest city in the world, during their Golden Age, Amsterdam became a city situated within 4 semicircle canals. When I try to think about it, I imagine a rainbow, and each color is a different canal, and in between each color are massive houses, tons of bicycles and friendly Dutch people wandering around their gorgeous city. Each canal has its own name and the farthest half circle is basically considered the boundary for living in the 'center' of Amsterdam. We were planning to stay with Lotte's friend, Minou (pronounce me-knew) and she lived about a stone's throw away from the last canal and was excited to tell me that she lived in the center! The canals are named, from the most central, Singel which was the moat around the entire city during the Middle Ages; Herengracht or Lord's Canal in English is the most posh canal and is lined with mansions; Keizergracht is called the Emperor's Canal; and last but not least is the Prisengracht, Prince's Canal which is full of houses built during the Golden Age. With no real plans in mind, Lotte humored me and wandered around from canal to canal just so I could gaze around. I loved all of the narrow houses, each a different shade, with tall windows, shutters with character and of course their own boat out front in the canal! Some of the houses are built on such unstable ground that after many years, they are starting to lean forward. I even saw some houses being held up with huge wood pillars - probably not the most secure home!

Since we had a late start from sleeping in, it got dark pretty quickly and around 5pm we met Lotte's mother for a drink at Leidse Square, a cute plaza with a huge ice-skating rink in the middle. After a pre-dinner drink we headed to a new, trendy Asian restaurant. It'd been so long since I had a good Asian meal, and it made me realize that Dutch are quite similar to Americans in the fact that they are open to a lot of things from different countries. I couldn't find a great Chinese restaurant in San Sebastian if I tried my hardest! As Lotte and I were talking about it, I realized how much more Dutch and Americans have in common. For example, when the Dutch owned Manhattan in NYC, they named some of the neighborhoods after Dutch cities - Harlem after Haarlem and Brooklyn after Breukelen - but when conquered by the Brits these changed to the English names in New York instead of New Amsterdam. Also, both the Roosevelt Presidents are from Dutch families! Also, did you know that November 16th is actually Dutch-American Heritage Day in the States, because on this day in 1776, Dutch war ships saluted the American ships passing, being the first country to recognize our independence.

We called it another early night and headed to bed early - I guess we knew New Year's Eve was coming up and we should conserve our energy! The next day we went to probably the most famous tourist attraction in the Netherlands - The Anne Frank House. Of course I read Anne Frank's Diary when I was in school, but to actually visit the place where she hid kind of gave the chills. We stood in line for an hour next to the Westerkerk (a historic church). Built in 1631, you might remember Anne saying that she could hear the bells of a tower from the annex...well this was that church! Once inside the museum took us through the bottom part of the building - where Otto Frank's warehouses used to be. His companies sold jam and meat seasonings and throughout the bottom floor you can see old advertisements for their products. Upstairs are the offices for the company and then through the famous bookcase is the annex where Anne, her sister, parents and 3 other people lived for more than two years.

When I walked into the Secret Annex, my heart just kind of dropped. Reading the book is sad enough, thinking that such a young girl had to confront such a wicked world, but to actually see where she had to hide really brought it to life. The first room was where Anne's parents and her sister slept. On the wall was a small map where Otto used to track the progress of the Allies after the invasion as well as pencil marks of how much the girls grew during their time there. The next room was Anne and Fritz's room. In her diary she wrote that she thought the room was quite bare at first but that her dad brought her film-star and postcard collection up to the Annex for her to decorate. When you see these small little pieces of magazines hanging on a huge tan wall, it really reminds you that even with her amazing writing she was just a little girl and wanted to hang up photos of her idols, just like any other 13-year old. There was a quote on the wall from her diary that just broke my heart and made my eyes well up with tears (as they are right now) - 'I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I'm free, and yet I can't let it show.' I really can't even imagine what it would have been like and even worse, that something so terrible could have only happened 70 years ago.

The rest of the house gives you an idea of how they lived and with video screens you can learn more about the inspiring teenager from people who knew her. The last room talked about how Anne died in a concentration camp, two weeks before liberation, thinking that all of her family had died. Two weeks later Otto came home and Miep Gies gave him Anne's diary. After a long time, he finally read the diary and leaves of paper that now make up her story and was suprised at how mature his little daughter had been. He decided to publish her diary, her biggest wish, and now it has been translated into more than 65 languages. In the gift shop you could buy the diary in one of those many languages, and as I browsed through, I saw the original Dutch version and snapped a photo of one of the pages in it where she talks about her photo and that she doesn't like her face and that she couldn't make it to Hollywood with this shot. Adorable.

It seems odd now to read that Miep Gies has just died on Monday. Miep, the lady who discovered Anne's diary after the Franks were transported to a Auschwitz, was one of Otto's workers who constantly watched over the family in the annex, bringing them food and supplies. Otto died in 1980 and now that Miep is gone, the original people from this amazing story are all gone. Thankfully, the museum and her diary live on. Looking back, I think that the museum was my favorite part of my time in Amsterdam, and it kind of made me want to re-read the book.

Walking out of the museum with teary-eyes, we decided to take a completely different approach to the rest of the night to cheer ourselves up. And what do people in Amsterdam do to cheer up? They go to the Red Light District. Littered with prostitutes, the district is so named because each door that is on the street has a florescent light above it. If it is on, it shines red, and means that the girl inside is available. Walking through the streets was really sad to see how many pretty girls were selling themselves and even more embarrassing to see how many guys just oogled at the girls, wearing barely any clothes. We saw some guys go in, which seemed quite gross, but I guess it is the neighborhood to do that. The Red Light District is also the area to sell, smoke and buy marijuana - since it is not illegal in the Netherlands. Because we were feeling super touristy, we bought tickets to see a peep show. Somehow we were seated in the front row, much to the envy of all the boys in the chairs behind us, and basically just chuckled the entire show.

All in all it was quite an Amsterdam day - the most important museum in the city and the most famous district in the city. Well done.

For our last full day, Lotte and I decided to check out a house that had been maintained well from the Golden Age of Amsterdam. On Keizergracht (remember, that's one of the canals), we went into a house built in 1672. The narrow house is now a museum, but an elderly lady of the family who owns the house still lives in it and is normally out of the house by 10am when the museum opens, but we learned that sometimes she sleeps in and gives the tourist quite a scare! With tall rooms, grand fireplaces, detailed wallpaper and only the best decorations, the house made you feel like you were part of the Dutch East India Trading Company and that you were coming home to this luxurious home. With preserved paintings, hand-painted Dutch china sets and authentic furniture, the house/museum was grand in every sense of the word.

Trying to make the most of our daylight, we headed out to a small town north of Amsterdam called Voldendam. This little village is right on the water (well, what isn't in Holland?) and has a huge lot of fishing boats, that in the cold water were bobbing around in half ice. The town is sort of a flashback to how earlier times in Holland were, with some people even still wearing the traditional costume - clogs and all! While there, Lotte had me try to very important Dutch foods. First was oliebollen - basically called oil balls - are a New Year's treat in the area. These deep-fried dough balls are covered with sugar and eaten warm. We got them straight from the outdoor cart and they were delicious. Not so appetizing was the second thing she wanted me to try: salted raw herring. Supposedly a real Dutch dish, I don't think anyone outside of the country likes it. After one bit of the fish, scales and all, I decided I wasn't up for tearing my teeth in for another bite and gladly let Lotte swallow mine!

On the bus ride home I saw my one and only windmill! It's not the best photo but I HAD to take a picture, probably appearing to be the most touristy person on the bus at the time. When I envision Holland I really see windmills and tulips and clogs (Oh My!) so since I didn't see any clogs or tulips, I wasn't letting the windmill get away without a picture!

Once at the apartment we got ready for New Years - 2010 can you believe it? Decked out we headed to Museum Square where Marco Borsato was giving an outdoor concert. At about 40-something years old, he is a super famous Dutch singer. It was basically the Times Square of Amsterdam that night - with hundreds of people all screaming the lyrics to songs I had never heard but nonetheless enjoyed. After a whirlwind night and meeting a lot of new friends, we eventually made it home at 6am and a few hours later I got up and around and headed off to my next Euro destintation - Bamberg, Germany.


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