Well, I’m back from the Netherlands, y’all. And I could have stayed forever. SRSLY.
The weather? Meh. The landscape? Flat and damp. But the cheese, chocolate, pancakes and rijstaffel were fantastic, the small towns delightful, the public transportation impeccable, and the city of Amsterdam beautiful, walkable, clean, green and full of seemingly contented citizens (maybe because their OMG SOSHALIST! government provides such an excellent standard of living). And I’d like to send out a special how YOU doin’? to all the handsome Dutch men, including the one who flirted with me in a pastry shop when I was so painfully jet-lagged I was unable to properly flirt back. (Sorry, dude. You were adorable, but I was really tired, and my mom was there.)
No, I didn’t smoke up, although I nearly got a contact high from walking through the skunky clouds that emanate from Amsterdam’s “coffee shops.” Nor did I take a voyeuristic stroll through the Red Light District. I did walk along the fringes of it one night on the way back from the train station, just as it was getting dark. Yes, it has red lights. Yes, there are display windows, although I was there too early to see any prostitutes sitting in them. Some guidebooks recommend a tour of the Red Light as an essential component of any visit to Amsterdam. I don’t. I’m not morally or politically opposed to legalized prostitution, but I totally agree with what Pilgrim Soul wrote about “considering the people who purchase these services as engaging in an essentially objectionable activity.” The prostitutes have every right to do their (legal, often unionized) work, but paying for sex skeeves me out, and I don’t care to devote any part of my vacation to witnessing tourists troll for blowjobs.
MamaSharper and I made several day trips to smaller cities in the region, including Haarlem, Delft and Bruges, Belgium, all of which were so picture-postcard lovely that I could have happily stayed longer just to stroll around them a few more times. Click on the jump for pictures of gorgeous scenery, tulips, and some unintentionally funny oddities I discovered last week…
Even without going to the Red Light District, there are plenty of signs that Amsterdam has a extremely sexually permissive culture, significantly more so than permissive American cities like New York or San Francisco. Sex shows and sex shops advertised openly on billboards and posters, like this one:
Bikes are by far the most popular form of transportation in the Netherlands. Every street and highway has a designated bike lane, usually separated from cars and sidewalks by a curb. Unlike US riders, who generally prefer racing-style bikes, the Dutch ride solid, heavy-framed three-speeds, without hand brakes, and they ride bolt upright, like the Wicked Witch of the West. A Dutch taxi driver explained to me that you don’t need more gears because the landscape is so flat, and the heavy frame and thick tires helps riders stay upright in the strong, gusty winds of the lowlands. Every public place has bike parking, like this multi-storied bike garage outside Amsterdam’s Centraal Station:
Here’s a shot of how incredibly beautiful central Amsterdam is, with its 17th and 18th century canals and canal houses:
The huge Portuguese Synagogue (aka the Esnoga) in Amsterdam is one of the few Jewish houses of worship to survive the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Built in the 17th century, it looks much as it did then, an airy, vaulted space with whitewashed walls and dark wood. It’s built in the Sephardic style, with the bimah in the center (at left in the photo) and the Torah ark at the front. At the top left of the photo you can see the women’s gallery, which is set closer to the ceiling than the floor, and covered by a head-high bronze grate that obscures the women’s view of the floor and prevents the men from seeing them clearly.
While we’re on the topic of Dutch Jews, I did go to the Anne Frank House Museum in Amsterdam, which was tremendously affecting. It was harder for me emotionally than viewing the extensive, well-curated displays at the US Holocaust Museum and Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem. Because you can walk through the actual rooms where the Franks and four other people lived, you can easily picture yourself living in close quarters with blacked-out windows, hiding for two years. Like a lot of girls, I always identified with Anne Frank’s love of books and writing, and her clear, emotional assessment of her world. The knowledge that two years of hiding ultimately made no difference in her fate, and that she died utterly alone in Bergen-Belsen, is almost intolerable. I was glad I visited the museum, but I had to have a good cry on the banks of the canal afterwards. At both Anne Frank’s house and Corrie ten Boom’s “Hiding Place” in Haarlem, I kept asking myself not the usual question: Would I have the courage to hide and protect my neighbors? but the more upsetting one: Who would do this for me and my family? Maybe that question haunts me more because I am Jewish, but it’s one that I think everyone should ask themselves, because the answer is a good measure of the society you live in and the company you keep.
My first day trip was to Haarlem, where there were many entertaining oddities to be found.
Here is the old meat-market building on Haarlem’s main square:
Here’s the bull’s-head ornament on the meat market building. It kinda looks like he knows what’s in store for him, doesn’t it?
In Haarlem’s Grote Kerk, I found this carving on the choir stall. It’s a “Pillar-Biter”—both a warning and a protest against religious zealots whose extremism undermines Christianity. I think I went to college with a few pillar-biters.
Outside Haarlem is the world-famous Kukenhof Gardens, a combination of botanical gardens and display rooms showcasing the glories of Holland’s flowers, especially tulips. We were there very early in the season, so the only things blooming in the extensive outdoor gardens were crocuses and daffodils—had we been there a month later, the tulip and hyacinth plantings would have been ablaze. Indoors, though, there were showrooms full of glorious flowers on display:
For our final day trip, to Bruges, Belgium, the weather finally cleared up, and it was brilliantly sunny. Bruges is a perfectly preserved late medieval/Renaissance town with more gourmet chocolate stores per block than any place I’ve ever been to. My mom and I bought a large mixed assortment from one of the fanciest ones and happily munched as we wandered along the perfectly picturesque streets. Here’s a beauty shot…just imagine a whole town like this:
For day trips, I also recommend Delft, which, like Haarlem and Bruges, was scenic, historic and had canals, winding streets and fantastic pastries. At an antique store in Delft I bought an 80 year old cast-iron pan for making poffertjes. As soon as it’s seasoned, I’ll be eating them by the bucketful and wishing I were back in the Netherlands.
Special thanks to MamaSharper, for being the best travel companion ever, and for generously subsidizing the trip. I love you, Mommy!