In 2010, I met a very special Dutch family while travelling through Namibia. While we only spent a week together, we exchanged contact information and told each other that if we were ever visiting each other’s country, we would be welcome in each other’s homes. This type of sentiment is usually cast off as empty rhetoric, but through the power of social media, we have been connected ever since and I finally got the opportunity to take them up on their sincere offer. (Or at least I hope it was sincere)
Arriving at Schiphol airport, I was briefly involved in an unintentional game of ‘Spot the Canadian’ as my Dutch welcoming committee attempted to find me. The children of the family; Remy, Laura and Sylvie, as well as Sylvie’s boyfriend had come to greet me and escort me into Amsterdam. The five of us piled into the family car (apparently Dutch people do have cars) and caught up on three years of stories on the ride into the city. Deciding that supper was a priority, we went to Fier, one of Amsterdam’s cozy pub and eatery places. Great food, good beer and an intimate atmosphere, it was exactly what the Dutch refer to as gazellig, which basically encompasses the attitude of most of the Netherlands. That is, the art of being awesome, without even trying!
After our meal, we headed back to Sylvie and Martin’s apartment where I would be staying for the next three nights. I was given a room at the top of a narrow four story stairway that looked out to a garden at the back of the building. So gazellig! I say goodbye to Remy and Laura and reflected on a long first day of travel from Calgary to London to Frankfurt and finally to Amsterdam. It would have been a good way to end the day for sure. However, this is Amsterdam and it was time to party!! “How are your drunk cycling skills?” is the question that Sylvie kept asking me.
In truth, I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in about ten years, but I figured that the old adage ‘like riding a bike’ must have come from somewhere! My confidence was then somewhat shaken when just outside Sylvie’s apartment, a man on a bicycle had fallen, hit his head, was bleeding and lying unconscious on the pavement. However, as events unfolded, Sylvie comforted me by pointing out just how quickly the police and ambulances had arrived on the scene, and how good the Dutch medical system was. Yes, very comforting!
The event we were headed to was the Valhalla Music Festival at the RAI. As Sylvie and I rode through the city just after midnight, she pointed out sights of particular interest. I attempted to steal a look at the things she commented on, but frequently found myself riding up against the pedestrian curb, which then prompted Sylvie to yell at me to “Please pay attention, Beau!”
We arrived and parked our bikes amongst the thousands that were locked up in the square outside of the RAI. A massive venue, there were signs at the entrance that said, ‘This is a drug free festival’. Sylvie scoffed and estimated that 90% of the people at these events were on some kind of party drug (which are legal in the Netherlands). Often Dutch festivals will even offer the service of shaving off a small part of your ecstasy and test it to ensure that it is clean. For a North American, this seems like enabling the use of drugs, but in reality it makes for a safer experience for everyone.
After meeting up with Sylvie’s friends, Anouk and Merel, we wandered through the festival’s eight separate stages. The theme is a 1920s style circus, and so there were ferris wheels, fortune tellers, little people, clowns and all kinds of associated randomness. Oh, and there were also a lot of people. Ten of thousands of them! It was hard to fathom that the entire event was put together for only one night! We danced and listened to electronic music acts from all over Europe, but the main performers were definitely Dutch. My favourite of the stages was certainly the Palm Tree Club. A year ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what “trap” music was, but in recent months, Dutch trap music has become one of my most favourite. Combining Caribbean dancehall and dubstep with aggressive industrial beats, the high energy of the music kept us going all night.
Finally, sometime after six o’clock in the morning, when my clothes had been sufficiently saturated with smoke and Heineken, Sylvie and I began our bike ride back to the apartment. Unlike our trip to the festival, our ride back was quiet and direct. It was a bit paradoxical, having come from a massive complex full of noise, people and substances, to silently riding a squeaky bicycle through Amsterdam’s cobbled streets while admiring the canals that we sped past. It was peaceful, yet exhilarating at the same time! So very gazellig!
Waking up the next
morning afternoon was a bit disorienting. It was now Sunday afternoon, having woken up from my first sleep since Thursday night. It had been about two full days on six hours of proper sleep and I surprisingly felt well rested! That evening, Adrie and Marianne, the patriarch and matriarch of the Dutch family took Sylvie, Martin and I out for a tour of the Amsterdam canals. Amsterdam is Amsterdam. I don’t think there is any other way to say it. The architecture, built around canals, combining traditional styles with trendy modern touches. It blends itself all too well.
That night we shared traditional South African food (as an ode to our time in Namibia) and reminisced about our week in the African desert. Adrie brought along with him video he took of our journey together and we watched footage of three years ago, including the interviews at the end of the trip that I doubted I would ever get to see. Now, sitting in an Amsterdam apartment, far away from Africa, it was sentimentally nostalgic to watch and reflect back on that week.
Our conversations that night eventually strayed from our time in Namibia and turned to something that I wasn’t aware was still a relevant topic in the Netherlands. That being, “the war”. The legacy of WWII is still felt here, not only regarding sustained animosity towards the Germans, but also within the Netherlands as well. During the war, it was the southern city of Rotterdam that had taken most of the German bombardment, while Amsterdam was, for the most part, spared. Following the war, those in Rotterdam felt the people in Amsterdam got off easy, while those in Amsterdam are envious that most of the government money after the fighting went to Rotterdam. Rotterdamers consider Amsterdam to be a “living museum” meant more for tourists, while Amsterdamers view Rotterdam as the blue-collared little brother. Oh, and as with everything Dutch, there is the football and the rivalry between Feyenoord Rotterdam and Ajax Amsterdam.
Furthermore, even some 70 years later, it was mentioned that Canada’s involvement in WWII has not been forgotten by the Dutch people. Canadian troops played a large role in finally liberating the Netherlands, and have been remembered more fondly that the British or Americans. This feeling is held so strongly by the generation that lived through that time, that Sylvie’s grandparents wanted to personally thank me, as a Canadian, for assisting the Dutch!
It was therefore, only fitting that I started my day of exploring Amsterdam by visiting the Anne Frank house. While a relatively simple museum, it offers the perspective of the place that Anne Frank and her family hid for those many years. It’s special to be able to walk through the rooms that Anne describes in the diary that we read as children. Certainly the most spine-tingling moment comes when you get to walk through the secret door behind the bookcase! The museum also offers an exhibit on the concentration camp where Anne and her family were taken, as well as an interactive discussion of human rights.
Christmas in the Netherlands may not be as big as it in other parts of the world, but it feels very genuine. As I walked through the city, I came to the Royal Palace and the Nationaal Monument, where people and decorations adorned the central Dam. Amsterdam’s main boulevard, the Damrak had stalls upon stalls lined along the street, containing everything from Dutch baking to cheese to games and photo opportunities. It was the outdoor Christmas market that I had hoped to see in Holland!
With an hour before I was to meet up with Sylvie and Remy, I did the obligatory tourist thing and sought out the Red Light District! What did I find? Well, American and Russian men, for the most part! Zing! As it happened, I actually struggled finding the district. Then when I literally had my head down in the middle of sending Sylvie a message, I heard the knocking on some glass. I looked up and turned to see that a lady behind a window was trying to get my attention. I had found it!
Perhaps a Monday afternoon is not the ideal time to visit the Red Light District, but I found the whole place actually kind of cute. The narrow streets are lined with quaint buildings and cobbled sidewalks, and the lack of cars on the smaller passageways allows for a traditional village type of feel. Oh, and there are beautiful women in lingerie who will have sex with you for money standing in every window! Much has been discussed about prostitution in the Netherlands and whether its legalization is a positive for the willing Dutch workers, or a negative for the girls that have been trafficked here under the pretenses of some other kind of career. But two things stood out for me as I walked through the area. One – I don’t understand why the sections for black women, Asian women, Latin women, Eastern European women, etc. are separated. I mean, it’s 2013, isn’t it about time that assimilation occur, even among prostitutes?! Also, most of the girls seemed to be on their cell phones. Again, perhaps things are different at night or on a weekend, but it makes me wonder. Has the amount of effort a prostitute puts into her job been compromised ever since the invention of Angry Birds??
Quite opposite from the Red Light District, my farewell to Amsterdam consisted of eating traditional Dutch food with Remy, Sylvie and Martin. The highlight being dessert (of course) and the ollieboller! The ollieboller is a ball of dough, sometimes with raisins, deep fried in oil and covered with powdered sugar – basically like a Tim Bit the size of a baseball! We ate, drank, played games and sang until the end of the night. All in all, not the typical tourist experience in Amsterdam, but so good…so incredibly gazellig!