Amsterdam

November 16-17, 2012
Amsterdam, Edam, and Volendam; the Netherlands

Amsterdam bridges at night.

Amsterdam bridges at night.

My Dear Piece of Home,

There are three things that come to mind when I think of the Netherlands: dressage, my past teachers, Bali.

I first learned of the Netherlands  through the name Anky Van Grunsven, legendary dressage rider (my tall Petrie riding boots are named after her: ANKY). She rode gold medal rides in the Olympics (or was it the World Equestrian Games) while three months pregnant. Since watching videos of her ride, an image formed in my mind of the Dutch. Stoic. Disciplined. No-nonsense. But strong. Unbeatable. Hard-working.

Strangely about 60% of my closest teachers and mentors have been Dutch or of Dutch origin. My high school English teacher (also a “Van”) once recounted a strange encounter on a trip to Amsterdam. “I saw my doppelganger from afar,” he told us. “He looked like the Dutch version of me… I stayed well clear of him because I was afraid if one of us spoke to the other, one of us would cease to exist…” I’m glad that he didn’t go “poof!” that day and survived to teach our English class years later. Of course, I’m not sure if the Dutch in them makes them great teachers (correlation is not causation! too small of an n! personal bias!), but so far I feel blessed to encounter these great teachers and professors with Dutch last names.

The biggest surprise of my trip to Amsterdam was not the marijuana-selling “coffee shops.” It was not the ladies of the red light district, illuminated by the same red fluorescent lights that make meat look appealing in the butcher’s shop. It was that Amsterdam is probably the curry capital of Europe. Think about it. Dutch East India Company. Remember my trip to Bali earlier this summer? In Amsterdam I felt like I was on a reverse colonial journey. Restaurants upon restaurants serving Nasi Goreng and satay. Even at a rest stop on the way into Amsterdam, they serve fantastic Asian food. I had the best non-Western meal since I came to Europe at a Dutch rest stop. Behind an arrangement of fresh vegetables, a tiny Dutch girl spooned curry paste and fish sauce into a wok to make a fresh bowl of piping hot curry (no pre-prepared vats of curry here!) And even more surprising: finding the same kind of synthetic penjors which stood outside our hotel in Bali outside a toy shop in the tiny, sleepy town of Edam.

I saw synthetic Penjors just like these at our hotel in Bali!

The Penjors of Edam: a reverse colonial journey.

We visited Edam and Volendam, two villages outside of Amsterdam, early on Saturday morning. Both used to be fishing villages. But once the sea was dammed up to make what is now the Netherlands, Edam lost its access to the water and turned instead to cheese-making. Volendam remained a fishing village and stands by the reservoir to this day.

They journey into Edam was quiet and peaceful. It felt very much like walking into a sleepy, miniature town. The houses were the size of tiny cottages placed end to end. The only activity outside of our tour group was some Christmas decorating: a few locals teetered on ladders to string up evergreens and Christmas lights. At the hour, the church bells rang a song, sounding more like a music box than a bell tower.

Preparing for Christmas!

Preparing for Christmas!

The fishing town of Volendam.

The fishing town of Volendam.

Volendam had a bit more tourist flavor with souvenir shops and the like. Still, I got to taste a bit of Dutch culture with a sandwich à raw herring. I likened it to a cross between smoked salmon and anchovies: the sleek texture of smoked salmon with the fishy, salty taste of anchovies. With the onions, the raw herring was surprisingly a delight. I would only recommend it if you like fish, however.

The Dutch eat their fries with ketchup and mayonnaise.

The Dutch eat their fries with ketchup and mayonnaise. My sandwich came complete with the flag of the Netherlands.

In the evening we returned to Amsterdam, where I had another taste of Dutch cuisine. We found a restaurant bar whose Dutch name I cannot remember. ‘t L… and my mind stops there. The meal was absolutely divine, however, especially after coming in from the cold weather outside. I ordered stamppot, and my friend ordered haché. The meal was plain (essentially meat and a potato/vegetable mash) but perfect in its plainness. It had the wonderful quality of being hearty, warm, and filling without making you feel sluggish and gross. My favorite element between the two of us was my friend’s simmered red cabbage, which luckily for me she didn’t like. I loved the acidity and sharpness of the red cabbage and happily stole it all from her.

Stamppot. Mixed vegetable mash, gravy, simmered meat.

Stamppot. Mixed vegetable mash, gravy, simmered meat.

The resident cat who roamed the restaurant.

The resident cat who roamed the restaurant.

My final act in Amsterdam was to walk through the Anne Frank House on my own at night. I have to admit, I had not read Anne Frank’s diary and thought the Anne Frank House would be a miniature version of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The Anne Frank House was, of course, smaller in scale than the D.C. museum but instead gripping in a very personal way. As I gazed at the magazine clippings of Hollywood stars pasted on the faded wallpapered walls, I could suddenly feel Anne’s desire to brighten up her captivity in whatever way she could. The inhabitants of the Anne Frank House always moved in hushed silence, in the dark, behind shutters and curtains–lest they be discovered (they would later be betrayed). Gazing at the magazine photos of British royal children and Hollywood stars, I felt, perhaps as Anne did, surrounded by shadows of playfulness and freedom–things which only existed outside the walls of the house. Seeing these little details inside the house really moved me. Anne and her family continued normal life with a faint hope made all the more tragic by a sudden betrayal. Anne’s writings demonstrate her young ambition–she would write and rewrite drafts as only a dedicated writer would, determined to realize her goal of being a published writer. Her dream would be realized by her father, years after her death.

I walked back to the hostel alongside the canals of Amsterdam that night, inspired by one with ambitions not much different than mine. Anne believed she had so much to give. And although she was taken before she could package her gifts herself, she left us an incredible body of work all because she kept writing until the end. Imagine if she had been stunned by the possibility of death. Imagine if she had considered her writings worthless because she thought she wouldn’t survive, or even if she did, that no one would listen. Imagine if that fear had prevented her from writing a single word. Because she did not succumb to fear but nurtured a hope, her voice continues to speak clearly and powerfully even to this day.

So don’t fear. Keep writing. And send something to me if you’d like, I’d love to read it.

Until next time,

JJS

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