The Netherlands: Intro and Days 1 & 2

As I did with my travel journal from Vienna last fall, I am going to start posting my journal from my recent trip to The Netherlands.  And, like the Vienna posts, I’m going to break them up by days, partly to keep the posts (relatively) short but also to try and replicate the journal-writing experience.

Of course, as you might know by now, our trip was extended by the eruption of the volcano in Iceland, so what should have been a ten-day vacation turned into more than two weeks.  Though the vacation had ended and I spent most of that extra week stranded in Amsterdam worrying about how to get home, I did continue to write in the journal.  Consequently, I have so many entries that I’ve decided to post them two at a time, just to keep the posts moving.  This is going to make for some lengthy posts the next week and half or so, but hopefully they’re interesting enough to keep people reading.

So, what follows is Days 1 and 2, our arrival on April 6 and our first full day in Amsterdam on April 7.

Day 1

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Our first day in The Netherlands was long and exhausting, but also somehow uneventful and still exhilarating.  Which is perhaps what we’ve come to expect from travel by now.

The flight out was as it always is: time in the airport, time on a plane, some napping, some unexpected jolts awake to eat tepid airline food….  But when we landed in The Netherlands, something transformed for me.  This is the land of my fathers.  Those were the exact words that buzzed in my mind as we coasted down the runway, as I watched the flat, canal-rimmed and tree-lined landscape flash past.  I’ve always been deeply proud of my family heritage, but I’ve never been exclusively attached to the traditional paternal lineage of my family.  Now, though, the realization that my own great-grandfather—my father’s father’s father—once walked this land was a weirdly profound moment, made all the stranger because I’ve known this as long as I can remember; I grew up with the stories of my great-grandfather’s flight from Holland to a life at sea.  I’ve long loved all the aspects of my family history—the Scottish, the Cajun, and the “Chinese” (according to my grandfather) as well as the Dutch, and when I visited Scotland I was awed by that family connection, when I started writing my historical novel set in southwest Louisiana I was proud to have a relationship with the region.  But now, in Holland, there is a jolt of connection I have not experienced before.

When I texted my family to let them know we’d arrived, my father sent me an e-mail:  “Does your DNA sense a déjà vous?”  I think that’s exactly what I’m feeling today:  a tug at the genetic code, a familiarity somehow inherited.  And it’s not just me:  during this day alone we’ve already seen at least two copies  of my younger brother and a version of my cousin Kathy, and there are plenty of more general features on the streets:  the foreheads, the cheekbones, the height, all belong to my grandfather.

To familiarize ourselves with the city itself, Jennifer and I walked around our neighborhood for long stretches and ran some essential early errands, like strolling over to the Rijksmuseum to purchase a Museumkaart that will get us into dozens of museums all over the country (including a few in Hoorn, where my great-grandfather actually came from).  Later we wandered up a long street and across the Amstel to a subway station to buy our transit card for the week.  And otherwise we simply meandered about, crossing canals on little bridges, the canals like wide alleys or boulevards in water, packed with small canoes and skiffs and houseboats parked along the canal walls like cars on curbs; or admiring the gorgeous architecture here, both the distinctive leaning brick facades of Amsterdam homes or the vast modernist buildings for offices and museums; or else simply sitting in a park (Amsterdam is full of them!) and watching the passersby, enjoying a perfect spring afternoon in the sunshine with a breeze on our necks.  We watched lovers stroll hand-in-hand, college kids play pick-up on the basketball court, teens trying tricks at the small skate park, dogs splashing in a long reflecting pool while kids clambered over interactive installation art like playground equipment.

Now I’m back at our lovely B&B, weary after a long climb up three (and a half) flights of the steepest stairs I’ve ever seen but refreshed after a shower (in the most economical bathroom I’ve ever seen—a tiny room the size of an American half-bath, completely tiled floor and walls, and the toilet is literally inside the shower!).  Our host, Irene, calls her B&B “Between Art & Kitsch,” a reference not only to the names of her cats but also to her delightful décor, a blend of gilded chintz and bohemian flare, with plenty of painting both modern and classical to liven up the walls.  She also taught us some Dutch:  I tried out the long, formal “dank u wel” for thank you, and after she congratulated me on the effort, she explained that the shorter “bedankt” works just as well.  So I told her “bedankt,” and she replied with the second phrase she taught us:  “alstublieft” (you’re welcome, though the guide books also suggest it can be used for please and something like “here you go,” when giving someone something).

She said she’d quiz us over breakfast in the morning, and since it’s nearly midnight Abu Dhabi time and therefore late for me, I’m off to rest for the adventures of tomorrow….

12:05 am (April 7), Amsterdam time

Day 2

Wednesday April 7, 2010

Today started with cold water.  It’s not really worth mentioning, except that this time of year back home in Abu Dhabi, our water begins to heat up all on its own, just from the sun, so even our cold tapwater comes out lukewarm.  Here in The Netherlands, even in spring, the water is running frigid, and it made for a bracing wake-up as we washed our hands and faces.  But it certainly woke us up for the day.

The weather helped, too.  The springtime is unbelievably perfect here, precisely my idea of spring weather:  brisk morning, warm sunshine and cool breezes, flowers everywhere, even downtown.  It’s hard to imagine a more ideal spring day.

Which is why we were happy to walk so much today.  We started with a long hike out to a post office (which wasn’t there anymore, prompting a second hike the other direction to find the next post office), and then we drifted north across the first canals into the city to visit the Katten Kabinet, a quirky little museum/private collection of cat-related art:  sketches, paintings, statuary, advertising posters, and real cats, who lounge around on the furniture like exhibits themselves and who certainly didn’t mind all the petting.  Among the highlights:  an original (rather than a print) of our Chat Noir poster, a disturbing painting of a sorcerer conjuring a demon cat from the clouds over a debauched city, a neat little drawing of cats by Manet, and a weird little sketch of a cat by Picasso (which he disliked and so X-ed out!).

Afterward, we set out on a boat tour, which was glorious.  I think this should become a thing for us.  We took a seal-watching boat tour around a bay and a fishing town in Prince Edward Island, and a river boat tour of the architecture in Chicago.  Now a tour of Amsterdam’s canals.  Today was a perfect day for it, too—with the warmest temperatures predicted for this week but still a cool breeze through the open windows, and absolutely awash in bright spring sunshine, we couldn’t have asked for a more picturesque introduction to the city, or a better vantage.  Scores of bridges in every shape and design, bright modern architecture alongside the famous leaning townhouses, a water-level view of the merchant ship Amsterdam docked outside the NEMO museum—even a heads-up on the kinds of lines we can expect when we visit the Anne Frank House (they were l o n g! even before noon).

After such a leisurely drift through the city, we decided to keep the pace slow and just meander the streets in the direction of the city center, figuring we’d act like seasoned travelers and just pop into the first restaurant that appealed to us and grab a little lunch.  Sure enough, after several blocks Jennifer spotted a delightful little tearoom called Pompadour, with hip but comfortable table settings, a familiar atmosphere, and absolutely splendid food.  We split a delicious homemade tomato soup, then Jennifer had a sandwich of brie, grilled asparagus, and paraham (like Canadian bacon but in strips), while I ate a feta, spinach and tomato quiche.  Add the pot of tea we shared and it was a perfect lunch.

But this is what we do on vacation, it seems.  We are only adventurous to a point—we’re willing to try almost anything and we do a fair job of rolling with unexpected detours (we’ve made “it’s an adventure!” our joking response to almost any mishap), but when we find something we like (a place that feels inviting, comforting, right), we aren’t afraid to come back again and again.  Sure enough, as we left, Jennifer said without my prompting, “I really liked that place.  We might have to come back!”

After lunch we toured the fascinating Amstelkring, a full-blown Catholic church tucked away inside the attic of a canal-side home, a leftover from the days when Protestant Amsterdam outlawed Catholicism.  It’s under restoration at the moment (as is every museum and monument in the city, it seems!), so we missed out on some of the more impressive sights, but the fact of its existence—what seems a smallish but complete church, including chapel, nave, altar, huge organ, confessional, and the priest’s quarters—is practically miraculous.

We stopped for milkshakes, and then we moseyed on across a few canals to find a small public library, tucked away in what feels like a private home.  It was a delightful moment, keen as we are to visit libraries in any city we travel to, and this one was full of friendly people, engaged readers, homey nooks and side rooms, and distinctive painted ceilings left over from when the library was a home.

After a few more quaint streets and beautiful little canal bridges, we stopped off at a hip terrace bar and restaurant—another spurious but fortuitous find from Jennifer (the Cafe de Jaren, a terrace café along one of the canals)—and enjoyed a terrific dinner of lasagna (for Jennifer) and giant ravioli (for me), with a brownie and homemade chocolate ice cream for dessert, and then we hopped a tram back to de Pijp, our home neighborhood.  By then night had settled over the city and a light rain had started, a perfect cap to a long spring day.

One of the most interesting things about today was the observations about language I got to make.  Jennifer and I are both language nerds—during lunch, we had a conversation about the Dutch word for gin, jenever, which I teased she was named after; Jennifer said her name meant pure, and I said that was because gin is clear, but she insisted her name is of Welsh origin (I knew she was right, but I like to make lame jokes).  I said that I actually thought jenever might be related to the botanical name “juniper,” the berries of which are distilled to make gin.

Then, toward the end of our lunch, I overheard a girl ordering chocolates from the Pompadour—she had a vaguely francophone accent, though I couldn’t place her as French, Belgian, Swiss, or something else entirely—yet she was ordering her chocolates in English.  I recalled that yesterday, when we toured the Heineken brewery, one of the guides opted to speak in English even though we were the only native English-speakers in the room (a French woman in the crowd translated for her children; the guide clearly understood French because she kept responding to French questions in English, but she also apologized for being unable to speak it well).  In fact, most of the tours here are done in English, and when they’re done in other languages (our boat tour was also in French and Italian), the English comes first.  And in the restaurant where we had dinner, we overheard a conversation between three women at the table next to us—all three sounded European (one said she was born in Romania), but all three spoke in English, as did the young guy who later came over to flirt with them.  I’ve heard plenty of other languages and accents (Amsterdam is a very cosmopolitan city), but I’ve also noticed that when people of different nationalities talk here, they tend to use English as their common language.  Such a common tongue is usually called the lingua franca, a reference to a time in which French was the international language, and I remember reading many a novel in which travelers touring continental Europe would apologize for their poor German, but it seem English has truly replaced both, even in cultures of polyglots.  There are plenty of common languages to go around here in Amsterdam, but English, it seems, is the en vogue tongue to use.  (Lucky for us!)

Tomorrow, we head to Den Haag to research my family history, see a few museums, and tour a village in miniature.  And I am WAY overdue for some sleep.

But before I sign off, I want to add that I was right:  I’ve looked up the origin of the word jenever, Dutch for gin, and it does indeed come from “jeneverbes,” the Dutch word for juniper berries.

My nerdom reins supreme!

12:46 am (April 8), Amsterdam time

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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