Monday, April 12, 2010
I am quite too relaxed to write. I’ll try to jot down a few notes, but I expect to sleep soon.
We did the Artis Zoo today, a beautiful complex packed not only with an excellent zoo but also with a planetarium, an aquarium, a zoological museum, an African savannah area, a butterfly house, and a few small Japanese gardens. The planetarium was rather small and seemed a bit underdeveloped, the aquarium was cool but is in the middle of some much-needed renovation (as is the savannah), and the zoological museum was, unfortunately, partly closed. But the zoo itself was fantastic, full of well-planned open enclosures and lots of breathing room for the animals. The Japanese macaques, for instance, live on a fenceless “island” called Monkey Rock, with just a wide moat separating them from us, so they have no cage wire to contend with and we get to see them more closely and naturally. The birds, too, mostly have the run of the zoo—I once found myself face to face with a blue heron as it alit on the railing of the bridge I was crossing; later, an opportunistic heron flew over to the seal tanks during their feeding demonstration in order to pilfer a few stray fish, and we also found peacocks pecking around in the dirt and harassing a European bison, though he wanted none of their imposition and quickly charged them to chase them off.
I think my favorite part of the zoo, though, were the two small Japanese gardens, each with a large bronze statue—one of the Japanese bodhisattva Jizo and one of Buddha—resting quietly along the stream and the blossoming trees. At each garden I slipped inside, sat on the bench facing the statue, and took a few moments for quiet meditation.
Still, it was a LONG day walking all over the zoo, which stretches over several city blocks, and by evening we were definitely ready for a little relaxation. A while ago, I had experimented with some homemade sensory deprivation for a writing exercise, and in the course of researching techniques I started reading about saltwater float tanks, similar to sensory deprivation tanks but aimed more at physical relaxation. Turns out one of the more prominent companies that offer the tanks is here in Amsterdam, a spa called Koan Float, so Jennifer and I each booked a massage and a float session. The massage was fairly standard, but it was really just the run-up to the float itself, a kind of pre-relaxing relaxation. The float was clearly the highlight.
The tanks look like space capsules or, more accurately, like two hot tubs, one turned upside down over the other as a lid. Inside, the water is heated to body temperature and heavily salinated, salty like the water in the Dead Sea or the Great Salt Lake, which makes the water extremely dense and allows a human being to float in it unaided by breathing or swimming—you just bob on the surface. (Actually, the water is shallow enough that you can sit in it if you want, but if you let yourself relax completely, you do indeed rest high up in the water.) There’s a air flow system to circulate air, small speakers and a music system to play the sort of relaxing sounds you usually listen to during a massage (“the plinky-plunky music,” to quote Phoebe from Friends), and a light. This way, you control the amount of sensation you experience; if you turn off the music, the air, and the light, and float in the body-temp water, you will experience almost total sensory deprivation.
It’s a spooky experience, to feel nothing, and at first I felt restless, like I needed to keep moving just to remind myself I was in the water. Every several minutes I switched on the light just to make sure it worked. And because I was floating so high in the water, because of the salt content, my head kept falling back at an uncomfortable angle. But I soon discovered that if I raised my arms over my head—which created a kind of counter-balance in the water—my torso floated lower and my head found the right angle. So, after about a half-hour or so, I got used to the sensation (or sensationlessness) and was able to let go. I switched off the light, breathed deeply as in meditation, and… well, fell asleep, to be honest. It was just that relaxing.
So, no mind-altering revelations, no great epiphanies or sudden enlightenment. But a hell of a relaxing soak (the company promotes a 45-minute float session as the equivalent of 4 hours of sleep, and if I’d been used to the experience and had relaxed the entire 45 minutes, I think I’d believe them), and now I’m ready for a full night’s rest. Tomorrow, after all, is Hoorn, the city my great-grandfather left more than a century ago. So I need my sleep.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
I grew up hearing story after story about my family history. My grandfather is the child of an immigrant father, and he never knew his own grandfather, who remained in The Netherlands after my great-grandfather left it back in the 1890s. Despite a lifetime at sea, my own grandfather never managed to get to the “old country” and meet his relatives, and I suspect that’s partly why he became such a passionate genealogist.
We still like to jokingly roll our eyes when Grandpa gets started on genealogy, because he exhibits an inexhaustible joy in recounting our lineage, begats after begats, and when he long ago traced the direct lines as far back as he could get, he happily jaunted off down side avenues of our family, tracing distant cousins and several generations of relation by marriage and then reciting his discoveries to us all. Genealogy can be a lot like fishing—you have to spend a lot of time sitting in the boat before you get a hit—and listening to anyone talk about genealogy can sometimes be like listening to a fisherman recount the types of bait he chose, the places he cast the lines, and what direction the wind blew before you finally get to the excitement of the catch. But I have always shared my grandfather’s fascination with our family history (though I am a recent convert to the joys of genealogy), and as a storyteller I love knowing the details of who my forebears are—not just the names and dates, but the real details of their lives, like what professions they worked in or how long they waited to get married. I’ve discovered, for instance, that the men in my family have a strange, unspoken tradition of marrying older women (a tradition my grandfather and I both bucked but which my father upheld). I’ve discovered, too, that my family’s history with the sea goes back farther than I’d thought: my grandfather was the fourth in a line of ship captains, but before those Snoek men took command, their ancestors already had their toes in the water, working as harbor pilots or bargemen.
So this trip to Amsterdam has always been about more than just museums and city life and vacation. For me, this trip was most importantly about getting to the country where my great-grandfather was born and, today, to the city he grew up in. There is something both profound and sublime about walking in an ancestor’s footsteps, about seeing buildings and touching water and treading stone streets that my forebears saw and touched and trod. Perhaps it is just a trick of the mind, a psychological game I play on my myself, but it feels deeply important that I echo my history, that I not only learn about my family’s past but, when possible, that I experience that past first-hand. That physical connection feels important to me. I worry that many in the coming generation are losing that—as information and gratification become faster, more immediate, so our memories grow shorter. It feels necessary, then, that I lengthen the reach of my own memory. While my students recall their own “distant” past, “back in the day” when they were only 10, and seem not to care much about events that preceded their own birth, I now can say that I have seen myself the city my great-grandfather left almost 115 years ago.
After a short train ride north to Hoorn, we popped into the regional tourism shop—I’d read the shop had walking-tour guides for sale, and we bought two, one detailing the historic buildings in town and the other covering the history of the Dutch East India Company in Hoorn—then we headed to the Westerdijk, the boardwalk area overlooking the harbor and the Markemeer (the huge lake that once was part of the Zuiderzee, the massive inlet from the North Sea, before The Netherlands dammed it off and separated it from the sea). When my great-grandfather left Hoorn, at the age of twelve, he did so as a stowaway aboard a ship, but it was a natural means of escape, since his father and his grandfather both were sea captains. My great-grandfather spent the rest of his life as a seaman, as did two of his sons, including my own grandfather. So I felt it was important that one of the first things I do on arriving in Hoorn was go down to the shore and touch the water.
The rim of the harbor is shored up with large, dark-gray boulders to break up the surf, so I clambered down these to the water’s edge and knelt there, dipped in my hand, and held a fistful of the water a moment before bringing up my hand and wiping the water over my face.
We had plans to visit two museums in town, one focused on the long history of the town and the region, and the other focused on Hoorn and Holland in the 20th century. Both were fascinating and surprisingly similar: The Westfries Museum contains several fascinating displays of domestic life in North Holland in the 16th to the 19th centuries, with bedroom and living room furnishings, children’s toys, and storerooms, as well as exhibits of shops, jail cells, and courtrooms. The 20th-Century Museum had many of the same kinds of displays, showing living rooms from the `30s, `50s and `70s, the evolution of the washing machine, and an early schoolhouse and schoolyard, as well as huge display cases packed with all manner of pop-culture paraphernalia. Browsing the two museums back-to-back, and walking the narrow, winding streets of the town between museums, I kept thinking about my own ancestors in this same town, using similar furniture, eating in a café like the one where we had lunch, touching the hospital wall that Jennifer and I touched, visiting one of the churches in town (my grandfather doesn’t know which church my ancestors attended, so I photographed every church I could find in the hopes of getting the right one).
As we wandered the town, we worked our way south to the old harbor, where my great-grandfather was most likely to have sneaked aboard a ship and left his homeland. There, at the junction of two harbor-side roads, stands the Hoofdtoren, a 16th-century defensive tower protecting the Buitenhaven (Outer Habor) and the merchant ships coming in and out of port. Today it’s home to a (rather disappointing) café and restaurant, where we sat for a cup of coffee, but the tower remains otherwise unchanged and is an impressive sight. It’s become one of the city’s key landmarks, and later we bought a little statue of the tower to add to our Christmas village display (which, through our travels, is rapidly becoming less Christmas-y and more just a display of places we’ve been!).
Also on the dock is a three-piece bronze sculpture depicting the three Ship’s Boys of Bontekoe. The statue refers to a legendary story of a Dutch sailor from Hoorn, who kept a journal during one particularly perilous journey to the Dutch East Indies and his heroic return; when he published the journal in the 17th century, it was a sensation throughout Holland, and remains so today, so much so that in 1924 a Dutch author used the three cabin boys Bontekoe mentions in his journal as the basis for a young-adult adventure story. The statue, three boys sitting on a wall gazing over the harbor, longing to head out to sea and high adventure, speaks to the Dutch connection with sailing and the yearning to be out on the ocean.
I spent a long time at the statue, circling it, touching it, studying it. It could easily have been my own great-grandfather’s story (of course, knowing my family’s penchant for embellishment, it could just as easily have influenced my great-grandfather’s telling of his own story), because my great-grandfather was himself a cabin boy, gone to sea at the age of 12. It’s true that he was running away from home as much as he was running toward the sea, but he made a career of seamanship and did indeed enjoy a lifetime of adventure. So standing there, in this place, I felt like I had somehow found my family, like I was seeing three versions of my own ancestor perched up there on the wall, watching the ships sail in and out of the harbor.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the city, poking into narrow passages and exploring little neighborhoods. My great-great-grandfather is supposed to have run a boys’ school in Hoorn, and we found buried in the heart of the city a crooked little street called (in Dutch) School Street, though I have no idea if there’s any connection. And there is a long street that (I think) we walked down called Gerritsland—my great-great-grandfather’s name was Gerrit, though it was a common name and there’s surely no connection there, either. But otherwise we contented ourselves with casual exploration, whiling away the afternoon until it was time to return to Amsterdam on the evening train. I had seen the things I came to see, done the things I’d hoped to do. I’d touched history. And I am happy.