Thursday the 23rd of June
We are entering the land of windmills and tulips. They encroach upon us as though we are sitting targets on the highway, a snapshot printed in place of the window of our fast moving car. We could equally be standing still, for the five lane motorway appears as a static image on our windscreen. I burst open a bag of beugals chips to pass the time, reminiscing on the dutch dinners that these waffle-textured cheese cones often preceded. Memories in a chip! There is not much to recount when the subject is an hour or two on the highway, apart from, in this case, writer’s block and junk food.
We had farewelled Antwerp, for the short time-being, with a visit to a cafe once owned by our family friend. After a patient breakfast at Cafe Lillie due to its lazy opening time of 10:00, of a waffle with fresh strawberries and chantilly caramel cream, we walked the length of the quay to Broer Bretel. It was a peaceful morning in the quiet city.
As we put more distance between Belgium and the Netherlands, the landscape begun to transform from the untainted highway to a flat landscape with kept vegetation and a neat row of industrial windmills which reached into the sky. The two countries are only a highway apart, but starkly different in their appearance, history and ambience. Take our point of departure, Antwerp in Belgium, which experienced its Golden Age in the sixteenth century when it thrived as the sugar capital of Europe. Its geographical placement as a port-side city gave it access to the countries which wanted access to its waters and its produce. Shadows of the shipping yards and Het Steen, a fortress used as a prison between 1303 and 1827, still characterise the harbour. Its importance is echoed in the grandiosity of buildings which comprise the city: it is rich and ornate and renaissance in style. Heavily influenced by France and Spain due to relative proximity, Belgium is a predominately Roman Catholic state. The people are reserved but friendly. Our destination, the Netherlands, I would describe as cool and collected. The people are forward but friendly. Traditional religious prose is tending towards Protestantism, but above all, acceptance is practiced in every facet, from the straight apartments to the long dykes. The country is dotted with windmills and houses surround the canals which for centuries have prevented the low lands from flooding. Any rich buildings built in the style of renaissance and baroque seem somewhat out-of-place amidst the seafaring simplicity maintained by the town houses. Most buildings are unmistakably designed in the functional capacity of the shipping economy, where long apartment warehouses are fitted with hooks at the gables in order to lever any incoming goods to the top of the buildings. The same feature is fitted for apartments which never had a door wide enough, or a staircase incline moderate enough to transport a vanity cabinet, let alone a bed stand, to the top floor. Implicitly, there is far more to the Netherlands than just Amsterdam and the Red Light District. This seafaring lowland outlived its Golden Age of trade, science, art and industry in 1667 and was a neutral party in World War One. The same could have been likely in World War Two had it not been invaded by the Germans, and today, the Netherlands is a leading exemplary in international relations and human rights ratifications. It is an old country which emanates youth by anticipating the popular thought of the far left and by being, above all, accepting.
A man in a navy blue suit, expertly balancing his tan leather briefcase and vintage bicycle zoomed past as we drove underneath a bridge panning the width of the motorway.
This is ridiculous.
I need a drink. The past three hours have been spent at the wheel attempting to traverse the thick pedestrian crowds and dodging risky cyclists that invade the roadway. Whilst mum has been steering the car, I have acted as interpreter of the satellite navigation system. Direction is a sense she was born without – an inanimate rock could very well have a better sense of direction than she – and unfortunately I inherited this trait making for an equally poor navigator. What mum lacks in orientation she does not make up for in listening ability. Therefore, I have been instructing her which way to turn when she cannot link the arrow on the street guide to the street itself. Amidst the pedestrians and cyclists this has been immensely stressful and a total waste of what could have been a productive day. From this experience, I would like to share a message with fellow travellers: PUBLIC TRANSPORT PEOPLE.
Needless to say, we made it into the heart of Amsterdam, and if it has not been made clear thus far, a train ticket would have been a far less painful choice of transportation into this city built for pedestrians. Whilst we circled the city centre in search of our hotel, I took note of the plenty quirky paraphernalia which characterised the cobblestone streets. To our left, a magazine booth plastered in signage advertising SQUIRT.ORG – a tinder-esque app for ‘non-stop cruising’ – caught my attention. To our right, a sincere-looking institution was covered with spray-paint artworks (graffiti?) mimicking the revolutionary style of Banksy. We were searching for a parking space in the vicinity of our hotel but our attention had already been distracted by the personality which oozed from Amsterdam. When we finally arrived at the Park Plaza Victoria this sentiment only grew. The hotel, to its advantage, lacked any inkling of architectural consistency. From the reception, to the bar, to the gym and our sleeping quarters, each room differed in its motifs creating an artistic variation which only further enforced our impression of the city so far. Mum and I shared a dark room with two low lying beds and a square-metre bathroom which tested our patience for one another. However we did not endeavour to spend so much time within these walls, so we were back into the busy streets as soon as we has regained composure.
Somewhat disheartened by the tumultuous traffic which had drained so much of the morning, we stumbled along the unfenced dykes, where plenty a bike had fallen into the ravine, only to be pulled up by a barge some years down the tack. Despite this danger, many bikes lay idle on the bank of the canal, and we continued to walk on the murky water’s edge. After wandering into, and again out of, a store bedecked with merchandise for the utilisation of cannabis, including wonderful little pipes fashioned to look like reproductive organs (tempting), we settled ourselves into an afternoon aperitif at a quaint cafe. A few rounds of gin: a Damrak Gin and Tonic and a Dutch Mule in a balloon glass. A portion of bitterballen with mustard. Or two. It was a satisfying pause in our rather hectic day which we felt was yet to begin that afternoon when we entered the renowned residence of Anne Frank.
We returned from the Anne Frank House duly under the impression from the exhibition. This historical relic frozen in its original stature attracted thousands of visitors to its door on a daily basis, to the extent that we were too late to get a ticket online more than a month prior to our trip. Initially doubtful that we might not have the chance to see this wartime legacy, we joined the line which spilt onto the street and wrapped around the nearby church. At a snails pace, we cramped forward for the duration of an hour taking turns to explore the surrounding canal and pricey souvenir shops resident within the church. I had left the marijuana lollipops in their stand but returned with two pairs of leaf-patterned socks in time to slip into the line aside mum and into the looming building before me. The walls were white. A monotonous enclosure entirely removed from the world outside, just as it would have been at the time in was secretly inhabited. No light shone into the home though the opaque curtains and only minimal furniture cramped the small space which had been home to the eight refugees of the Holocaust. Anne and her family of four immigrated from Frankfurt when the extremist antisemitism became a threat to their safety. Her father, Otto Frank, owned two businesses which produced a gelling agent for jam and a meat spice mix located in the factory which later became their secret annex. Throughout their hiding, the Frank and Van Pels families were provided their means of subsistence through the altruistic aid of four factory workers whom managed production within the warehouse throughout the war. A bookcase located in the storeroom swung open on a hinge to reveal the apartment wherein the two families kept busy through boardgames and books. Anne shared a room with Fitz Pepper which was decorated with pictures plucked from magazines and photos of her friends glued to the wallpaper. Daily, she wrote in the red-checkered diary she had received for her fourteenth birthday, motivated by her dream to become a published writer, but kept her thoughts private and resilient in the presence of her family.
The Anne Frank House is central to the history of Amsterdam, often overlooked by tourists due to the hype caused by the Red Light District. Only few hours are required to discover the true character of the city located within the network of canals. From cheese factories and gin bars to fine art museums and friendly locals! The Netherlands is so much more than its capital city. We settled into the hotel lobby for a cocktail before returning to the room for a thorough rest painted with dreams of this amazing city and our experiences today.