Amsterdam was one of the first European cities we visited after moving to Belgium. (Here’s my post about that trip [link].) I said then that I hoped we would return soon and often because there was a lot there to still explore. Well, we’ve been doing a lot of exploring, but have not made it back to Amsterdam as a family yet. This is why I was excited to have the opportunity to return to Amsterdam for an overnight trip with my postgraduate program classmates. Of course I felt a little guilty leaving my family behind, but hey, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
(A note on the photos in this post … they are all from my iPhone. I didn’t take my DSLR camera with me on this trip, so I apologize for the image quality!)
What I Did
This trip was such a wonderful reminder for me about how easy it is to travel in this region in Europe using public transportation. I think people here might take it for granted, but having come from a place with little-to-no convenient public transportation, I think it is wonderful!
I rode my bike a few kilometers to my local train station, took the train with one stop in Antwerp (one of the most beautiful train stations in the world, I’ve written more about that in this article [link]) and arrived in Amsterdam in about two hours total. From Gent, we’ve taken the train to Amsterdam, London, and Paris, all within a few hours, and all so easy. It makes me wonder why we aren’t going every weekend, until I remember it costs money and we also have life to live around here.
International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and IDFA DocLab
The main reason for this trip was to attend the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam’s IDFA DocLab. I am studying for a postgraduate certificate in Digital Storytelling and our program attended this part of the festival for inspiration and learning in the field of documentary storytelling using new media. It was wonderful!
The festival was held at the Vlaams Cultuurhuis De Brakke Grond (Flemish Arts Center). They maintain a steady program of contemporary art productions and exhibitions, so if you’re into that sort of thing, it is worth checking their program schedule during your visit to Amsterdam.
Anne Frank House
The last time we went to Amsterdam we purposefully did not visit the Anne Frank House, despite being very interested in it, because we were concerned its content would be too heavy for our young son to see. Still unsure if he’d be ready to visit, I took this opportunity of being in Amsterdam alone to visit the museum myself.
Now that I have seen it, I think he could visit it without any problems (he is nine), but every parent has to make that decision for themselves. There are only a few pictures from transports and concentration camps that might be disturbing for younger children. The way the rest of the museum is presented, a parent can explain the surrounding circumstances at any depth they deem appropriate. The other consideration, of course, is if the child can maintain appropriate behavior and respect. I think my son could do that now, but we probably made the right call when he was six and had boundless energy.
The Anne Frank House has been remarkably preserved and is now a museum showing what the house was like during the time of Anne and her housemates’ hiding. The museum expands into neighboring buildings with more exhibits and artifacts. It also has a café and gift shop.
I commend the museum for their organization, particularly with ticketing. Tickets must be purchased online in advance. You can opt for self-guided tours which include audio guides, or a ticket with an additional introductory program. When you are ordering tickets you select a day and a time slot for entry. This is the wonderful way they manage the flow of people and ensure that the museum isn’t too crowded at any given time. Be sure to check both ticket options if one or the other is full. I wanted to book a ticket with the introductory program but they were sold out during the times I had available. I almost gave up but remembered to check the entry without the introductory program and they had plenty of tickets available.
While I waited for my entry time, I sat outside the house and observed the surroundings and the other visitors. You can’t miss the Westerkerk just a few steps down the street. Anne wrote about seeing the church’s tower and hearing its bells from the annex where they were hiding, so it is worth taking a moment to notice it.
I was simultaneously perplexed and annoyed by other visitors standing in front of the Anne Frank House taking countless, smiling selfies. I understand taking pictures, obviously, I’ve done so myself, but I don’t understand the need for a selfie. What are you doing with that selfie? Why do you need to be in the picture? I guess I can understand if you want one picture with yourself in it as proof of the visit or something like that, but I watched a couple take at least 20 pictures of themselves in various poses with the house as their backdrop. Guys, if you are posing for smiley, lighthearted pictures at somber history sites for the ‘gram, I’m not here for it. I’m over here with this artist [link]. <Rant over.>
The museum itself is thoughtfully and powerfully done. Photography is not allowed inside, so I can’t show you anything. Having read The Diary of Anne Frank a couple of times, it was very meaningful for me to see the annex in person. As a descendant of Polish Jews who fled religious persecution and emigrated to the U.S. prior to the World Wars, leaving behind family members who were likely killed in the Holocaust, stories like Anne’s move me in a very personal way. This personal connection to the subject, as well as being someone who currently volunteers with refugees, the themes that arise in Anne’s story and countless others like hers both interest and exasperate me.
I’m not sure I’ve fully processed the visit yet and don’t have a grand synthesis of what I saw or learned. It’s a lot to take in and it kind of swirls around in my head. I’ve tried to compile my thoughts and impressions from the museum here, and this may be as coherent a “takeaway” as I can compile:
- Anne showed great promise as a writer. Her methods and her insight inspire me as a student of storytelling.
- Documentation of our lives can be done in many ways and take many forms, and is vital to creating records and preserving history. It doesn’t matter who we are or how significant or insignificant our story may seem to us, we all have a story to tell and documenting it can be important for the universal, historical record.
- Certain elements of parenting are universal. Examples: parents do a lot to protect their children from harmful truths; parents don’t always know everything about their children, including the depths of their thoughts or their capabilities.
- Hope sustains people in crisis. I don’t know where it comes from, especially in times of devastating crisis, but people find hope and it helps them endure and survive.
- The importance of “helpers” in times of crisis can not be underestimated.
- Perpetrators of genocide dehumanize their victims.
- Atrocities like the Holocaust can happen because the perpetrators work methodically, making social changes slowly and in small steps. This makes it harder for people to question and resist what is happening.
- No matter how much we educate ourselves, I am not sure we can ever fully understand the experience of victims of humanitarian crises, but it’s important to have empathy and to try.
I am so glad I had the opportunity to visit the Anne Frank House. These “takeaways” will always be with me.
I bought a few books from the gift shop including the museum’s catalog so that I can refer back to it at any time, especially since I wasn’t able to take any pictures. I also bought book that collected stories from women who interacted with Anne after she and her family and annex-mates were captured. They piece together what happened to Anne between her capture and the end of her life, a part of her story I haven’t heard yet and am interested to hear more about.
I left the museum and had an hour or so to walk around and attempt to clear my head before I met classmates for dinner.
I walked from the Anne Frank House to the Nine Streets shopping district. I didn’t do any shopping but it was a nice area to walk around in and lighten my spirits after a heavy few hours at the museum. This was a very lively area with lots of options for strolling and shopping. I met my classmates for a meal of Indonesian food (more details below) before we went to the opening night of the IDFA DocLab.
The Vlaams Cultuurhuis De Brakke Grond is very close to Dam Square, one of the popular main squares in Amsterdam. It just so happened that we were there on the same night as the kickoff celebrations to the winter holiday season. There was a huge concert and musical performance taking place in Dam Square, complete with fireworks. I stopped to enjoy these because we still had some time to fill before the opening sessions of the IDFA DocLab.
What I Ate
Indonesian food at Kantjil & de Tijger. This was a great restaurant in the Nine Streets area. It was perfect for a small group of us to order a bunch of Indonesian plates to share. It was all delicious!
Lunch on the go from Simit Sarayi. On the second day on the way out of town, I grabbed a sandwich from this chain Turkish bakery. It’s not fancy and it is fast food, but I mention it because it was perfect for what I needed. Also, they advertise as quality bagel makers, and a good bagel can be hard to find in this part of Europe!
Where I Stayed
Perhaps the most amusing part of this trip is that it included, at 39 years of age, my first stay in a hostel! This was the most economical option for our school group, and while I could have opted for a stay elsewhere at my own additional cost, I wanted to stay with my classmates and fully dive into the Amsterdam hostel experience. We stayed at the Hans Brinker Hostel and it was better than I imagined. A group of us “older” students snagged a room together. We even had an en suite bathroom! The hostel provided a pretty decent breakfast in the morning. It wasn’t too noisy on our floor. All in all, I survived! I opted out of trying out the basement nightclub, which probably helped my survival. If you have no qualms about staying at a hostel, this seemed like a great choice in Amsterdam.
In just about 36 hours, I was headed back home by train and bike. Easy as can be. I am so glad I was able to get back to Amsterdam. It’s amazing how much more comfortable I felt on the second visit, not only because I had been there before, but because I am much more used to Flemish and Dutch culture now. I don’t know if we’ll squeeze in another trip to Amsterdam as a family or not, but if not, I’ll always have good memories of the trips I did take!