Return to Amsterdam

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!)

Amsterdam
A tour boat on one of the canals in Amsterdam.

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!

Amsterdam street life
There are many ways to get around Amsterdam! By foot, bike, tram, and least recommended – car.

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!

De Brakke Grond
The Vlaams Cultuurhuis De Brakke Grond during 2018’s IDFA.

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.

Anne Frank House
The Anne Frank House.

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.>

Anne Frank House Museum
The entrance to the Anne Frank House and Museum is a few doors down from the main house.

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.

Nine Streets

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.

Amsterdam cat decor
A cute cat sculpture climbing up a house front in Amsterdam.

Dam Square

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!

Indonesian food
Dinner at Kantjil & de Tijger.

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.

Hostel bed
My first experience with hostel life at Hans Brinker Hostel. Those big metal bins for storage under the bed made a horrid noise when opening them. A great theft deterrent, if nothing else.

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!

Belgian rail
Arriving home at my local train station.

4 thoughts on “Return to Amsterdam

  1. I’ve booked marked the memorial article to read later. I’m torn on these types of conversations split between a memorial to something incredibly tragic and overwhelming (like genocide – or slavery), but the public gathering aspect. Many of these are in public spaces/parks/gathering areas and so there is the social portion brought in. I think of the many graveyards in Europe (or even here in Boston) that have become in essence well maintained private grounds open to the public to explore and use. I’m not coming across well – I hope that article addresses it.

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    1. No, the article doesn’t address that, but you add an interesting point to the conversation. The article is limited to Holocaust sites, which was the frame I was thinking in regarding the Anne Frank House. I don’t think I could come up with a hard and fast “rule” I would want people to follow regarding what is appropriate and where. It’s hard to draw a distinct line.
      For more context around what I was thinking when I wrote this post … I sat there for about 10 minutes watching one couple do what I can only describe as an “Instagram photo shoot.” I am seeing this everywhere we travel … one person posing while the other takes countless pictures of them in front of something famous. You know I don’t have a problem with Instagram, and I try really hard not to judge people on how they are using it, but it gets a little tiring to see, and to have to dodge. I just kept watching them thinking, and wondering, how will they use those pictures? Why are they smiling or trying to look so perfect? If it will be posted on social media, what’s the caption? After reading your comment, I went to Instagram and looked at pictures geotagged at the Anne Frank House and continue to be baffled. Bathroom selfies? Fashion poses? Influencer posts? It just doesn’t sit right with me to use this location for that purpose. And some of them had lovely captions about the impact of the site and Anne Frank’s diary, but I don’t see how that sentiment matches an image that is clearly also trying to show off a crop top and sunglasses.
      I think I understand where you are coming from though, and agree that there are other memorial sites which may have a more social aspect. When we visited the American cemetery in Italy where we have two family members buried, we saw locals (exercise) walking on the grounds. The staff member there told us that is very common and that the locals enjoy the space. That didn’t bother me at all. The grounds there are beautifully maintained and it is a very peaceful and pleasant place, more pleasant than some of the neighborhood roads we drove through there. So I understand that use and it doesn’t offend me. It’s actually a nice thought that there is some activity and energy in the final resting place of so many people whose relatives are far away and can’t visit often, or at all.
      When we visited the Płaszów Concentration Camp in Krakow, a jogger stopped to tell us where we could and couldn’t drive, which was helpful, but he also kind of lectured us about the sacredness of the space, and it is hard to see the difference between jogging on the road for exercise and driving on it (it is paved, clearly a road for some access, albeit apparently restricted.) I felt badly that we may have inadvertently used the space incorrectly and possibly disrespectfully, but can’t decide where a line should be drawn. We also saw people walking dogs in that location. It is a huge, park-like space with almost nothing physical remaining of the camp, so if you didn’t know the history, it seems to be a lovely place for outdoor activities.
      Very interesting discussion and thing to think about! I don’t have a definitive thought on it, except I guess I just hope people are thoughtful and respectful about things. Maybe if a crop-topped and sunglasses wearing influencer post on Instragram brings someone’s attention to Anne Frank’s story and they learn something, and knowledge and awareness is spread, maybe who am I to judge?

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      1. I definitely agree with you about the Anne Frank museum, that’s just out of sorts. The article’s photos brought to mind the larger public spaces and that’s where I was thinking. When they’re site specific like the camps, I can see those being much more somber and needing the respect, but when they’re more generic in places (like the large Berlin one) I think there needs to be a sort of middle ground. That is very weird about the runner though – seems contradictory and a double standard!

        I’ve had similar issues with museums (art and history more so than science), where I truly enjoy the silence and quiet to enjoy the artwork/historical artifacts and to contemplate them internally, but I can appreciate times when there are larger groups who are excited. They’re such weird public/private individual/group spaces. I’m sure there are many studies done on these that neither of us have come across (yet) in our line of work.

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  2. To be honest, I wasn’t initially thinking of the memorial in Berlin as a public space or a work of art, even though the article brings in that point and the architectural point of view. I can appreciate that perspective, but I still agree with the artist bringing a reminder as to what the memorial is there to remember. Now this all brings to mind the Unsung Founders Memorial at UNC and the various interpretations and discussion it has raised. I still haven’t settled on a final opinion about that one!
    RE: your museums comment, we were just talking in one of my classes this week about how museums are trying to introduce more interactive ways for visitors to connect with their collections, and possibly with other visitors, so brace yourself. 😀

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