Leaving Amsterdam, hello Iceland

We wake early and begin the process of packing.  I’m always surprised that eventually it all gets into the bags though at the outset it seems like a tall order.  I look over and see John sweating as he forces his kit bag shut, then point to my hiking boots and asks him if he has room.  He looks at me incredulous, smartly says nothing and begins the process anew.

Marieke and Nelda have prepared coffee and breakfast for our last morning and will drive us to the airport.  We are thankful for all that they have done to create a perfect trip to the Netherlands.  We hope that one day we will be able to create a memorable time for them in our country.  It was a leap of faith for them to open their home to us, not knowing much about us save for our wedding photo circulated through the family and a few anecdotal stories about John along with memories of his last visit 20 years previous.  From the first night our fears and hopefully theirs were put to rest as we were talking and laughing as if we had known one another forever.

We haul our too large bags to the elevator and then into their car.  An elderly gentleman rides the elevator with us, then hops on his bike and zips out of the parking lot.  John and I look at each other and shake our heads at a sight that we will likely not see for some time.

We arrive at the airport expecting to be dropped at the entrance, instead we are escorted to the correct airline.  We are touched at this extra effort to ensure that we will not waste time twirling around.  It is time to say good-bye.  Thank you at moments like this always seem inadequate, good-byes sad.  We will miss them a great deal.

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My bag is overweight, though the lovely girl says she does not notice as she slaps a heavy sticker on its side.  Security has me standing on a podium as I am searched for nothing.  John says its because I look shifty as he clears security without a second look.

Our next stop is Iceland and we are excited about this next experience. We will enjoy the first few days with 6 of our friends.  We sit back, relax and smile at the faux northern lights display on Icelandair.

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Family Amsterdam

We leave the Van Gogh museum and are shocked to discover that we have spent nearly six hours. Our plans for a return to the Rijksmuseum dashed, we venture to the boats where we can enjoy a canal tour.

The tour is relaxing, we sit back to listen to a history of Amsterdam through our head phones.  The homes are stately, the ground shifting beneath them has my carpenter husband constantly tilting his head to make them square.

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We complete the tour, find the metro station, and wait for the wrong train.  We have learned as John questions our choice, asks a helpful young lady and soon we are on the right train zipping to Nelda and Marieke’s home.

We have been invited for dinner at Aunt Emmy’s home in Zaandam, just north of Amsterdam.  It is a perfect ending to our trip to the Netherlands.  Aunt Emmy visited us in Canada a few years previous and sparked our desire to visit the Netherlands, it is a full circle moment.  Marieke and Nelda have bought sunflowers as a hostess gift, fitting after our day at the Van Gogh museum.

We arrive to Emmy’s bright, cheerful home and are treated to a tour of her cozy home.  She has prepared a wonderful dinner for us.  We begin with avocado and tuna as a mousse and enjoy with lettuce.  The main course, “gourmetten”  has us interactively cooking our own fish and vegetables in small pans at the dinner table.  It is a sociable, relaxed experience.  The food is to our taste as we cook it ourselves adding condiments and spices as desired. This method of cooking is popular at Christmas in the Netherlands, a cozy, family experience  and we are touched that Aunt Emmy has gone to all this trouble for us.

After dinner we enjoy coffee and look at photo albums.  The photo albums have been lovingly created and are shared with all family members by a rotation schedule.  John enjoys seeing photos from the times that he visited the Netherlands as a child and young man and seeing photos of his Dad as a young man. We hear stories about John’s late father and learn more about him.  John finds it interesting to hear a different perspective  about the father he knew and loved and the people who loved him.

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The hours zip by, night has fallen as we begin the journey back to Amsterdam. We speak about the amazing trip that we have enjoyed, all the things that we did, our desire to come back, our hope that many family members will visit us in Canada.  We have been here for only 8 days, though it seems like months as each day filled with family, experiences and love.  We are truly blessed.

Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

Too soon it is our last full day in Amsterdam.  We have created a large agenda and set out  early.  We have booked a time slot at the Van Gogh museum, a trip back  to the Rijksmuseum, a canal tour and will finish as dinner guests at Aunt Emmy’s home.

We take the tram to the museum square, arrive early and use the time to chill.  There is no need to queue as we will all be gained entry at the same time.

The museum is dedicated to the work of  Vincent Van Gogh and his contemporaries.  We embark on a journey through his career, his unravelling and untimely death.

Van Gogh’s early work is quite dark and at odds with what is typically known as his style. “The Potato Eaters,” a darkly coloured painting depicts its subjects as caricatures.  Van Gogh received harsh criticism for this work, listened and changed his style dramatically.  His paintings became cheerful, colourful with sunny yellow prominent.  I can’t help but wonder if the darker pieces are what he truly felt, though was forced to give the world its cheery preference.

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Vincent was not a wealthy man and could not afford models, so he used himself to work on techniques.  Each self portrait depicts a sad man, lacking in confidence, telling in how he saw himself and at odds with the cheerful colour palette.

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Van Gogh dreamed in his later years of an artist colony at the yellow house in the south of France.  He was excited for Gaughin and other artists of the time to create their art together, a Utopia. Gaughin did come  to the yellow house and stayed for nine weeks. Initially all went according to Van Gogh’s plan, though it ended badly with an argument, Gaughin leaving and Van Gogh cutting off his own ear.

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It is unclear of Van Gogh’s malady, some speculate bipolar disease, others have thought epilepsy or poisoning.  In any case, his actions were not the workings of a sane man.

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He admitted himself to a mental institution after the “ear incident” where on good days he painted prolifically, on bad days he barely moved.  His paintings were bright, colourful, seemingly at odds with his state of mind.  One of his famous paintings, “Starry nights,” currently located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was painted from the view he saw outside of the asylum window.

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Van Gogh’ breakdowns became more frequent and he died several days after  a self inflicted gun shot wound.  I feel sad at the completion of the tour.  At the beginning of the tour, I knew his outcome, though his cheery paintings had me naively hoping for a different, better end.  I wished that somehow his dreams would be fulfilled and perhaps his hopeful paintings are telling,  Van Gogh did as well.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

We venture to the Rijksmuseum.  I’m excited to see the actual paintings that I studied in University, as opposed to photos in books.

We arrive to a stately building, with at odds architecture, Neo Gothic meets Renaissance that somehow works together to create a cohesive building.

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The most charming feature is a bike tube through the museum, the only one of its kind in the world.  Bicyclists can travel through the museum, there is no art on the walls of the tube, the bikes are the art and quintessential Netherlands. During the last major renovation, the architect wanted to change the space to a courtyard, the tube nearly lost.  Thankfully, there was much protest and the bike tube remained.

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The majority of the museum is dedicated to 17th century Dutch masters.  Notable paintings are, Vermeer’s “Milkmaid,” Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch” and Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait.”

John and I decide on a “highlights” tour where the major works will be seen.  We use the Rijksmuseum app that we downloaded at home and set off.  There is so much beauty everywhere that it is difficult to remain focused.  The building, stained glass, even the floor compete for my attention.  I focus, John is distracted and not moving through as quick.

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We decide to part ways as our museum strategy differs. This is John’s second trip to the Rijksmuseum, he wants to absorb. My approach is quantity over quality, wanting to see as much as possible. We both agree we would need months rather than the day allotted to do the place justice.  Our strategy, divide and conquer.

It is freeing to explore on my own at my own pace, I suspect that John too feels free without me breathing heavy and pacing. I miss him at times when I want to look at his expression or ask him what he thinks of a particular painting.

I smile when I see Vermeer’s, “The Milkmaid,” more vibrant than imagined.  The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn grabs my attention, such an odd perspective and the first acquisition by the museum, purchased for 100 guilders. The newly married couple and their relaxed stance and grins has me grinning back.  Van Gogh with two ears looks so very sad and of course this sadness is part of his story.

A queue is noticeable at the end of the hallway.  I know that it is the main event, “The Nightwatch.”  I can wait and enjoy all the paintings, some famous and some my new favourites as I amble along.

The Nightwatch, Rembrandt’s masterpiece is in a room of its own.  The painting is massive.  Its current size is 143” x 172,” though at one time it was larger, the original size 156” x 192.”  The painting was trimmed to fit a hall where it hung before moving to its present destination,   Its unimaginable to think that Rembrandt’s masterpiece would be trimmed, though this was the practice at the time.  I wonder what Rembrandt would think, I don’t think that he would be pleased. There is a trap door in the room to remove the painting in case of fire.  This was used during WWII to save the painting.  The Nightwatch was removed from its frame and rolled up where along with other major works was hidden until after the war.  I think about the brave souls who during such a dark time, saved the beauty.  They were successful as only a few minor works were lost. I cannot imagine if it was all lost.

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I find a room of doll houses.  These were not created for children but rather were a rich woman’s hobby.  The cost of the dollhouse was the same as a canal home at the same time. The attention to detail is extraordinary and I wonder about this woman and how little she had in her life that she spent such time and expense on this folly.  I think about my craft room and the thousands of dollars invested in supplies and decide to keep my thoughts to myself.

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John and I meet again and he is excited to show me the ship room where he has spent the majority of his time, his eyes are lit with enthusiasm. We see Michiel de Ruyter’s portrait and a beautiful model of a ship.  John says he could spend all day in this one room.

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img_1970We are meeting Nelda and Marieke for dinner and have to leave.  We vow to return one day.  Music catches our ear and we see a band in the bicycle tube with a growing audience forming.  The instruments are unusual, the music unique.  We enjoy the ambience as the bicyclists cycle by.

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We walk out of the tube, the garden catches our attention.  Everywhere we look we see beauty and art.  I wonder what it would have been like to grow up here with all this, would I have taken it for granted?  I think of our own museum with its dusty dinasours and our art gallery with its impressive architecture trying to make up for its lack of content.  I wonder if someday our museums in our relatively new country will be like this? Perhaps someday art currently hanging in our gallery will garner the crowds that surround the Swan and perhaps hundreds of years ago someone wondered if the Swan was worthy of a gallery and the cost?  We have to start somewhere I think.

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Anne Frank House

I am excited today.  We have purchased the 48 hour Amsterdam pass which allows us entry to museums, metro and a canal tour.  There are many museums to choose from, though with limited time we focus on the main events, Anne Frank house, Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh museum.

We have booked our time slot at Anne Frank house.  For the first time in Amsterdam we have a deadline.  We have allowed for an extra 30 minutes for getting lost and found and are prepared with a map, map app, and a rudimentary knowledge of the city.

We arrive at the train station, get on the correct train and soon are zipping towards downtown.  We are impressed with ourselves and marvel that just the other day we were  twirling around trying to figure out the right train, right platform and failing at this task.

We arrive at the main station and begin walking to our destination.  I am fascinated with doorways and burn through our time cushion snapping one photo after another.  John, ever patient waits until I’m satiated.

We arrive with minimal effort and on time, a small queue has assembled.  It matters little as we hand over our time slot, we will all gain entry at the same time.  As we stand in line, the West church chimes the quarter hour.  During Anne Frank’s 25 months hiding in the attic she heard these same bells every 15 minutes signifying freedom gained.

I read the book as a young girl and related to her struggles as a young girl, her sister was bossy like mine, her parents didn’t understand. It is curious that I do not remember the war part, though likely it is because I had no frame of reference.  I read the book again as a young adult and was horrified for the injustice, the need to hide, though was happy that there were  people that helped to keep them hidden and provided necessities at great personal risk.  My faith was restored in humanity in the second read. I read it again as a young Mother, this time with a knowledge of that dark history and cried that they were so close to surviving and wondering who betrayed them.  I felt deep sadness for her father as the sole survivor, though awe at the resilience that had him create this place as a museum.  I hope that he found peace.  When reading WWII accounts, the sheer number of people murdered gets lost, though the story of this one girl provides an opportunity to understand the immense loss and extrapolate to all the lives that were lost.

The tour is difficult.  It is very emotional for both John and I.  We are not alone in our sadness.  We look around , many tears are shed.

There are no photos that are allowed for much of the tour and for this I am thankful.  This is a time for thought, absorption, and reflection.  This is not a time for distraction.  This happened, it is real and we must all be vigilant to make certain history does not repeat itself.

We complete the tour silent and stumble outside to sun and freedom.  The bells chime.  We feel heavy hearted as we walk around the neighbourhood and imagine the time, with the Nazi’s in power, not so very long ago. We talk  about the daily fear in the attic, the need to keep quiet.  We speak of how terrifying it would have been when they were found.  We think of how close they came to surviving.  We wonder how they were betrayed.  We talk about Anne’s hope during this dark time, the impact she might have made and the impact that she made.  Despite all her hardships, she still believed in the goodness in people and perhaps this is her greatest legacy.

Rotterdam

We venture today to my friend’s hometown, Rotterdam. Marianne immigrated to Canada many years previous though I’ve been interested in visiting her hometown.

Rotterdam has a sad history. On May 14, 1940 it was bombed, the fires devastated the town and after the war few buildings were standing. It has been recreated with fascinating architecture and interesting ideas. Resilience is strong in Rotterdam.

We take the train though we make this interesting by hopping between the two platforms trying to figure out which one is correct. Two tries later we are off. It is pouring rain today and through raindrops we look out the window at the scenery. The train ride will take one hour from where we are staying. This is nothing for us and we both wonder how great it would be if we could get around easily by train and metro.

The landscape quickly changes to rural and soon we see the familiar Dutch wooden windmills. We marvel at the work it would have taken to build these structures that are still in use today.

We arrive and need to change to station blaak as Marieke has told us. We twirl around march up the stairs so we can see a good view of the station and the lay of the land and figure out where we need to be. We get on the correct train and a few moments later we arrive.

I wonder how far to the cube houses as I walk out and look around. They are here with the market in front of us exactly as Marianne described.

The rain has stopped. We spend time looking at the cube houses and a curious sculpture. We marvel at the outside of the market, it beckons us inside.

The market is a busy, happening place with tons of shops and restaurants. It is curious as it’s inside of a courtyard or rather is the courtyard for a apartment building. The people in the building can look out their window at the hubbub of activity or choose to draw the drapes. It’s interesting, unusual and artistic.

It is difficult to choose a restaurant though we settle on poffertjes and strop waffle to start. The poffertjes are melt in the mouth goodness and calories do not count on holidays we remind ourselves

We walk outside and find retail shopping nearby. We browse though quickly abandon this pursuit as we are not in a buying mood. We instead decide on a ride on the Ferris wheel for another perspective.

We ride and snap pictures of the city. John spies the maritime museum and we decide to go there next. I notice an old church and wonder how it managed to survive the bombing. We are offered another perspective of the cube houses pencil building and bridge. The architecture is unique and beautiful though I can’t help but feel sad for what was lost.

John enjoys the maritime museum with its outside and inside options. The Harbor is protected and we muse that this would have been important for the Nazi’s during the war. How different today when there is a relative peace with water lapping the shore and workers carrying out their daily duties.

I find a bullseye that makes a sport of flicking butts into the receptacle. Only a few stray cigarette butts miss their mark so it appears to be working.

We find the statue representing the destruction of the heart of Rotterdam during WW II and marvel at the resilience that recreated the city from those ashes.

We venture back to the market in search of dinner. We are overwhelmed by choice though settle on a restaurant where we enjoy charcuterie and wine.

We wander a bit more to find coffee and dessert with a perch over the market providing yet another interesting perspective. We relax and enjoy the atmosphere.

It is late as we walk to the train station, only one misstep and soon we are zooming back to Amsterdam. We have learned much during our short visit about Rotterdam, and the resilience of its people.

Dutch food and family

We arrive back to Nelda and Marieke’s eager to share our day.

Marieke has made a traditional dish called boerenkool stampot (mashed kale and potatoes) served with sausage. This is typically served in colder months and is a comfort food. There are a few different ways to eat this either with vinegar or with stock. We try both and like Switzerland declare them both tasty. Nelda wonders if we should hand in our Smit card and it does cause a stir that we also like the vinegar way. We are touched that Marieke went to this trouble for us.

We decide on a walk around the Amstel river with Nelda. The river is so pretty at night with houseboats flanking the sides, warm, cozy lights aglow, outside lights reflecting. Boats amble down the river. On the shore a path circles with runners, bikers and walkers sharing the space, enjoying the last of summer. We enjoy a beverage with a view of the Amstel and take in the ambience.

Tomorrow we will spend some time with John’s Aunt Ann. Tinneke and Don have graciously offered to drive.

We wake early and prepare for the day. Tinneke and Don arrive and we are off. It is raining today though we cannot complain as the weather has been perfect. Whenever it rains we are indoors, when we venture out it stops.

We arrive at Aunt Ann’s and are surprised and pleased to discover Marjo and Eric will also join us. We hear Bach in the background creating an elegant atmosphere. The large window allows for maximum light despite the rain.

We enjoy a wonderful lunch of smoked eel, salted herring, cheese, bread, cold cuts, so many wonderful things to eat. We sample everything and I’m surprised to discover I like eel and herring.

After lunch we retreat to the lounge to chat. Ann has prepared a list of memories to share with John about his late father. We enjoy a cozy, rainy afternoon listening to stories and learning about John’s Dad as a young boy and man. Ann says that John looks like his Dad and it is both sad and happy at the same time for her.

We spend a lovely afternoon listening to stories from the past, sharing our present lives and plans for the future.