A bureaucratic bother carried us back to the glories of the Dutch Golden Age and into the vital heart of the Netherlands today – all enfolded in the capital city of Amsterdam (Ahm-sta-DAHM).
We traveled by train from Groningen via Assen, Zwolle and the open vistas that characterize the northwest of the Netherlands. We changed trains in Almere and joined the other trains, cars, cyclists, barges, boats and jets streaming into A’dam (as locals refer to it) – everyone pulled, it seemed, by the gravitational force of this majestic city. Amsterdam, in fact, seems laid out akin to a solar system, with rings of canals orbiting the frenetic hub of the Centraal Station.
Emerging from the station, we hopped on the #12 Tram and headed for the Museumplein District. As the tram snaked its way along the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, the streets, canals, bridges, shops, street vendors and restaurants were all teeming with life.
We made our way to our lodging for the evening, the Hotel Washington, situated a short walk from The Rijksmuseum, The Van Gogh Museum and other cultural treasures. The hotel was also located five minutes from the U.S. Consulate – the actual organizing priority for our trip.
The hotel was a joining of two adjacent 4 story town homes, with the middle separating wall removed. As a result, there was the oddity of two side-by-side staircases – one which spiraled to the left and the other to the right. Our room was one that you’d only find in a European city, equipped with four singles, like a fashionable barracks, to give rest to the weary tourist soldiers who inundate the city today the way the tides did centuries ago. Perhaps in keeping with the theme of the hotel’s American namesake, our room featured striking wall art harking back to the age of Motown!
Jacoby (Ja-coby) was the hotel manager on duty when we arrived. His seemingly British accent and parting “Cheers” gave me the mis-impression that he hailed from the isle just across the channel. A touch of caution deterred me from making some quip that he was a Brexit refugee, saving me from minor embarrassment given that later conversations revealed that he was a native of Florence and Italian through and through.
After we unloaded our overnight backpacks we headed back out, en route to the town of Wormerveer, a northside suburb of Amsterdam. Rather than taking the tram, we opted to walk towards the nearest metro station. Along the way, we crossed some of those picturesque canal bridges, delighted in those famous Dutch gables, saw a storefront demonstration on how to roll a croissant in 9 seconds, and read some travelling words of wisdom.
When we visited Amsterdam nearly a decade ago, we heard of the massive public works project which was the new metro system. It was our good fortune that the system was just inaugurated (we were told) a month ago. Indeed, when we entered at the shiny De Pijp Station, the gleaming turnstiles and trains below seemed to be waiting just for us! The monitor announced that northbound trains arrived every six minutes. Sure enough, we were soon aboard and flying towards the epicenter, Centraal Station.
We have transportation cards, so-called “Chipkaarts,” that allow us to ride any train or tram or bus across the Netherlands. The whole fare regime is set up on an honor system. You “check in” on trams, buses and trains by scanning your card on a sensor located either on a pole on the train platform or on the trams or buses themselves. Then you “check out” by scanning your card again when you disembark.
In this fashion we boarded the train for Wormerveer at the cavernous Centraal Station and then hopped off 20 minutes later. Janet, Elyse and I crossed the street bordering the Wormerveer train station to only stop short at the sudden realization that we had forgotten to “check out” of the train! We hustled back across the street to the train platform to scan our chipkaarts, all the while wondering if some unseen transit officials would pop out and apprehend us!
Our purpose in traveling to Wormerveer was to see Scott, a Washburn alum whom Janet and I had met during our one month visit to Utrecht in the summer of 2009. Over the past months, Scott had been our constant guide via Skype to all things Dutch. On the day we arrived back in July, he met us at the airport and shared a lunch with us on that first sweltering day.
Scott, as it turns out, is the owner of an actual pirate ship that is moored on the main canal at Wormerveer. He operates the ship, “The Natalie,” as a B&B. We came to say hello, meet his daughter Natalie, and tour the ship bearing her name. In addition to Scott and Natalie and any B&B customers that might be aboard at any time, the ship is also home to their dog Cocoa and a few seaworthy cats. Our daughter Elyse is budding photographer and welcomed the animals as subjects. My only question was, “Is Elyse more interested in Cocoa, or is Cocoa more interested in Elyse?!’
We needed to get back to the Hotel Washington because Janet was going to participate in business meeting back in the U.S. via Skype. So we boarded a train back to Centraal Station, transferred to the metro back to the Museumplein, and then walked back to the hotel. Janet’s meeting began at 4:15 p.m. in Kansas which was 11:15 p.m. our time. As she prepared for her call, Elyse and I took an evening stroll across the Museumplein. You would have thought that it was around 8:00 p.m. given how many people were out walking, riding bikes, playing music, laughing. The sprawling Rijksmuseum was magnificent in the night and nearby canals were bathed in light from a regiment of lamp posts which were smartly standing at attention.
Morning’s first light found us up and on our way to the U.S. Consulate for the business which had precipitated this trip. We had opened an account at a Dutch bank in Groningen some three weeks ago, but that account still had a zero balance because (a) the bank wouldn’t accept a cash deposit (can you imagine?!) and (b) our U.S. bank, due to the specter of international financial fraud, required a form be notarized by an American notary before they would initiate a wire transfer. So we had to schedule an appointment at the U.S. Consulate for that purpose. The waiting line was three weeks long, but our day had finally arrived.
We successfully concluded our visit at the Consulate, with all necessary forms stamped and signed, and then went in search of some breakfast. After that infusion, we took an easy amble through the Museum District where Elyse and I had been the night before. There is a great lawn which was dotted with people sitting in tour groups, having a meal break, reading a paper, lounging with a date. Around the edges of the lawn are the Concert Hall, the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, The Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. We were just passing through today, postponing our dates with Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Van Dyke and the other masters to a future visit.
The sculpture above invited hands-on exuberance, the one below, wonderment.
Instead going indoors, we made our way back to the Centraal Station via the #2 Tram and boarded one of the canal touring boats for a sightseeing trip across the harbor and along some of the storied canals of the city. Seeing Amsterdam from the water felt like we were entering the bloodstream of the city which courses through each neighborhood. Our boat skimmed quietly, effortlessly through the water, which was a marked contrast to the twisting, halting, squealing rides on the tram.
Along the canal tour, we saw watch towers dating back 400 years, old warehouses, stately mansions and countless picturesque scenes of arched bridges which were invariably decorated with a necklace of bicycles tethered to their cast iron railings. Each of the 50 or so people on our boat were wearing earbuds through which tales of the Dutch Golden Age of the 1600’s through to the present were told through landmarks along the way.
After an hour we emerged from the boat with lunch on our mind. I led us in a direction that I hoped would (a) lead us to a quaint canal-side café and (b) avoid the renown Amsterdam Red Light District. On a visit to the city nine years ago, I led a similar expedition with Janet, Elyse (aged 5 and in her stroller), and my Mother-in-Law Doris – only to stumble squarely into the center of lace, garters, and all sorts of accessories. This time I was sure I was walking in a different direction. Nonetheless, we suddenly found ourselves face-to-face, through a storefront picture window, with Claudia! It was a reminder that the Red Light District’s geographical boundaries are a bit elastic as well as the curious balance that the Dutch maintain between their historic strict Calvinism and their ‘live and let live’ ethic.
In that similar vein, Amsterdam, of course, is also famous for its tolerance of soft drugs. Although technically illegal, pot use seems to be fairly prevalent. There were several occasions when Janet, Elyse and I found ourselves suddenly enveloped in a fog cloud of pot smoke that stopped us in our tracks. All of this has served as interesting discussion topics with our young teenager! Nonetheless, we persevered and found that quaint canal-side café for lunch. Janet had a salad, Elyse chose the Dutch lunch staple of a ham and cheese sandwich, and I settled on the almond crusted spinach quiche which was out of this world.
We stepped out of the café with the general intention of making it back to the hotel, gathering our things, and making our way back to Groningen. Close by the café, however, we saw the majestic Nieuwe Kerk and drifted over to take a peek inside. The church is ironically titled given it dates to the early 1400s. Along the church walls we saw a bevvy of trailers that one sees when a film crew is shooting a scene. As I came to the church entrance, I could see and hear a vibrant music group singing inside. The person at the door informed me that the church was closed for a special service that was being live-streamed by the World Council of Churches! I’ll need to return on our next visit.
After a few other pitstops, we made it back to the hotel to collect our bags. There, I had a final conversation with Jacoby of Florence. As we talked about living in the Netherlands, he articulated a reality of learning to speak Dutch which would have fit well in my prior blog post. Learning Dutch, Jacoby said, actually involves learning how to speak again. By that, he meant that in English or Italian, you form your words with your lips and tongue at the front part of your mouth. By contrast, a good bit of Dutch (remember those ‘g’s’!), comes from deep in your throat!
With that linguistic image tucked away, we bid arrivederci to Jacoby and headed to the metro for our trip to the Centraal Station and the train back to Groningen. The thrilling aspect of leaving Amsterdam was the realization – all a part of this wonderful year-long adventure – that we would be back to savor the city again.
Having “checked in” at Centraal Stration, our train pulled away from the station; the harbor; the canals; the cafes; the teeming streets; the centuries of history, art, commerce and exploration; the Golden Age, the Reformation Age, the age of liberation, and this new age taking shape. As the city receded and the sun dipped lower in the sky, we cruised along into the Dutch landscape, dotted with small towns, farmhouses and tree-lined fields and canals. The train glided as smoothly as our tour boat, leaving me with the momentary illusion that I was back on the water, meandering again along the web of canals that carried me for an afternoon into centuries past.