When I have the opportunity, I love spending time in a private home when I travel, using the local supermarkets, visiting the local restaurants, walking the streets, and meeting and seeing the people. It makes me feel, in just a tiny way, that I belong. I was therefore thrilled to get the opportunity to stay with my brother /sister-in-law and their family in Amsterdam, or more specifically, Amstelveen, a satellite town of Amsterdam.
It was mid-December, and cold. We flew into Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport in the early morning, getting only a brief glimpse, under the dense cloud, of a very flat, misty, green country. That heavy, low-hanging cloud loomed constantly, oppressively, somewhat depressingly, during our entire visit. My sister-in-law explained that it hangs over the Dutch until February. It explained a lot. It explained why Christmas lights are important. In fact, the Christmas decorations were one of the only bright spots, cheerfully declaring that whilst winter was here, so too was the celebratory season. The warm bright lights beckoned you into the warm shops to sample the local wares or for a hot chocolate, or into welcoming homes.
In the early evening, as the night drew near and the darkness closed in, we noticed that the Dutch don’t draw their curtains. A single table lamp would glow in the front window of all the houses and apartments. Quite often, you’d see someone sitting by the lamp in a comfortable armchair, reading. A pleasant way to spend the time before dinner I thought, hoping that they have a nice glass of something to sip along with the book . The curtains remain open, declaring to the world that they have nothing to hide, and – for a nosy foreigner like me – we got delightful glimpses of local life.
Walking in Amsterdam is enjoyable, but can be treacherous if you are not alert to cyclists. There are special cycle lanes and trails everywhere. The bicycles are all the same, old traditional, sit up straight bicycles. Everyone rides them, young trendy glamorous women, old men, children, etc. I loved them, although in the city there is a considerable degree of what I dubbed “cycle pollution” with areas covered in seemingly hundreds of bicycles, parked and waiting for their owners to return, and for pedestrians to navigate their way around. So when I returned 18 months later and in more pleasant temperatures, I insisted my niece take me on a bicycle ride. After all, that’s what you do in Amsterdam, surely? We wound our way along the paths to the Amsterdam Bos pr Forest, and once she’d realised she needed to give me more than a split second indication of where we were going to turn and once I’d remembered that I had to get off the seat to stop and put my feet down (ok, it had been 20 years since I’d ridden a bicycle, and I only fell off twice!!), we had a very enjoyable time, and I’d done one of those “must-do-in-Amsterdam” things.
There are of course quite a lot of “must do” activities in Amsterdam. We explored the red light district one evening, with my brother-in-law as a guide. He explained to us that on his arrival, he joined a tourist group on tour, to get all the information and find where to go. We decided to believe him – family harmony and all that. The feminist in me was uncomfortable walking through the district. There is something very sad about seeing the women in the full-length windows, lit by those ubiquitous red lights. It was also much more personal than expected, coming so close to women who are displayed like animals in the zoo. But somehow it felt less exploitative than the sights I’ve seen in Bangkok – don’t ask me why.
There are delights in Amsterdam though, and we spent several days exploring the town. The architecture is so uniform, so quaint, if a little colourless. I marvelled at the houses, so narrow and tall. The reason for this I learned, is that houses were taxed on the width of street frontage. Therefore the narrower the house, the lower the tax. This of course means that the staircases are treacherously narrow and steep, even in modern houses, and moving furniture inside is near impossible. The hooks outside the houses are used to hoist the furniture to the upper floors.
Not far from Amstelveen was a working windmill, fascinating construction and set in classic scenery, if only it had been warm enough to enjoy it.
The Van Gogh museum and the Rijks Museum are wonderful, and a great way to escape the cold weather outside. Of course, the Anne Frank house is a very moving, compulsory experience for visitors to the city. We were lucky that we were there out of season, and had relative solitude looking through the house, imagining what it must have been like, looking out the windows at the same views she saw, remembering that remarkable girl’s diary, fighting back the tears.
Outside, just as we would feel that we were about to freeze solid in the grey city, we would escape for a hot chocolate, piled high with cream in the Dutch style, or for the local savoury crepes, warming and cheering us. We couldn’t linger too long however. Non-smoking sections were either non-existent or steadfastly ignored in the Netherlands, and the thick smoke soon drove us out into the chill but fresh air. Not really a hardship, when we were walking only canals like this.