On Monday, we took the train to Amsterdam. My first journey out of Berlin since we got here. Aaron was invited to present a paper at a Mendelssohn conference there, and I tagged along with only frivolity on my agenda. Aaron worked terribly hard leading up to the conference, and then the conference took itself very seriously. The philosophers presented papers from 9 a.m. till after 5 p.m. every day. I attended Aaron’s presentation, which was of course excellent and received with appropriate approval by the professors in attendance.
When not crashing the Mendelssohn conference, I wandered around the ridiculously picturesque city. Every curve of the canal brought a new row of tall, skinny, adorable16th century houses to gawk at. The canal itself was home to houseboats.
I constantly daydreamed about my life as a canal house dweller, or a houseboat resident. As close as I got to this dream was a tour of a restored canal house museum, and the inside was as posh and romantic as I’d envisioned. Every surface adorned with art, even the table tops, marble floors and walls, little Delftware tiles everywhere.
I also visited Anne Frank’s hidden annex, which brought me to tears. I saw Anne Frank’s actual diary, and I clambered through the hidden staircase up to the tiny space where she and her family lived for two years.
At the Amsterdam Historical Museum, I learned that Amsterdam has always focused on commerce, and thus has always been a relatively tolerant city. (Okay, I concede there’s something for the pro-column of capitalism.) Except to Catholics. Once the Protestants overthrew the Spanish Hapsburgs in 1578, Catholics had to go underground. This meant that the Catholic church didn’t get to monopolize the artists with their patronage, so Dutch art lacks all the religious paintings prevalent in other countries. Instead, the civic and business groups patronized the artists, and the museum walls are laden with group shots of civil guardsmen and trustees and industry overseers who paid per person for inclusion in the paintings.
I visited the Rijksmuseum (translated as Masterpiece Museum), which is almost all closed for renovation. Only the masterpieces of the masterpieces found space on the walls. Then I toured the Van Gogh Museum where they display the letters he wrote about his paintings as he was working on them.
On our last day in Amsterdam, Aaron finally got some time off and we went together to Rembrandt’s house. We learned to etch from a modern day printmaker giving a demonstration in the very room Rembrandt etched and printed his own art. We also visited the Beguine courtyard, an ancient, secret square in which Catholic women who didn’t want to be nuns but did want to be left alone lived, and were left alone even under Protestant rule. The Catholic church still rents out the homes here only to women.
In Amsterdam, as I strolled by myself with no one to talk to and only my thoughts to keep me company, my thoughts kept circling to an inane ditty. Perhaps you all know the “Three Jolly Fisherman” song? And they find their way to Amsterdam. So, I kept thinking in my head, to the tune of the song, and the rhythm of my steps, “amster amster DAM DAM DAM!” How profound.
I had to be very careful as I trekked around. I couldn’t think too much about that naughty word because lose focus for one second in AmsterDAM and you will be squashed by a biking Dutchman. The bikes get the right of way over cars, and even over pedestrians. Aaron and I had to pick our way through bike rush hour on our way to and from his conference each day.
One of my favorite spontaneous moments in my roaming occurred when I chanced across the canal dredger, pulling out whatever he found in the muck of the canal depths. His grabbing tool over and over again pulled out bicycles, corroded, black, and abandoned, which he plopped onto the mountain of bikes on the barge he pulled behind him. I read in the history museum that the AmseterDAMMers throw all their inconvenient refuse into the canals, and in the winter when the canals freeze, they persist, so their bikes and mattresses and tires remain on the surface or suspended in the slush. On second thought, maybe the houseboat isn’t the best option.
One last adventure. On Friday, we walked around a bit more before catching our train back to Berlin. We were Amsterdam pros by this time. No problem to catch the Metro back to the train station. We arrived in plenty of time, checked for our track number, and waited patiently to board. Except 10 minutes before our train’s scheduled arrival time, it disappeared from the schedule. I went to the information desk to ask what had happened to our train.
“I’m very sorry,” the information helper told me (in perfect English, just like every Dutch person I accosted for help during our visit). “That train is no longer coming to this station.”
For some reason, our train had been diverted around us. The info desk lady sent us out to the airport to deal with the main branch of the train company. I relate this travel ordeal to you just so that I can tell you about this ingenious feature of train travel here. Usually, when you buy a ticket you must travel on the specific train you book. So, it takes a very special exception to be able to take a different train. You need a reason such as, my train decided not to stop at my station. Then, and only then, do you receive from the severely uniformed, very serious train employee the illustrious Hop stamp, with a picture of a grinning kangaroo, permitting you to Hop on the Next Train!