Saturday, October 20, 2007

a weekend in amsterdam...

On Saturday morning a colleague from the meeting and I went out to see Amsterdam. We started at the Anne Frank House. There is something so moving about her story. Perhaps it's that I read her diary when I was the same age as her. Or perhaps it's because she is the face of the Holocaust, and everything that is horrific about that time is embodied in her story. In the end, for me at least, the shocking thing is that she was so normal. She lived in the top of an otherwise normal house on an otherwise normal street in Amsterdam. She glued pictures of movie stars to the wall of her room (didn't we all). She had friends and crushes, fights with her mother and got stir-crazy and bored. And you can see that in the hidden apartment in the house - remnants of her personality are left on her walls and over the wash-basin, and on the so-heavily-trodden-there-are-almost-holes-in-them stairs to the attic.

Seeing her actual, real diary made her story so real to me. She scratched around the sides of it, glued photos in, and it's there in front of your eyes - not just a grade 9 reading assignment, but an actual diary of a girl who lived the experiences we read.

However, the most moving part to me was watching the statement by her best friend who met her in the concentration camps. She talks about finding Anna, and having trouble getting a care package to her across the fence and then of never hearing from her again. She said that Anna said she was alone because everyone else - her mother and sister - had died.

From the Anne Frank Huis, we walked to the Museumplein for the art galleries. I can't being to explain how impressive it is to see literally hundreds of van Gough's in one art gallery put together. The curators have arranged his works in sequential order, so that you can see how he developed his style. At first, his sense of perspective was poor - half-turned chairs show too much of the side and the back, and windows are awkwardly placed on angled buildings. However, as you walk through the gallery, you can see his technical abilities progress. Several years in, he became influenced by the Japanese style, which led to some of his most famous paintings of flowering peach trees. The museum is a very different experience from the Anne Frank Huis, and it is an emotionally-charged one. Every painting has a sense of movement and feeling, that by the time you hit van Gough's last few pieces, you feel like you have seen the progression of his life and sense of frustration. But a very beautiful sense of frustration, it is...

As I'm running short on superlatives, suffice it to say that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is closed for renovation - but no worries: they have a "little exhibition" of just their best stuff. Rooms of Vermeer, Rembrandt, historical artificats from the Dutch East Indies and Dutch West Indies Companies. I think I was most impressed by how pivotal a role the Dutch have played in history. As strong a force in developing global economic ties as the other European powers, and holding their own in internal European history. Perhaps it's my British-biased education, but, considering the size of their country, the Dutch fought numerous naval battles, and actually managed to capture British ships. As an economic powerhouse, Amsterdam was home to 'tulipmania', the original version of the dot-com bust. You'd think it would only take one time for people to learn that speculating on future profits of items of no value (monetary, of course tulips hold great botanical value).

My second day was spent in a few other museums and walking around the Red Light District (very different during the day from how it is at night - actually, quite beautiful, if a little eery with ancient churches across the street from prostitutes in the windows). And, of course, the requisite renting of a bicycle and riding down a canal and out of town, along with at least half the city's population. A few interesting notes on bicycling in Amsterdam: no one wears helmets, perhaps because there are actually bicycle lanes that work. On the other hand, where cars aren't as likely a crash-hazard, but pedestrians are. So every bicycle is equipped with a little dinging bell. How fun! A click of the fingers, and everyone from elderly men to confused tourists are leaping out of one's way. However, I think the highlight of the Sunday afternoon ride was watching the rowers training on the canals - with their coaches riding on bicycles next to the canal while yelling instructions into megaphones at them.

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