Sunday, January 1, 2012


Two Days in Amsterdam

Mom and I went to Amsterdam over winter vacation during our marathon trip. We spent two days exploring the canal-lined streets.  One of the first things we noticed about Amsterdam, besides the picturesque canals, was that people were riding bikes everywhere. We were amazed to see people of all ages walk out of a grocery store with four or five bags, hang the bags over the handle bars of their bikes, and ride away. All the streets have bike lanes, and pedestrians really need to take care to stay out of the way of the bikers. We saw tons of bikes leaning on fences and bridges, especially outside of Centraal Station. The odd part was that almost none of the bikes were locked up.
Amsterdam's winter is definitely colder than Madrid's, but it still wasn't painful like a Chicago winter. We both brought our giant winter coats, so we were more than ready. It was interesting to note that in Amsterdam, people actually dressed in warm clothes because they had to endure a legit winter, whereas in Madrid, I sometimes think that dressing for winter is more of a fashion statement. Anyways, we fit right in with our coats.

Arriving in the morning on December 24th, we dropped our bags at the hotel and strolled over to the famous Bloemenmarkt, an outdoor market that sells bulbs for tulips and other flowers all year long. The bouquets for sale were fragrant and beautiful.
Roses at the Bloemenmarkt
We found amaryllis bulbs for sale, but didn't buy any because we weren't sure if they would make it through customs in the US. Wandering through the flower stands, we were amused and surprised to discover that they were selling marijuana plant starter kits. Didn't buy those either. The flower market trailed a canal, and restaurants lined the other sides of the street. There, we stopped into Lunchcafe for sandwiches. We decided on this cafe because it was suggested in as guide book I had found in the BU in Madrid office. The sandwiches were delicious!
Flower Bulbs
Marijuana Plant Starter Kit

From there, we went to tour the Heineken Experience, where we learned about the history of the Heineken company and their brewing process. One of our favorite parts of the tour was a ride called, "Brew You," during which the visitors went through the brewing process from the perspective of a bottle of beer. We stood on a little cart that shook slightly as the bottles traveled on a conveyor belt, and bounced when we landed and floated in the simulated brewing tank. They even included heat lamps for part of the process. While exploring the exhibits we learned that the Heineken company uses a strain of yeast specifically modified for their beer only; it's their secret ingredient. Also, we were told that each "e" in the word "Heineken" leans to the left as if it were smiling. At the end of the tour, they explained that the purpose of the foam on top of the beer is to reduce its contact with the air, and they gave out samples.

Following our visit to the Heineken Experience, we walked to the Van Gogh Museum. On the way there, we noticed several diamond exhibits, and wondered if diamond cutting is a regional specialty there. Van Gogh's name is pronounced differently there. The letter "g" was pronounced like an "h" from the back of the throat. At the museum, we learned that there are five sunflower paintings - three with a yellow background and two with a blue background. Back in October, I saw one of the sunflower paintings with a yellow background at the National Gallery in London. The Van Gogh Museum had another of the ones with a yellow background, and we saw one of the ones with a blue background later that week in Paris.  We really appreciated that the Van Gogh Museum showed paintings by other artists in order to demonstrate their influence on Van Gogh's work.  Sadly, Van Gogh was successful only after his death.  He will never know how everyone marvels at his work because he never sold a single painting during his lifetime.  Also, he cut off his ear...ouch.
Me & Mom Next to a Poster of Van Gogh's Sunflowers
The next morning, we walked to the Anne Frank Huis, which is now a museum of the business Anne's father owned and the annex where the family hid during WWII.  When I was little, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, but I didn't quite imagine the annex correctly.  I always pictured the family squished into one tiny room.  In truth, they had a fair, though small, amount of space.  The problem was that even though they had the space, they couldn't walk because the floor could creak, they couldn't talk out loud because someone in the factory could hear them, and they could never open a window because someone might see them.  A tiny noise, like a sneeze or a laugh could have jeopardized their safety.  Going through the annex and factory spaces, we saw that the family had several books in many languages.  It was amazing to see the dignity and civility with which the family went into hiding.  As is common with many Jews I know, they valued education tremendously.  Anne's older sister studied Latin and even sent her practice exercises to a secret teacher to be corrected.  In my travels around the world, I have seen many places with a less advanced standard of living than is normal for where I come from.  It was interesting to note that the Franks, who, while hiding, could have easily fallen into a lower standard of living, maintained as much of a normal life as could be possible when being ruthlessly hunted by Nazis.  Surrounded by terror, they put family and education above all.  Instead of being stuffed into an annex and sitting around, they continued to work, learn, and improve themselves.  Anne's dad, Otto Frank, even avoided losing his company, as was dictated by Nazi laws, by hiring an acting director in his absence.  When you think about it, this is pretty incredible.

Anne Frank Huis
The building's exterior was renovated to look as it did during WWII.
After a long time in hiding, someone betrayed the family, and they were taken to concentration camps by the Nazis.  Everyone who had talked to them, brought them food, or aided them in any way was arrested.  All the furniture from the annex was confiscated.  Today, the annex in the Anne Frank Huis remains void of furniture.  However, there is a miniature model of the house to provide guests with an idea of what type of furniture had been there.

Sadly, Anne died one month before the concentration camp she was in was liberated.  Only her father survived.  Years later, he published her diary since Anne had wanted to write a novel called The Secret Annex after the war.  Today, I believe the diary has been translated into 65 languages.  Another fabulous thing about the Anne Frank Huis was that most of the videos of interviews were subtitled in at least six languages.  The subtitles took up the entire right side of the screen, and the video played on the left.  This seemed more than appropriate since the museum attracts visitors from many different countries.  Besides, what better way is there to convey a message to someone than to put it in the form they understand best?  This is the only museum I've ever been to at which all the visitors read every single sign, watched every single video, and really, truly paid attention to everything.

In the gift shop, we bought some post cards, and a book about stereotypes and antisemitism.  The book addressed the confusion that some people have about Judaism being a religion or an ethnicity.  Pay attention, readers: Judaism is a religion.  An ethnicity, or nationality, by definition, has to be connected with a country.  For example, Spanish people come from Spain (ignoring the issue of immigrating and obtaining citizenship).  Jewish people come from.....oh wait, there's no specific country.  When people say that they are, for example, "half Irish and half Jewish," they should know that that statement makes no sense.  Would you say that you're half Venezuelan and half Catholic?  Also, no.  To be honest, I was never quite sure why people were confused about that.  But no worries - If you are one of those confused people, just re-read this paragraph carefully, and you're all set!  Don't feel bad, we all learn new things every day.  I promise I'm not trying to be preachy.  I just think this is a basic distinction people need to understand.

After leaving the Anne Frank Huis, we explored the Jordaan, which looked like it would have been a fabulous area to shop.  There were tons of boutiques and cafés.  I say "would have been" because it was Christmas and everything was closed.  The area was really picturesque - tons of canals and bikes.  We even found a Capezio store!

Frizzy Hair!  Finally!
In the evening, we went to check out the Rijksmuseum, which has a nice collection of Rembrandt's work.  About 80% of the museum was closed off since they're doing construction.  From the small portion we saw, a few portraits really stuck out to me: those of people with frizzy hair.  Yes, you read that right.  Rembrandt actually painted people with frizzy hair!  If he was still alive, I would hire him to do my portrait.  One of the things that always bothers me in art museums is that none of the marble sculptures have frizz attached to their flowing curls.  Thank you, Rembrandt!  Another cool thing was that the Rijksmuseum offers audio guides in nine different languages.  In general, we found that everything in Amsterdam was very visitor-friendly, regardless of where you were from.  Nearly everything was available in various languages, and it was really impressive.

Audio guides are available in nine languages at the Rijksmuseum.
That night at dinner, my mom and I ate at l'Opera and tried Dutch pancakes, known as"poffertjes" for dessert.  They are about the size of a silver dollar, and they're puffier than regular, flat pancakes.  Served with butter, syrup, and powdered sugar, they were delicious.  Fantastic dessert to end the Amsterdam portion of our trip!  In the morning, we boarded the Thalys high speed train from Centraal Station to Paris Gare du Nord.
Poffertjes at l'Opera



  2. I'm hungry too! This blog entry makes me want to go back again!

  3. Mona - I bet Istanbul has cool food too. Shall we meet there?

    Mom - You're welcome back anytime! I would be more than happy to plan another trip for you. May I suggest Stockholm, Budapest, or London? Actually, for our next excursion, I recommend the Keys. Yes?

    Thanks for reading and posting comments!