retread#35: amsterdam

The first leg of our 35th anniversary adventures started in Amsterdam. Have you been?

I’d visited briefly nearly two decades ago, a lovely day trip with the E’s. Amsterdam is nothing if not memorable. I recalled with clarity Anne Frank’s house, bicycles en masse, canals lush with spring foliage, a harbor boat tour, strolling through the red light district, taking shelter from drenching downpour at the Pancake Bakery, where savory pancakes and hot chocolate with rum are culinary arts. It was a wonderful introduction to another world.

I’m sure I was less intimidated by the prospect of a few days in Amsterdam than I might have been without this preview. However. My friends knew the city quite well. And they always make it look easy. On this trip with the Hubs and our travel mates, the G’s, Amsterdam was a blank slate. Admitedly, I felt some (self-imposed) pressure as NoCoGroup tour coordinator!

I hedged my bets in two simple steps. (1) Private transfer to hotel upon arrival in Schiphol. (2) Private tour our first day in the city. Money well spent! I arranged transfer through INK Hotel, which we’d reserved on a tip from the E’s as convenient to old city center.

Bonus! INK offers hands-down the best breakfast ever included in room rate. Of course, we wouldn’t discover that for another 24 hours. We were focused on dropping bags and hitting the pavement. The best way to circumvent jet lag is to press through the first day. NoCoGroup was game.

The one thing I knew I must do on return to Amsterdam was visit Corrie Ten Boom’s house. The perfect tour surfaced with Ian W. on Tours by Locals, combining this off-beat attraction with a walking tour of Amsterdam city center. We met the first half of our dynamic guiding duo at the hotel within an hour of arriving. Salomé escorted us to the train station and accompanied us to Haarlem. She’d prearranged tour tickets, thankfully. Otherwise, we might still be standing in line? I doubt I would have managed to get us on the right train!

Our group of 20 represented an impressive array of nations that morning — along with some enthusiastic Texans. This story is known the world over. Museum staff recounted with integrity Ten Boom family resistance to the Nazis. Our tour guide did not flinch in sharing Corrie’s central message of God’s love and faithfulness in the face of evil, even death.*

The house itself was much smaller than I expected, shared spaces tiny by comparison to our standards, proximity to the street so very close. I thought back to activities described in The Hiding Place and In My Father’s House and marveled at how the ten Boom family managed so cheerfully with elderly family to care for plus entertaining and feeding the steady stream of friends and fugitives in residence. As street sounds permeated the second floor sitting room, it seemed nothing short of miraculous they’d avoided detection for so long. I shivered at the thought of Nazis goose-stepping in unison just there, on the street below.

The tour narrative was more extensive and took longer than expected. Admittedly, it was a lot to process on the heels of a transatlantic flight. (Just as Ian had forewarned, eh?) I was so thankful for my travel mates’ good graces and also that Salomé had foresight to stop for coffee and cake en route. Good call! The tour is offered free, donations accepted. I was also happy for the opportunity to purchase souvenir gifts and contribute to continuing Corrie’s work.

The remainder of our Amsterdam experiences were more predictable, albeit greatly enhanced by Salomé and Ian’s insider perspectives.** Our guides told great stories and offered invaluable insights at every turn that first day. Their genuine care for neighbors in the red (blue, purple) light district was as heartwarming as their advocacy for women’s health inspiring. As Ian noted, a decision to work in that industry is one of a string of decisions, not a first choice.

He spoke with such heartfelt compassion. It made me stop and think. There is nothing going on here that doesn’t also happen in every major city of the world, plus every city and most towns in America. It’s just that Amsterdam is so much more transparent and up front about it. That might make us (me) feel uncomfortable but it shouldn’t change our (my) response. I know that I am called to love unconditionally. Period. I am thankful that Corrie ten Boom taught this lesson faithfully to her last breath.

Ian educated us on navigating the district respectfully, an important lesson if you are  to truly enjoy the lovely historic city center — which has is so much to offer! I’d read that the red light district scene has changed a lot in past few decades and it does ring true. Ian noted that most of today’s workers are not native to the Netherlands, adding cultural complications and additional risk to the equation. He also noted the most popular workers are notably older and heavier than we’d likely expect. It’s a fascinating dynamic, given today’s body image issues. As a resident, of course Ian should know and we confirmed over several days’ casual observation. I must say it is all a bit surreal. I couldn’t escape a sense of sadness in these circumstances.

Ian led a fast-paced tour, popping in and out of various establishments as he explained the ins and outs of local life. The fishmonger was delighted to prepare the local specialty of raw herring, pickles and onions. I took one for the team here! We stopped by Cannabis College, an education center with remarkable mission and scope. Again, a local guide made all the difference. I would never have ventured in on my own — if I had even realized what it was. Yet it was so illuminating to the culture. I am glad we didn’t miss it.

We stopped by their about-to-open shop, Cacao & Spice, for delectable treat. In combining rich spices with Dutch fine chocolate traditions and marrying heritages in this new business, I think they are on to something special. When Ian realized we were fading mid-afternoon, we collapsed at a fantastic pub employing differently-abled adults to enjoy delicious bitterballen (meat balls), local cheese and brews. That hit the spot! We were revived to carry on and complete a full day of Amsterdam immersion, new discoveries at nearly every turn.

Thereafter, we had plenty of points of reference as we explored on our own, mostly by foot and on a lovely canal tour. We enjoyed local fare like poffertjes (small pancakes), ontbijtkoek (spice cake), jenever (most especially in KLM’s “Flying Dutchman”), hearty craft brews and cheese. Oh, the cheese!

I loved the floating flower market (a lot more than flowers), antique shops (collectible canal houses) and shopping for authentic Delft (again, tipped off by the E’s). The Hubs was, as always, accommodating to my wandering, window-shopping ways. We enjoyed city squares busy with street artists and the intimacy of small restaurants and cafés in an unusually quiet and refreshingly breathable city. The preponderance of bike traffic and reduction of automobiles makes a real difference at ground level.

Finally, finally! we found the Rijks. Museum of the Netherlands. Okay. I’ll admit, I’d hoped for the Van Gogh Museum. I’ve seen only his Water Lilies up close, some years ago in Atlanta. I could hardly imagine a homeland exhibition! Alas. This requires either advance planning or scheduling flexibility. We had neither. Lesson learned. ;/0

So we turned to the Rijks — as it turns out the slightly more popular of the two. Who knew? Old masters of the fine arts and featuring Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Fascinating special collections, like Delftware and model shipbuilding. Hundreds of years of Dutch everything. We had only a few hours our final morning and delighted  to spend it at the Rijks. In a word, exquisite.

Enjoy this snapshot tour of memorable Amsterdam and Haarlem!

~ René Morley

**Ian and Salomé are accessible through Tours by Locals. We highly recommend their guide services. You may contract privately through independently operated Dutch Tour Company.

*Corrie ten Boom led a Dutch resistance network which saved many hundreds of Jews from horrors of the Holocaust. She survived prison and concentration camp to become a beloved international ambassador for God. She was a prolific author and speaker into old age. The Hiding Place (book or movie) is a great way to acquaint with her remarkable story.

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