Thursday, July 23, 2009


The summer that I was twenty-one, living on the Cape, waitressing and pondering my next great life experience, I toyed with the idea of moving to Holland. I had never been there and knew next to nothing about it, but for some reason I was sure that I was supposed to live the Dutch life.

I looked up the Dutch embassy's phone number and called them to figure out how, exactly I should go about moving to their country. Here's how that phone call went:

'Hi, I would like to move to Holland. Can you help me figure that out?'
'Do you have a job in the Netherlands?'
'Are you a student?'
'So you will be attending school in the Netherlands?'
'You can not just turn up in the Netherlands to live. you need something to do there.'
'That's fine. But why do you keep referring to 'the Netherlands'? I want to move to Holland.'

The Dutch secretary hung up on me. Rightly so.

The desire to get to the Netherlands has clung to me like the smell of raw herring and onions for the past twenty years. Despite my husband having worked for a Dutch company for nine of those years, I've still never been to that part of the world. Maybe my Dutch fantasy would always remain just that, a dream.

Jeff called me from work a few weeks ago and told me that if I could line up a sitter, I could go with him to Amsterdam for the weekend.

It took an intricate labyrinth of four sitters and six play dates for my husband and I to slip away for a mere 48 hours, but with the the absurd schedule in place, we escaped to the airport and on to Amsterdam.

Friends who had stopped in A'Dam while backpacking across Europe in college had fuzzy recollections of 'coffee houses' and ladies dancing in windows. I was both intrigued and repulsed by the idea of the Red Light District, but utterly curious all the same.
On our first night, after a dinner of Rijsttafel (think Indonesian tapas), we strolled through the notorious section of town. I was surprised at how lovely it was. Between the architecture and ancient canals, it did not feel seedy at all. Okay, the abundance of sex shops, prostitutes and weed shops added a certain flavor to the area, and maybe it is because all that action is legal, but I was not at all disturbed, as I had anticipated. After our brief stroll, we didn't return to the Red Light District-- our curiosity was quenched, there was so much more of Amsterdam to see.

Friday morning, Jeff had to work so I went on my own to Waterloo flea market. The rain was descending in sheets upon the city, but even soaking wet this outdoor market had immense vibrancy and character. I picked up a large, round Delft platter hand painted with a windmill and children in wooden shoes for peanuts. Typically touristy? Yes, but I didn't care-- I loved it.

Meandering back through the floating flower market, I was bewitched by Amsterdam.

The mister and I met up for lunch and decided to eat at one of the many raw herring fish stalls around town. In other parts of the Netherlands, the Dutch eat their raw herring whole, tilting their heads back and dipping the fish into their mouths and down their gullets. Thankfully, in Amsterdam they place the whole, raw fish onto a soft bun and cover it with raw onions to be eaten as a sandwich. Jeff had eaten this national dish several times, and even though I adore sashimi and sushi, I looked upon lunch with a healthy dose of trepidation. I needn't have--- it was absolutely delicious, bones and all. Plus, after ingesting so many raw onions, I had the appetite-curbing sensation of continuing lunch all afternoon thus avoided snacking...

Later we went to Anne Frank's House. To say that it was moving is a gross understatement. Looking at the family pictures, so intimate. Running my hand over the same spicket that Anne and her family used, to be in their house, to be that close to them was overwhelming. We watched the video of her father speaking in the 1970's about his daughter and it was heart-breaking. I was embarrassed to be utterly overcome with tears and had to hide in the corner until I could compose myself. The Anne Frank House is the most important thing to see in Amsterdam.

We got an hop-on/off canal boat pass which was a great way to see the city. Again, typically touristy yes, but it was fantastically peaceful and the architectural beauty of Amsterdam seemed to be truly revealed from the water.

Friday night, we sought out a bit of American entertainment and headed for Boom Chicago, and American improv troupe. They were talented and really good fun.

Saturday morning we walked through the Jordaan (Your-Don) district. This is the true Amsterdam; formerly a working class area that has been gentrified. Quiet canals and a phenomenal number of Amsterdamers on bikes. Mamas riding their children to the park, fathers carrying groceries in the bicycle's basket, boyfriends doubling girlfriends on a date. Biking is a thoughtful, utilitarian means of transport. No wonder the Dutch are so fit.

I am not one for loud, busy city-life, but Amsterdam felt different; more civilized, peaceful, not hectic. Not the raunchy Red Light District-dominated place I was expecting. Quiet transportation via boat and bike... eating raw herring sandwiches on a street corner, browsing never-ending outdoor markets; Amsterdam was a city of unexpected surprises. I left feeling certain that I could carve out a life for our family there.

I'm thinking of calling that Dutch embassy back.

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