After the chaos of passing through Dutch customs and the cab ride into the city, my time in The Netherlands has been quite nice and I’ve found myself wishing I could stay a few more days.
On Friday I walked around Haarlem, which is just outside of Amsterdam. I began the morning with a tour of the Corrie ten Boom house.
When we arrived to Corrie’s room at the top of the house, my guide asked if I wanted to step into The Hiding Place. Initially, I didn’t respond. I just stood there and stared into that narrow, casket-sized outcropping behind a red brick wall that was built to conceal the space and the people that stood behind it. I realized that hundreds, maybe thousands of Jews, had stood here before me. I felt sad to think that the only time I’ve stood behind a wall or curtain or closet door, was in playing hide and go seek with my siblings. But this was no game and I doubt that sneaky little smirks were a part of this dark history.
Sure, I said hesitantly, and I stepped in.
I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until my guide asked me a question and I had to gasp for air before I responded. My chest clamped up and felt tight like it does when I walk outside in cold weather.
I couldn’t breathe, I didn’t move, I didn’t speak. I wondered if I was feeling a fraction of the tension this space came to know so well, and if I was sensing the same fear the souls of this secret space carried.
The floorboards are wooden, she said, so any movement or shifting of any sort, could be heard below. Once the Jews were in, they had to stand still. Once, she continued, they stood this way for 42 hours while guards ransacked and raided the house, destroying cupboards, walls, and even family heirlooms. But no one was ever found in this space.
When the tour ended, I walked outside the ten Boom house to say goodbye and thank you to the small red triangle that sat in the window and acted as a symbol of safety for the Jews, a sign to let them know that it was okay to enter the house when no guards were present. For the most part, this symbol worked, except for one sad day when it didn’t and 38 people came to the house while guards were there and were arrested and taken to prison with Corrie and her family. Eventually, they were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp in northern Germany.
When I left this safe house I knew that I wouldn’t walk around the city in the same way. I knew that the cobblestone streets I currently stood upon held history and stories in the bricks, and that they held memories like The Hiding Space held tension, of fleeing feet and fear and misfortune. Not too long ago, these streets, I realized, were full of souls searching for solace, sneaking in and out of safe houses in the dark, searching for freedom and love and justice, and not just full of people shopping for Christmas gifts like they were now.
This is Haarlem.
Yesterday, I took the train into Amsterdam, the city built on 11,000,000 wooden stilts. Centraal Station is built on 9,000 stilts.
Amsterdam is home to Heineken and names like Anne Frank, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. It is commonly associated with its most notorious neighborhood, The Red Light District, and it is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. In fact, there are more bicycles than there are people living within the city limits. 25,000 bikes end up in the bottom of the 165 canals (60 miles of waterways) each year, and only 8,000 are extracted.
There are museums for everything from exploring 500 years of Amsterdam’s dark past of dungeons, cruel history and torture to learning about how happiness influences our bodies and our health through the work of Guther von Hagens. And then there’s the Icebar, where 60 tons of natural ice are sculpted into the form of a bar. The furniture, the walls, the art, even your drinking glass, are made from ice.
But I, unfortunately, only had time for 1 museum and I wanted to meet Van Gogh. Long story short, I loved every single bit of it and have added him to my cue of artists/writers to study in more depth.
I asked about Amsterdam’s Code of Arms and found out that no one really knows what the “XXX” on Amsterdam’s flag stands for, but it does not, contrary to the uninformed public opinion, represent the cities abundant sex industry. One common theory is that it stands for the three main perils Amsterdam once faced: flood, fire, and pestilence (Black Death).
A final word of advice in case you find yourself in Amsterdam. Coffeeshops are not, as the name suggests, merely Coffee Shops. They are alcohol-free establishments where soft drugs are sold and consumed, meaning you can get marijuana here. If it’s just a good cup of coffee you’re after, look for a Cafe. Again, we live and we learn, folks.