The Amsterdam trip crept up on us before I had time to savour its arrival. April leading up to the flight was a whirlwind. So was March. And February. I was having the type of work life in the new year where activities outside office hours had reduced to two basics: sleep and food. I was doing too much of the food, too little of the sleep. When I woke up that Wednesday morning my mind was unfamiliarly empty, suffused with an end-of-exams euphoria that felt suspiciously like freedom.
My notion of freedom back in the exam days was pretty straightforward. Freedom was that magic place where you could go do what the hell you want. It lived just beyond the moment when the pen dropped on the last sheet of the last exam. Then one sunny Glaswegian morning, the end of exams brought forth the end of freedom as I had known it. As a fresh graduate with an expired student card, I found myself being expected to pay the adult rate for everything, including Freedom. Time spent in the ‘magic place’ had to be rationed. This dictated the way my life eventually spun out – a series of narrow windows consisting of weekends and annual leave where I could let my hair down and enjoy any spare time I could scrape up, sandwiched between prolonged episodes of manic social-work-personal life balance. Lying in bed that Wednesday morning, I reminded myself that I was about to enter the let-my-hair-down zone and for a second, the idea tired me. I immediately put my mental foot down on that rogue thought.
As the flight time approached, Husband and I set off towards Southampton Airport (Parkway), the same station I get off for work every morning. The novelty of air travel is somewhat lost on Air Traffic Control Engineers. The journey did not happen without drama (is it a travel thing or just me?). From train signal failure at Southampton Central to extra payment at Southampton Airport for what I considered to be fairly standard sized trolleys, the worst of my travel fears came true. I know the likes of Flybe and Easy Jet do not sympathise with women travels but I found the on-board baggage dimensions stingy even by budget airline standards. My mood wasn’t great as we boarded the toy-like Dash 8 but it didn’t take long for the holiday ecstasy to kick into gear.
Landing on her bosom as the average traveller, Schipol does not look much different from any other airport in any other part of the world. But if you aren’t too busy fidgeting with international roaming, you are bound to pick up on the longer than usual taxi time and the bigger than average expanse of land on either side of the aircraft.
I am no aviation geek but 4 years in the industry have moulded me into a selective one – my admiration ran slightly deeper than the length and breadth of this mammoth of an airport. For starters, Schiphol has SIX runways. Compared to the two at Heathrow, this was complexity level 12345678910. I was excited as a little child trying to locate the control tower I have read so much on. I didn’t have to look too hard. The iconic building dominated the flat Dutch skyline from afar, majestically guarding the vast swathe of land it ruled over.
Shortly we were trundling down Dutch motorways in a shuttle bus, courtesy of the first hotel in our itinerary. The first things you notice in a new country are always the differences. The Dutch drove on the right-hand side, their horn usage was more Bengali than British, bus drivers actually stopped in the middle of the road to pick up passengers who have lost their ways. A sea of bicycles parked outside Hoofdorp stood as a stark contrast to Southampton Parkway, reminding me of Kongens Nytorv metro stop in Copenhagen. But as I would soon find out, Denmark’s got nothing on the Netherlands when it comes to cycling.
Working out the metro in a new city always excites me. As an ex Londoner and engineer, I am not intimidated by the notion of decoding multi-coloured spindly lines interspersed on unfamiliar maps. But then every city has its own unique set of travel codes and you couldn’t apply the rules of one to another. The first few attempts always turn out to be a bit of a hit and miss. Luckily for travellers, Wifi is easier to locate in 2016 than unknown stations on a foreign map. With the likes of Google Maps and City Mapper, you’d have to try quite hard to get lost these days. Mastering metro maps feels more like a board game, the rules entertaining at best, annoying at worst, and less like the key travel milestone they once were.
Oysters in Amsterdam are called OV-Chipkaarts and it took us a while to decide whether we needed one or not. At the end we decided to settle for single returns. The intercity trains are called Sprinters, represented by a logo that looks like a GPS track of a runner on a perpetual east-west zigzag sprint. I was impressed. The husband was busy admiring other things, in particular the nonchalant Dutch people heedlessly smoking at bus and trams stops. Except it wasn’t heedless at all on this side of the North Sea. Just one of many rules the Dutch chose not to bother with.
A double decker train whisked us off to the heart of Amsterdam which reminded me of a similar journey I had taken in Geneva back in 2014. This would perhaps be the only time I was reminded of Switzerland in the Netherlands. Amsterdam is not as clean or spotless as its Swiss counterparts. At least that’s the first impression I got when I stepped off the central station and into the city’s main artery. It was shortly after 7 pm and there was sufficient light seeping from the skies to take in all of the clichés that made Amsterdam a tourist magnet. Canals and boats, townhouses and trams, bridges and gables. And the unmistakable waft of cannabis. Yet, despite so many triggers firing off all over my senses, the first thing I registered was the powerful surge of ebbing energy around me, that unmistakeable tourist-weariness cities lke Amsterdam can never get rid off. I have lived in London long enough to recognize this in a heartbeat.
The holidaymakers were starting to escape into restaurants, bars and hotel rooms, allowing Amsterdam to clock out of her day job as an entertainer. There was a calm descending with the twilight and she couldn’t care less as dregs of cannabis-frenzied tourism glistened dully on her age-old façade. Despite her tiredness, she spotted me in the crowd, winking playfully from picturesque gabled windows: Welcome, Tjbak!
The second thing that vied for my attention was the central station behind us. The double a wasn’t the only cool thing about Amsterdam Centraal. The station, like Schipol Airport, was GINORMOUS. The regal architecture of the building matched the length and breadth of its brilliantly designed innards. Every alley in Amsterdam, and for that matter, the rest of the Netherlands, flow into and out from here and the ensuing commotion was so rife that for a second it distracted me from the canals and boathouses so carefully put on tourist-hailing display outside the station doors.
The tram/bus/cycle routes are ominous and by the end of our trip both the Husband and I were routinely scanning every direction before making a movement that could potentially involve getting in the way of a busy cyclist or tram. They can noiselessly creep up on you as I soon found out when a group of tourists in front of us narrowly escaped being rundown by an adamant cyclist at a red signal. A tour guide later informed me that newbie travellers such as myself often learnt the ‘cyclists > tourists’ rule the hard way.
Most of the famous attractions were closed or closing down around the time we disembarked from the Sprinter. Except the one I was most eagerly looking forward to. As we google mapped our way into the city, we took stock of many enticing things/places around us that we tucked away in our minds for further exploration in the upcoming days. We saw arching bridges and quirky shops. Cow museums and sex museums. Fast food on vending machines and French Fries on giant paper cones. Cannabis ice-creams and ‘high teas’ (oh the pun!).
I stopped short in front of a coffee shop aptly called ‘Grey Area’, crowded by people sitting across each other on long wooden benches smoking…WEED? I turned to the Husband for confirmation who embarrassingly dragged me away. I mean, yes, I knew, but damn! You will not be met with such a sight in any other part of the world! The omnipresent smell of weed was so strong that it wasn’t long before it stopped being noticeable and the initial shock of Grey Area quickly wore off.
We reached Anne Frank Huis around 8:30pm. It’s hard to conjure the war-time essence of Prinsengracht stood in a queue of present-day smartphone-wielding tourists beside cheerful boathouses hugging beautiful canals. I have been warned by people who have visited the museum that it could be a bit of an anti-climax. But it had done little to douse my anticipation. I have read ‘Diary of a Young Girl’ at least 5 times, often returning to its well-thumbed pages to go over my favourite parts. I had known her and the Secret Annex by heart, spent days obsessing about her long after I was done with her diary. When we reached the secret bookcase, still preserved in its original built, the enormity of the experience hit me in one go. Walking through the room she had shared with Fritz Pfeffer, looking at artefacts form her life, the attic she used to escape to, the narrow stairs they used to climb down to the offices below, the barricaded windows that blocked out the outside world – all of it felt like a distant dream I was revisiting. What gnawed at me in particular was the dining area where Anne was forced to eat all the bland food she had described in heart-breaking details in her diary. It felt wrong somehow to invade their space like this but at the same time, I wanted to see it all. At 15, reading about a 15 year old Anne had made her an indispensable friend for life. I was, and still am, nothing short of obsessed by her, her story, her endurance and ultimately, her death. I grew up feeling her agony even more as the world around me evolved into a Muslim fearing society. There might be no concentration camps – yet – but the feeling of being resented for belonging to a certain religion was a feeling I could relate to all too well.
The excitement of travel followed by the overwhelming museum tour left me knackered. Dinner had to be on the go and even then we returned to Hoofddorp pretty late. It’s nearly 2am as I type this feverishly from our hotel bed but you know what? Travelling gives me stories, and differences, and so much to process that if I don’t write them out, I fear I will not live them fully. So here we are.
Goodnight, Amsterdam! xxx