June 25, 2012
I am going to live on a houseboat on a canal in Amsterdam and ride my bicycle side by side with Graham, my hand resting gently on his arm, through the cobbled streets.
It will be dusk, about 10pm, and the fading summer light will cast a warm glow on the red flowers in the planter boxes on our rooftop garden as we arrive home. I will have a cat, perhaps a small, well-behaved dog.
I will also appear to be about 5ft 10, thin and fit, elegantly dressed, and so well-coordinated that I hardly need glance at other cyclists or pedestrians as I negotiate busy market squares. No more Mrs Gumby Short-arse. Not when I amsterdam.
The Netherlands is a thoroughly elegant country and Amsterdam its most elegant city.
Even the narrow lanes lit only by the red lamps of the prostitutes touting their wares in heavily curtained windows have a seedy charm.
We travel from Harwich in south-east England by ferry with the Daskos, Peter and Kim, who are doing a similar trip to us but in the opposite direction. We may meet up again in Tallinn, Estonia.
Harwich is a charming port city, the place where the Mayflower was built (*need to google that and Samuel Pepys). The ferry ride is a chance to rest up after a busy few days and, thankfully, doesn’t make me seasick. Maybe there is hope for our Pacific islands cruise yet.
Then it’s all hands on deck and eyes right, left and centre as we ride off at the Hook of Holland ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD … or the right side actually.
Roundabouts go the opposite direction, there are tramlines down the middle of the road and cycle paths everywhere. We discover as we walk the streets of Amsterdam with the Daskos that there are about a million ways to get killed on Dutch roads … cars, scooters, bicycles, trams, buses, horse-drawn carriages. Just when we think we have one danger sorted, another pops up. Our heads swivel as we cross each road.
Bicycles are the biggest risk, speeding smoothly and silently through red lights and giving way to no one, especially pedestrians. And they all look so serene, so elegant as they ride with three kids on board, texting on a mobile phone with one hand and leading a dog with the other.
We love this city. We catch canal boats and walk and walk. There is a new discovery around every corner … busy tourist strips, the red light district and coffee shops, packed restaurants, bustling market squares, new apartment blocks, grand public buildings with towering spires, and tall, skinny, old buildings that lean every which way. And bicycles, thousands of them, everywhere.
A visit to Amsterdam had to include, for me, a visit to Anne Frank’s house. Kim felt the same. It was quite eerie to recall her story in the actual building where she and her family and friends hid from the Nazis for two long years, never venturing outside, never being able to shout or sing or run.
So sad they were betrayed, to die in concentration camps and Anne and her sister so near war’s end; all lost except the father Otto who lobbied for the publication of Anne’s diary and the establishment of the museum in his old office building.
What an amazing man, how he must have been tormented. Yet he appeared to remain strong and gentle and philosophical. The interview recorded with him, sitting in an empty room of the house/museum, talking about his teenage daughter, was I think the most moving part of the exhibition. It made it very real to me. So so sad. But so so important to remember their story.