Friday, October 02, 2015

Lessons from the Past

My agenda for our trip to Amsterdam was deeply personal and born of a desire to share family roots, culture and history with our grandchildren. I had thought that I might share some of the history I have already written about, but in the end I chose instead to stay "in the moment" during the precious time we had with them and let them learn through the experiences to which we exposed them.

I had been talking to Tippy, Katherine and Tori about this trip for a couple of years. Our excitement and anticipation grew as we planned details. One highlight on my agenda was the Anne Frank House. Anne was someone whose life I wanted to speak into theirs. Two of them had read her diary earlier in their teens, and, like many teenagers they had read the heartrending romance by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars. in which the Anne Frank House plays a significant part. 

On a weekend in early August, in preparation for the trip, we watched two movies together. One of them was a DVD of the 2009 BBC mini series, The Diary of Anne Frank, with British actress Tamsin Greig playing Anne. It was incredibly well done and moving, capturing Anne with honesty, as a human being that they could relate to.

I couldn't get tickets online for the dates we'd be there, however I found that you could also skip the lineups if you booked a visit as part of a larger trip, so I booked us in for a five hour tour. I had no idea how interesting the whole day would turn out to be!

We started at 1.30 with a tour of the Gasson Diamonds Factory. In 1945, at the end of WW11, it was founded by Samuel Gasson, who had escaped deportation by the Nazi's by fleeing to Switzerland earlier in the war. He had worked at the company when it was owned by another Jewish family. Diamonds that he had smuggled out of the country in his shoes, enabled him to found the factory anew at the end of the war. Those who remained in Amsterdam faced the relentless call ups to report at Amsterdam's Central Station. Most were never heard from again. Every time an employee was deported, their name, and the date they were taken was engraved on the windows with a diamond. Seeing those names, over 70 years later, bearing silent testimony to real people who lived and died, during a time of terror, was poignant.

The Nazis seized ownership of the factory from the original owners, who were sent to concentration camps, where they died.

The rest of the factory tour was fascinating, with opportunities to learn a lot about diamond cutting, as well as the fact that the only diamonds in Rolex watches are Gasson diamonds!

Next, we walked to an old and beautiful Portuguese Jewish synagogue. Our guide told us the history of the Jewish community in Amsterdam and we learned that antisemitism is still rife and growing, resulting constant police presence to ensure safety. To get in, we entered through two sets of double doors. The second doors were not opened until we had all entered the space between them and the first doors had been closed behind us. There was so much history, so much to see and read, but the time available seemed all too short to fully take in the wealth of Jewish history on display.

A tour bus was waiting to take us to the Anne Frank House. As we drove towards the building where Otto Frank, Anne's father had his business office and in which the secret annex was housed, the lineup did indeed stretch for what looked like miles.

We looked up and saw the beautiful Westerkerk, the church that Anne could see from the annex window.
 It was early evening, and the historic clock chimed the hour as Anne would have heard it do all those years ago. I came with a sense of pilgrimage. Since my teens I had known of this remarkable girl and now she felt so close.

To actually walk quietly through the doorway that was hidden by a bookcase, and up the narrow stairs to the hiding place, and wander through the rooms that remain exactly as they were left, felt like walking on holy ground. The postcards and photos of movie stars are still on the walls, where Anne pasted them. It was incredible to see the place in which the domestic drama described in Anne's diary took place. Of the eight people who hid there for just over two years until they were betrayed, only Otto Frank survived the war. 

Anne's young voice survived in her diary, though, and we hear it, so full of life, hopes and dreams. 

While Paul and the girls waited, I had one more thing to do. I joined the line of people waiting to sign the guest book. It felt important to record the fact that we had been here, evidence that this place mattered to us.

Ahead of me signing the book was a girl of about 13. She wrote and wrote and seemed to be pouring out her heart on its pages, oblivious to the line of people waiting behind her. No one murmured, or stirred impatiently. There was a feeling of respect, as though each person's moment here was their own, and not to be rushed. When she put down the pen, I stepped to the book and recorded our names and reason for coming all the way from Canada to be there, "So that our grandchildren would know that all human life has value." It wasn't profound, and didn't begin to capture the deep emotion in my heart as I wrote it, but our names were in the book! 

I put down the pen and turned to join the three girls, so full of life, waiting for me with their grandfather. We stepped out into the sunshine of the Amsterdam evening, and a world in which they will live much longer than we. On that evening it felt like we had done something important to prepare them. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Waffles and Waterways

I'm afraid it might sound as though I planned our vacation to the Netherlands and England around my own agenda. We did plan together, listen to each other's wishes and try to fit them all in! 

We left the visual feast of the Van Gogh Museum for a feast of a different kind. A friend had told Katherine about a waffle shop across from the museum, which we "had" to visit. She'd spotted it on our walk to the museum and we headed for it afterwards with an appetite ready to experience the waffles. However we stood before such an array of waffles (or "wafels") such as we had never seen before. We can buy "stroop wafels" in Canadian grocery stores, but these were, just made. Agonizing over having to choose, we opted to experience these--fresh--and were not disappointed. The delectable crispy parts and gooey, warm, sweet parts melted into our mouths deliciously. Katherine texted her friend to report, "Mission accomplished," only to be told, "No, those weren't the right ones."
Obediently, we tried the "right ones;" with strawberries and cream. :)
On our way to the waffle stand we had passed a sales booth for canal boat tours, and had booked one for later that afternoon, since the weather was so warm and sunny.

It was just us and a lovely family from Los Angeles, California, and our "captain," Erik, who did a great job of telling us what we were seeing.

Tori and Katherine took lots of photos, while Tippy sketched.
Paul said that this was the best part of the vacation so far. We all enjoyed the peaceful, relaxation of the boat ride through a city with centuries of history on every hand.

But getting back to my agenda, I did have one, and it unfolded over the next couple of days...

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Life Force

Did you know that every year the Van Gogh Museum has 1.5 million visitors, who come to Amsterdam from all over the world? That is an average of over 4,000 visitors a day! 

On our third morning in Amsterdam, we walked from our little apartment, down pretty streets lined with tall, gabled houses; over flower lined bridges that spanned canals; all the while dodging the bikes which seemed to approach precariously from every direction. We arrived at the museum early, to find a line already well formed, of people waiting for the museum to open.  We joined and waited with them, with a sense of approaching something sacred. Well, that's my version. Paul waited impatiently because he hates to wait for anything.

As soon as we entered the doors, Paul announced wearily  that he was going to the cafe, mumbling with a pained expression, about not being able to take another museum! We have mostly figured out how to "be" quite happily, in spite of, and sometimes because of, our different tastes. So I left Mr. B. to his coffee, and prepared to enter a state of ecstasy in contemplating the work of Mr. VG. The girls went on at their own faster pace, while I lingered, to my heart's content, staring and admiring, and being overtaken with emotion as I followed the progression of Van Gogh's work as laid out chronologically in the museum, along with his copious letters and personal history. His tragic life's end came just as he seemed to be touching the finger of God himself with his art, which is so full of vibrancy and life force.
"A Vincent Van Gogh" by Vincent van Gogh - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
It must have been an hour later that I came across Paul, not in the cafe. He was carrying a golden shopping bag with Van Gogh Sunflowers on it. Eyes alive and energized, he told me about an amazing painting he'd seen, describing the colours. 

Today I was with Tippy and I asked her what she enjoyed most on our trip. "Oh, the people," she said, "meeting them all (her uncle Bob and cousins) and putting faces to names; but the museums were pretty cool too."  I mentioned her grandfather at the Van Gogh Museum and she said, "Yes, he was pretty excited about the art there. He told me he didn't like abstract art but said this was amazing, and that I should do this." 

I almost forgot the golden shopping bag. "I bought this for  you," Paul said, pulling a book called, "Master-pieces," from within.

Epiphany? Conversion? Baptism of fire? I don't know what you 'd call it, but seeing it was so much fun.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


If I had imagined any granddaughter in particular as an enthusiastic partner in my epic plan to visit the Rijksmuseum, it would have been Tippy. She who eats, sleeps and breathes art! 

But at some point in our journey to the Netherlands, she said to me, "I have to let you know that I'm more interested in doing art than looking at it; I hope that doesn't disappoint you." And her gentle brown eyes peered into mine searchingly. (That talk I gave the girls on "authentic self representation" seemed to have "taken" with Tippy too.) I just smiled into the honest face I love and said, "Of course it doesn't." 

I, on the other hand had enough excitement to cover the five of us if necessary. I even loved the name: "Rijks" museum. "Rijk" is a Dutch word that means "riches," and "abundance," and I could not wait to see this place of aesthetic beauty, filled with works of the Dutch Masters, displayed in a way that allowed the public to get up close. I explained to the girls that even the colours on the walls were from the palate used by the famous painter Vermeer.

So the day after we arrived in Amsterdam we set out on foot for the Museum Quarter in search of a dream about to come true.

Early birds, we arrived at the exquisite building just as it was about to open for the day. 

We started in the elegant cafe, with delicious, strong, black, Dutch coffee for Paul and I, and tea and hot chocolate for the girls; with a selection of Dutch cookies that Katherine declared, "Fancy."

And then began a feast of another kind in which we were drenched in the finest Dutch art of the past 500 years or so.

On the top floor, to the rapid click, click, click, sound of an old movie projector, a film was playing. It was by film maker Andor von Barsy, and was called, "De Stadt die Nooit Rust," which means, "The City that Never Rests." It was made in Rotterdam in 1928. I sat down on one of the plain wooden benches in the room and watched the evocative and historic footage, as my eyes filled with tears. I thought about the fact that somewhere in that busy city on the day Andor von Barsy made the film, there was a little girl of two years old, named Pieternella, who would one day have a daughter named Belinda! You can watch the film by clicking here (note: it has been uploaded to You Tube in two separate clips. ) 

In the same room that the film was showing was a beautiful propellor plane, which I found Tippy sketching.

A curator peered over her shoulder to look, and with a nod, said approvingly, "Good."

Tori and Katherine explored the museum together, taking photographs. All of us were absorbing the riches of the Rijksmuseum  in our own way.

We left at midday for lunch, but Katherine and I came back to tour the special exhibition on the history of fashion magazines. 

Beneath the arches of the museum, there is a bike path. Nothing, not even a revered museum can stop the Dutch from riding their bikes!
And as well as bikers, there were buskers. We saw three of them that day, taking turns: a young violinist, a saxaphonist, and an an accordianist with a haunting and beautiful voice. 
The acoustics were outstanding and all of us were captivated by the music.

When the young singer looked into a distant place in her imagination and sang, La Vie en Rose, that beautiful and haunting song, originally by Edith Piaf, the tears were back, and by now the girls were getting used to it. :)

There was much, much, more, but this is a blog and not a book. Let me just say, my heart was full when Tippy turned to me, and meaningfully said..."Thank you."

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

H.Q. Amsterdam

Renting an urban apartment in Amsterdam was based on reading online reviews and economy. We would be able to cook some meals and our money would go further, and as well, we would really be "in" the city. The location was listed as very close to the Museum Quarter and since the idea that originally prompted this trip was to see the great Rijksmuseum, that seemed perfect. Other than that I really had no idea how it would work out for us. 

Having our base in Amsterdam on a street within walking distance of some of the places we wanted to see, restaurants, and a grocery store, turned out to be great. Our apartment on Gerard Dou Straat was equipped with a washing machine, convection oven, fridge and small appliances; everything we needed. On the street corner there was an artsy music store with a glittering glass mosaic in the style of Picasso on the wall.

On our first evening Tori and I tried to capture the beauty of the place in photographs--just an ordinary street in Amsterdam, yet so many interesting things to see: bikes everywhere; beautiful flowers growing beside every front door it seemed; interesting windows, doors, people. So much to take in.

It was "cosy" but no one minded!

Tori needs her personal space, so she volunteered to sleep on the couch. After a few days she became quite firm about the curfew for anyone who might be watching TV in her "bedroom." At 10 p.m. she decreed "lights out," and we obeyed. Years ago I talked to my granddaughters about "authentic self representation," in other words, straight forwardly saying what you really feel, not saying what you think will please the listener; which we women often have trouble with. Tori is the one with whom it seems to have stuck best, and she still quotes that phrase, saying, "You told us..." :) 

Looking out into the courtyard garden and at the buildings facing our bedrooms, reminded me of the back of my grandmother's flat in Rotterdam. The second floor back bedroom window looked down onto a courtyard of gravel and greenery edged by doors and windows from which small bits of other people's lives could be  glimpsed. One of the neighbours had gymnastic hoops hanging from the door to the courtyard and although I never saw anyone using them, I was sometimes the invisible audience to someone practicing the piano; the notes reverberating in the enclosed space.

 I was so happy that the girls were experiencing something close to my happy memories. I think the "Thank you's," started soon after we arrived. The excitement at coming had been great, but now we were "here," and it was all so "different," and (mostly) wonderful. Many times over the days together one or other of the girls would turn to me, look into my eyes and say, "Thank you." My thank you was being 
here, with them.