April 7, 2011
Last summer, when Amsterdam, capital of Netherlands beckoned, I had four days to explore the city. I had only one thing in my mind - visit to an old friend's house - rest all was left to chance and mood, obviously of my wife.
Accompanied by my wife and our toddler, I stepped into Netherlands, one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, only to be welcomed by hordes of cycles. The sight got me wondering if I was in Europe or the streets of a smalltime Indian town. For the fitness crazy Dutch, cycling seems to be more an obsession than a mode of travel. I saw flocks of septuagenarians speeding on their toys through the main streets. Watching women over eighty peddling past teenagers was a veritable feast to my eyes. I was amazed every time I saw that scene and it inspired me to walk a few steps with a better posture!
I must add the following baffling facts here. Total population of Amsterdam is 7.8 lac, number of bicycles is 7 lac. Every year 50,000 get stolen and 25,000 end up in the canals!
We two decided to explore the city on the first three days and the last day would be left for my sole exploration and secret mission. I had to first find the way to her (my friend's) house so I decided to roam along the streets and lanes and trace her house.
I finally didn’t take the streets and lanes, because interlaced by 167 canals, water trails make the most convenient travel option in Amsterdam. It is an attractive tourist-friendly city, which was a focal point of global trade during the 17th century and even now it retains its place among world’s prime cities. In spite of thronging tourists (it’s a major European stop over) Amsterdam’s environment is pleasant and unpolluted.
We did the bulk of our travel through cruises on the water trails. The canals were wide, lush (at many stretches). The best views of the city’s elegant heritage mansions and modern edifices are found only on the diverted waters of the Amstel. The prettiest scene from the cruise boat is to watch the house boats. There is so much space on the water front (and the land is so expensive) that many people live in these well-roofed and mostly elegant looking floating dwellings.
For me the idea of people spending 24 hours on these parked roofed boats was most fascinating. I gaped at them all to find men reading newspapers, women cooking or walking across, kids engrossed in playing, it was fun. Good thing about these house boats is that you can shift them too (and to add to the luxury you don’t have to flush the toilets). Wow, I loved them all and was too jealous about the people living in them. If Mangalore was like this, I could have parked my house boat, one day at Kinnigoli and another at Mangalore and sometimes I could take it to Manipal to evade all people whom I owe loans. When the lady in the neighborhood quarreled with me I could shift to a new location. Then a scary thought came, when my much-demanding son grows into a young man, he would make me shift my house every time he finds new girl friends. I was curious to know if my friend lived in a house or a houseboat though.
Amsterdam has 42 museums, we visited three of them. Rijk museum is housed in an edifice well deserving the Dutch National Museum. Here lay the exceptional masterpieces of Dutch masters of the Golden age. Priceless works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and Jan Steens are flaunted here. Vangogh museum exclusively houses the Dutch master’s myriad collection of works. Schuttersgalerij sports an array of painting from an era gone by. Though these painting are not considered masterpieces they touchingly depict centuries of human life in Amsterdam in a vivid visual manner. They take us centuries back and allow us to soak in the days gone by.
Dam square is the heart of the city; it has a monument in the middle, ample space all around and elegant building all along its brim. People swarm here in the evenings and relax silently or watch artists from across the continent performing their craft. Horse ridden, gorgeous women police are a must watch for beauty lovers (which every man is). The horses too are gorgeous! Then I remember my friend was a gorgeous little lady too, her smile was real pretty and unforgettable, thankfully, by now I had a clear idea about where she lived.
Second day we visited villages of rural Holland and saw the fine looking wind mills wore the wooden shoes and tasted many of the dozens of flavors of cheese. We visited afew conspicuous landmarks like the boat-shaped science museum Nemo and the biggest floating Chinese hotel in the world. In the night we strolled across Rembrandtplein (Rembrandt square) which is a hub of night life. Dutch music wafting out of the beer houses was alluring, as much as the beer! This is a place to quench the thirst of both your throat and your soul.
Third day we strolled across Albert Cuyp market and Amsterdam flea market. They have all sorts of memorabilia you want to buy and many more things which you don’t need but would be tempted to buy. I bought things my ever-shrinking pockets could allow. Floating flower exhibition centre was the second most splendid thing to happen to me in Amsterdam (first, visit to my friend, of course).
Holland is known as “The land of Tulips and Dykes” and you know it why when you come here. Flowers of thousand hues, shapes and varieties soothe your eyes, enliven your mood and compel you to keep staring at them. They even beg you to fall in love, buy them and give them to your beloved. I bought some real bulbs for my beloved wife and my beloved wife bought some seeds to be planted in Mangalore. As fate would have it, the nasty Kinnigoli weather devastated our poor little seeds and my wife’s grand scheme to make Kinnigoli, “The Amsterdam of India” was nipped in the bud (pun intended).
Evening stroll in Vondel Park was a rejuvenating moment for three of us. I doubt if many other cities of this stature have such lush space close to their heart. We cherished the stay and stroll here amidst lush greenery and serene soothing weather. However, we needed to be careful enough to stay away from cycling tracks in the park to avoid getting knocked down by a speeding eighty year old.
Third night I discovered that Amsterdam is a city of paradox. On one side it has best of the modern amenities and infrastructure while on the other its old time flair retains it grandeur. It’s a city where old survives with the new, and extremely liberal trading ways co-exist with Dutch practical sensibility. After seeing some elegant churches (both catholic and protestant) I had the distressing experience of having a glance at red street. Red light street is avoidable to the meek and modest (being an over curious visitor I didn’t skip it). Freedom to sell and consume drugs is another luxury that Amsterdam allows you, name any drug; you have it for an affordable price!!!
Then the final day arrived. I convinced my wife that she deserved good rest and I was alone going on an adventure!!. I had to do it as by now it was clear that visiting my friend needed long waits as she had now become a celebrity!.
Her name was Anne, I knew her from teenage days at Pompeii high school, and the prospect of visiting her house that too in a distant land was electrifying one for me. It’s understandable I guess, when you are amidst millions of unfamiliar faces your heart jumps at the scene of a familiar one, even if he is your worst enemy in the village or the teacher who failed you vainly in 7th class. When it is someone you treat as a childhood sweet heart and for whom there is space in your heart; the craving is really profound. Not wanting to lose much time I took the boat to Prinsengracht by 7.30 in the morning.
My heart beat faster as I saw her name on the house. It was close to Westekerk, the tall and elegant church. With my heart pounding heavily I finally stepped into her house with overwhelming nostalgia and expectations. There, when I raised my head I saw her face. It was same face and same old innocent adolescent smile. Her eyes still sparkled and that hue of shyness so characteristic of little women in their early teens was unmistakably present. I kept looking at her. She too kept smiling!
My steps took me all around her house; I walked along her footsteps into every room that she lived in, the desk she used to write, the places where those wonderfully simple, clear and truthful thoughts emerged into her little and young budding writers mind. Her face kept smiling, her sweet memories rushed back into my mind, and it was hard not to feel the lumps at my throat. The visit helped me to realize better about her life at “her house”.
It was great to find someone who was a friend for 20 long years. She was close to me, close enough to let me read her diary, “The diary of Anne Frank”. It’s hard not to fall in love with her and her thoughts after reading it. Even today she stays the voice of the oppressed, and represents the loss at human/family level when great wars are waged and great pogroms are schemed.
Visit to “Anne Frank House” is a must when you are in Amsterdam.
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