Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Travel Logs: Amsterdam

Amsterdam. We've been in Germany for a year and hadn't visited, so it was high time (no pun). We gathered opinions on what the most important sights were, and headed off for a super quick one-night stay. The kids were left with friends, since I was adamant we visit the famous Red LIght District.

I highly recommend seeing this city in fall, it was just too perfect, even the weather seemed suited to sitting outside at a cafe or coffeeshop. When we entered the Netherlands, the scenery changed, flattening out and revealing green pastures as far as the eye could see. The natural watery state of things leads to absolutely lush greenery and foliage. Upon entering Amsterdam, we found the city had its own unique palette. If you've studied the Dutch Rennaissance you are already familiar with this color scheme: a stark black background filled with shocks of color and light. The city is populated with brownstones, some of which have been painted black or grey, so they sit as dour as the old Dutch burghers who once ruled the country in their suits of black. The only ornamentation is the occasional pop of red or gold color in the shutters and signs. Even the residents of this city seem to have imbibed this palette and wear loads of black with bits of red or other color accessories.

Our first stop was the Rijksmuseum, housing several of Rembrandt's masterpieces, such as the Night Watch and The Jewish Bride. The latter piece stopped me dead in my tracks, fortunately there is a bench in front of it, where I planted myself and just stared agape at this stunning work for awhile. The colors, again: red and gold, are palpable, the paint loaded on with an incredibly generous spatula. Van Gogh said of this painting, "What an intimate, what an infinitely sympathetic painting. Believe me, and I mean this sincerely, I would give ten years of my life to be allowed to sit before this painting for fourteen days with just a crust of bread to eat." Dutch paintings have gained their world renown for a reason: they are innovative and unique in their color and detail. I stood before a tiny Adrien Coorte still-life, a white moth flying about fruits and spargel, set off by an inky black field, enamored almost to the point of tears. To see these works in person, after growing up learning about them in textbooks, was a truly full-circle experience for me. They are must-see works which no reprint in a text can reproduce accurately or at least not with fidelity.

We followed our art museum time with a visit to the Anne Frank House. The original building where Anne and her family hid during the Holocaust has been preserved and turned to a museum. The experience of touring this slender brownstone, walking the rickety stairs to Anne's shared bedroom, feeling the claustrophobia firsthand, is not the territory of writers, it can only be felt in person. The emotions I experienced in that place are ones I think everyone should have, they are sobering beyond description. At the end of the tour, there is a life-size photograph of Anne's father, standing in the house after the Holocaust, alone, the sole Frank family survivor of the death camps. He is standing where the sunlight is falling on him with a look so haggard and bereft, and I felt looking at him how little the sun meant to him, a man whose one ambition was to save his family.

Amsterdam has something for everyone. If art and history are not your thing, they've got debauchary too. I'm not looking down my nose at you, I promise! I looked forward to seeing the Red Light District above all else and it did not disappoint. We arrived at dusk on a Friday night, so the scene was really cranking up: the red neon lights glowed on scantily-clad prostitutes of all ages, shapes and colors. There is even an "Informational Museum" where the more intellectual of sinners can listen to a lecture on the facts about prostitution. The word on Amsterdam's Red Light is that stringent measures have cleaned up the scene, cracking down on illegal practices by organized crime groups and human trafficking rings. This is a bit comforting, though the thought that some women could be there against their own will is very upsetting to me. If women want to dance in windows, I'm fine with it, but no human should ever be enslaved and forced to sell their own body.

After the lurid glows of the Red LIght, the Coffeeshop district is a nice change of pace. The air is redolent of grass, and everyone is very chill, no packs of boys guffawing as there had been in the RL. The bars and restaurants in this area are a great place to sit outdoors and drink and observe the scene. If smoking weed isn't your thing, don't worry, it's still a pleasant place to hang out. The legality takes away all the scuzziness usually associated with marijuana. Amsterdam is truly fascinating for its ability to integrate practices considered illegal in the U.S. into mainstream society. You will even see families carrying their children down the streets of the Red Light with no sign of disturbance. Throughout Europe I've noticed the lack of shock factor associated with the naked body; it's everywhere and nobody even notices, even kids. It just goes to show stigmas breed a climate of shame and evil that may not even be legitimate.

Amsterdam is a place to visit with your mind open. It's a one-of-a-kind city, startlingly beautiful with its canals and gardens, culturally and intellectually stimulating, and irresistibly provocative. Don't just read about it. Go there.

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