One of the most poignant moments of traveling alone is coming down the escalator at the arrival gate of an airport. The faces of those waiting at the bottom are searching for the ones they love, or the ones they work with, or the ones that they haven’t seen in years. Some hold signs, some hold only anticipation.
Standing on the escalator at the Amsterdam airport, slowly sliding into the lower level, there were several crowds of people rushing together with squeals and smiles. It made me smile to see them, even while reminding me that I am always only an observer to that scene. It doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the trip but it reminds me very starkly that I am traveling alone.
The ten hour flight from Seattle was a little rough. Not in the air, but in the cabin. The young woman next to me was traveling all the way to Bangalore, India, with her nearly two year old son on her lap. Amsterdam was halfway for her, and when we landed the woman in front of her (who had turned to us all before takeoff to say that the airline had moved her seat three times and now her luggage was on the other side of the plane) told the mother that she should be ashamed of herself for traveling with her son. Admittedly, I hadn’t slept much with him crosswise across my lap or his foot kicking me but it really didn’t matter to me. I take things like that in stride. It’s part of the adventure. I may never again get to see the places I visit, so a two year old sitting next to me on an airplane is not going to upset me.
The mother seethed at the woman’s loud comment, and said, “What did you want me to do with him?” The woman said that the mother must have no conscience if she didn’t care about her discomfort for ten hours. I was gathering up my books from under the seat in front of me and when I heard the exchange, I stood up and said I thought that he had been very well behaved. A man across the aisle stood and agreed with me. When the woman protested, the man said, “I think you’ve made your point.” The mother began to cry as other woman comforted her. This drama unfolded while we all stood trapped in the back of the plane, waiting as we see others grabbing their overhead luggage and making their way out to freedom. It was a long time to stand in the hot cabin, tired and waiting to be free from the awkward air hanging above us from the conflict. When it was finally our turn to leave, I was happy to grab my backpack and head off, forgetting everyone that I had been with for the past ten hours.
Then, as I stood on the escalator sinking into the lower level of the airport, I looked at the snaking tracks and boxy train cars sitting against the concrete platforms. People were rushing everywhere in a blur of colored coats. I stepped off the escalator and into the crowd. I needed to figure out which train I needed to take from the airport to downtown. I walked over to the paper schedules displayed next to the automatic ticket kiosks and found a train to the Central Station. My hotel was near there, something that I had learned in my many travels. I had by now figured out that I like to find small hotels with wifi and breakfast near the center of town, which also allows me to walk most places that I want to see. Fortunately, I was able to check into my hotel and leave my backpack so I could walk and explore the city. It was only 9am, and Amsterdam was just waking up.
I walked around the historic downtown area of Amsterdam and found the Royal Palace, the Old Church, and a maze of canals. The architecture was beautiful, but the streets were littered with cigarette butts and trash. There was a stench of stale beer and day-old greasy fries.
While Amsterdam was walkable, it was also a mad crisscross of foot, bike, car and train traffic–none of which seemed to acknowledge the others and I felt myself gasping several times when I thought someone would be hit by a car or train. One of my uber drivers said that people do get hit by trains fairly frequently, and that he had seen people lose a foot to a train when they ignored the train bell.
After walking through most of the city, I decided to head over to Zaanse Schans, a historic village with windmills, a chocolate factory, a sawmill, and a mustard mill. It was quite touristy, but worth the twenty minute drive.
My uber driver told me he was a former professional soccer player who had come to Amsterdam from eastern Europe after he was kicked off his soccer team. I asked him why and he shook his head while saying, “I made too much money, too young. I liked drinking alcohol and going out with women. It was no good for me. Now I know better.” Fair enough.
The village was like out of a storybook, and I was surprised that the windmills weren’t taller. I bought some chocolate at the chocolate factory (little did I know that this would be the first of much chocolate that I would taste on this trip) and returned to Amsterdam.
I wandered along the waterfront to a botanical garden (Hortus Botanicus). Next to the garden was Micropia, which is apparently the only museum in the world dedicated solely to microorganisms. Given my love of science and especially “bugs,” I had to go in. There are apparently over 300 cultures of microorganisms grown in the labs of the museum.
The only thing I planned ahead of time for this trip (aside from transportation and hotels) was a visit to the Anne Frank House. The building is a nondescript brick building overlooking a canal across the street. Since the entrance through the shop is being renovated, tickets are currently only sold online and have to be reserved. The earliest time slot I could get was 7pm, which was extraordinarily hard for me on my first day there. I had the 10 hour flight behind me, a 9 hour time change, and a day of walking while wearing my backpack.
I had dinner at a delicious Indian restaurant right next to the Anne Frank House and then stood in line in a cold wind for a half hour–glad that the air was keeping me awake. No photography was allowed inside, but we were all able to proceed through each level and each room of the house. I was surprised at the condition of the house–the bookcase that was constructed to hide the stairs leading to the hidden families still swiveled easily on its hinges, postcards were still stuck to the wall above where Anne’s bed had been, and on the kitchen wall next to the sink were pencil lines and scribblings where the families charted the heights of Anne and Margot during their time in hiding. Many people were very emotional as we all walked up the narrow staircases and through the small rooms with wooden floors and pale painted walls.
Even though I had read Anne Frank’s diary in school, it still touched me as a mother to see the letters the girls wrote, the books they read, the movie stars they idolized, and especially to see their growing height marked so ordinarily on the kitchen wall. For as much fear as they must have lived with, and for as long as they frustratingly tiptoed around in those small rooms, they maintained hope and shared joy in the lives that they had. And it felt even more unjust that they would be destroyed not by fire or other natural disaster, but by the brutal hands of a dark time in human history.
I walked back to my hotel after the tour, the canals seemingly filled with ink reflecting the colors of the evening city lights. Sometimes it is hard to imagine what sorrow and triumph a city has seen during its long history. Our lives are long enough to only glimpse a sliver of that time. We look to what remains and what will continue to stand once we no longer do, and it reminds us that none of us are spectators in life as it happens, and we are all spectators to what has already occurred.
Near my hotel was a pub called Int Aepjen, a pub (and at one time also an inn) that means “in the monkeys” and is allegedly one of the oldest in Amsterdam. The pub is located near the sea port and also near the red light district, both of which contributed to its wild success. As the story goes, the owner was known to accept monkeys from sailors for payment when they had no guilders as the sailors were returning from high seas adventures on places such as Indonesia. When most of Amsterdam burned down in a fire in 1452, Int Aepjen was one of only two wooden buildings that survived. Eventually, the pub was overrun with monkeys and customers began complaining of fleas. The pub owner then gave the monkeys to a wealthy patron who lived on garden property east of the city. That location is where the zoo now stands, stemming from those first monkeys brought into Amsterdam from sailors who then used them to pay their bar tabs.