Thursday, February 23, 2006

Duvven & Trekken (Push & Pull)

I'm going to write about "travelling by myself" as though that were something I've done often. To be honest, this was my first trip by myself outside of some adventures I've had in the US and the first legs of a trip to Cuba and another to Puerto Rico, after which I met up with companions. Nevertheless, it was exactly what I needed; as my friend Sarah has been telling me, You need to learn to live with yourself. For months, I've been "stuck in my head" - or, my head was stuck somewhere other than where the rest of me was - but for four days in Amsterdam, I was nothing but present, in the present. I wasn't writing the story of the trip in my head, I wasn't thinking about how I would tell it to a friend, later, I wasn't wishing anyone else were with me or I with them. I would return to my hotel at the end of a long day and realize that I hadn't thought about anything, really, except where I was, where I was going, what I was seeing, smelling, eating.

For one thing, if my mind wandered, I'd have instantly gotten lost. Amsterdam is a very small city, one I could easily walk across, but even after a few days and many criss-crossings of the Grachtengordel (the "girdle" of canals ringing the south and west of the city), the Dam (a main square), and the Leidseplein (another main square), I would find myself on a streetcorner, map in hand, peering up at the signs posted on the corners of the buildings, wondering how on earth I'd ended up here again... Forget the confusion New Yorkers have when they go to California and realize the water is now to the west: canals were on all sides, running in all directions.

I don't mind being lost. I am often lost. My sense of direction has improved - I was going to say "since I moved to New York City," and this is true, but really, the greater my responsibility for finding my own way. Nevertheless, I expect to get lost, to overshoot highway exits, turn around, and try again, to look at a map, wander for several blocks hoping a street name rings familiar, then pull out the map and check again.

So, on my first day, when I arrived at my hotel before check-in time, I left my luggage locked in their storage closet and set out to get my bearings. I hadn't really slept during my red-eye, and had been awake for something like 30 hours at that point, so I didn't make any ambitious plans, just hoped to find food and get a sense of things. There was a little canal near the hotel - which was on the outskirts of the city center - my first canal! Not a particularly picturesque one, but I didn't know that then.

It was Sunday, and very cold, very foggy, and very, very quiet. The tram passed as I walked along the canal to the stop, and I decided that rather than wait outside in the cold, I'd follow the route of the tracks into town. All the shops along the way were closed, and I saw almost no one on the streets. Eventually, I found an open eet cafe and had a tosti (grilled sandwich - delicious & apparently popular, as they were advertised everywhere, along with tapas, which must also be a craze).

Later, as the fog began to lift, and the sun came out for literally the only time during my entire trip to Amsterdam, I came across a couple of guys moving into a new apartment, lifting their belongings in through the windows using the hook found near the roof. I also found a building adorned with an Emily Dickinson poem in fine gold letters:
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

I discovered the flower market, which I later learned is the last remaining floating market. It's been there so long and is so nearly permanent that it isn't immediately obvious that some of the stalls are really floating greenhouses. It wasn't exactly tulip-and-windmill season yet, and this was the most tulips I saw in Holland.

I also found a street of shops which reminded me of Soho, except for a little gate, through which I spied a secluded courtyard... as I peered in cautiously, other braver tourist souls walked right in, so I followed them. Several very sweet old houses and a church and little chapel surrounded the courtyard, and everything was hushed. A few people walked in to look around the church, but I decided not to as there was a christening taking place, and who am I to walk in on some other family's sacred ceremony? This was the Begijnhof, which was once a home for women who were essentially nuns, although they had not taken vows and could return to secular life if they chose.

Another gate led me out of the courtyard, down a graffitied alley, and up to the entrance of the Amsterdams Historisch Museum. Since I was there, and it was only mid-afternoon, I figured I might as well learn what I could about the history of Amsterdam. The first exhibit was an exploration of the meaning of the headscarf in the Netherlands; they had dozens of mannikins displaying colorful headscarves loaned by young Muslim Dutch women, who were also interviewed about how they choose headscarves, how they tie them, why they choose to wear them, and how others have reacted to their decision. It was pretty interesting seeing the many different styles of headscarves and methods for tying them, and hearing what young, modern women had to say about why they believe covering their heads is important. From there, I entered an exhibit on the history of the city, the gradual addition of new canals, religious persecution of the Catholics (who were allowed to worship but only in hidden churches), and much more. Unfortunately for my understanding of history, by this point I was falling asleep on my feet. I mean literally, I would "come to" in front of an exhibit and wondering if anyone had noticed me dozing off, or if they just thought I was enthralled... I did appreciate a little loft where church bells were set up so that you could ring them, playing with different combinations of notes. I walked briskly through an exhibit on sugar refining, which is probably very worth seeing when fully conscious, but I wanted nothing more than to click my heels and land at the gate to my hotel. I had to settle for getting Belgian fries from a stand in an alley, stocking up on cheese, bread, and chocolate (in case I woke up hungry at 3 am), and taking the tram home.

And that's about how tired I feel now. My body has absolutely no idea what to do with all this time-zone shifting.

(I realize this is a self-indulgent account - no one cares what I ate - but it is serving three purposes, for myself, family & friends, & the blog, so, you know, read it or don't...).


Blogger Miss Browneyedgirlie said...

Glad you enjoyed your trip. I've never been to Amsterdam - to anywhere in Europe (yet) actually - but you made it sound like a great place to visit.

Wonderful photos, too.

11:53 PM  
Blogger graycie said...

Of course we care what you ate -- and saw and heard and smelled! Thank you for sharing your trip with us -- You are bringing me back to the years I lived in Munich. (sigh)

4:12 PM  

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