Tot ziens, Amsterdam

KLM - Amsterdam to Detroit Finally, we’re making our way back to the states. I have mixed feelings, knowing that it means the last seven weeks of the fellowship will begin, a starter pistol and then the feeling of time just slipping away until this crazy-surreal existence comes to a screeching halt. On the other hand, I’m about ready to curl up in my own bed with my cats nestled against me for warmth and take my pick from an endless supply of clean socks and underwear.

We’ve spent the past couple of days killing time in Amsterdam. Rainey and Graham had already arrived here from Florence on Tuesday, so Wednesday we planned to hook up with them at the Holiday Inn. (Another travel tip – the Holiday Inn, which claims to be in Central Amsterdam, isn’t. In fact, it’s pretty much a miss all around.) After check in, I crawled into bed for a nap while Chris kept himself busy and by the time I awoke, I was filled with a great sadness and a pressing need simply to spend some time with myself. Thus, I stayed “home” in our hotel room and hibernated while Chris joined Rainey and Graham for dinner with their friend Bill, who lives in Amsterdam, and his girlfriend.

By Thursday morning, I’d had a good ten hours of sleep and we met up with Rainey and Graham in the lobby before taking a tram to the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, where we met up with Gerard and Kim. It’s insane how nice it is to see these people again, probably made even more so by the unavoidable encroaching knowledge that our time is limited.

The museum itself is lovely, a modern box beautifully juxtapositioned next to the ornate, antique façade of the Rijksmuseum next door. Inside is a generous collection of Van Gogh’s works, many of which I’d never seen before. Of course, there were plenty of famous pieces too, such as The Potato Eaters and The Bedroom. In addition, the upper galleries offer up the works of such contemporaries as Gaugin, Monet, Pissaro, Seurat, Broussard and Toulouse-Lautrec. Rainey was particularly moved by the museum’s continuing narrative, illustrating the relationship between Vincent and his younger brother Theo who was his patron, his supporter and his best friend. They were so close, in fact, that after Vincent died slowly from a self-inflicted gunshot, Theo rushed to his bedside and lay with his head on the same pillow as his brother until Vincent’s life ran out. Theo, apparently victim to tenuous physical and emotional health himself, died six months later.

After the Van Gogh museum, I led the gang back through Leidseplein and down the Leidsestraat in search of V&D's La Place, where Chris and I ate earlier in the week. It’s a wonderful gourmet food court of sorts, although that description doesn’t fairly describe the various stations where one can pile plates high with salads, roasted vegetables, fresh-baked breads, flat bread sandwiches and a host of made-to-order specialties like Siam noodles, pizza, stir fried fresh veggies and meats. Far less crowded than on our visit on Saturday, we were able to get an even better glimpse at the generous piles of fresh veggies, the giant bowls of fruit at the smoothie stand, the luscious pastries in the bakery area and the house-made soups bubbling in large cauldrons. Suffice it to say, everyone got something they liked and we were well fed.

Back to the streets we went, where Gerard and Kim split off to check out the Rijksmuseum while the rest of us hoofed it down to Prinsengracht and along the canal to the Anne Frank House. It’s the strangest of experiences to enter a place you’ve already sketched out in your mind and stepping behind the bookcase and into the entrance I’d first read about decades ago was like stepping into a different world.

Although the rooms have been left unfurnished, apparently at Otto Frank’s request, it isn’t difficult to imagine just how much more cramped everything would have been. Wonder gave way to deep sorrow and amazement upon entering the room in which Anne Frank slept and wrote her famous “Dear Kitty” diary entries. Still on the walls are the film star photos she cut out of magazines and pasted up in an optimistic attempt to brighten her tiny new world.

I initially thought it impossible to be unmoved by the experience – until a teenage British school girl pushed past us, loudly complaining about how bored she was. For some reason, witnessing such absolute detachment and lack of compassion just compounded the lack of humanity Anne Frank’s demise has come to represent. It’s a testament to her legacy, however, to see a wall featuring copies of her diary translated into virtually every language imaginable.

I’m not doing the experience justice. I’m not even touching on the moving video testimonies playing throughout the facility, nor the sight of Anne Frank’s Red Cross card or even her handwriting – changing between print and fancy cursive – on the pages of her actual diary. Nor the letters written by Otto Frank to family members after the war, expressing his desperate but fading hope of finding his daughters still alive. I’ve been grappling a little of late with my own version of survivor’s guilt and, somehow, having it framed by the shattering experience of Mr. Frank has made everything a little easier to bear.

Despite the cold, there was a bright sunshine awaiting us as we emerged from the building Anne and her family left as possessions of the Gestapo. It’s impossible, I think, to come away from that experience and not glimpse Amsterdam in a different light – to imagine that it must have looked so similar when Anne Frank was one of the girls whizzing by on her bicycle. Not many cities make it easy to squint your eyes and stretch your imagination and wind up decades away. Amsterdam does.

Thus, Rainey, Graham, Chris and I spent the next hour or so wandering around the streets of the Jordaan district before making our way back to the Leidsestraat in search of a warm beverage to thaw us from the chilly winds. On Kim’s recommendation, we sought out the café at the top of the Metz & Co. department store. While the views were stunning, the service was curt as they were closing in ten minutes and while they agreed to serve tea and coffee, we were also rushed to pay the bill and asked to leave. In other words, if you want to enjoy the sumptuous view it offers, go earlier in the day. Still, all was forgiven by the time we fulfilled Graham’s goal of eating a freshly made waffle, which we enjoyed drizzled with warm chocolate sauce.

As we stood waiting for a tram to take us back to the hotel, the sky offered forth a strange and brief burst of the most perfectly formed tiny little balls of hail. Were we not slap-happy, it could have been a magical moment. Instead, I said, “What perfect, tiny little balls.” To which Graham responded, “That’s what Smurfette said.” And away we were, business as usual.

A brief respite back at the hotel and we were on the tram again, heading to meet their friend Bill for dinner. The temperature had continued to drop and the cobblestone streets were dangerously icy, particularly where they curved up into bridges across the canals. We were nearly wiped out by a Mercedes driver who decided to back up without looking behind him and bore witness to more than one cyclist wiping out on the black ice.

Brave souls that we were, we made it to the Indonesian restaurant of Bill’s choosing, all in one piece and Vanessa – who had arrived back in Amsterdam just a few hours before – joined us for dinner. It was my first experience with Indonesian food and I enjoyed everything we had, a family-style table full of lamb, beef, chicken and vegetables in peanut-y or coconut-y sauces of varying degrees of spiciness.

Setting back out onto the street again, stuffed after a glorious meal, Bill led us on a mini-walking tour whose highlights included Dam Square and a quick shuffle up both sides of the Red Light District’s main drag. Honestly, I could have done well without the last part. I practically got high on second hand dope smoke and haven’t been offered ecstasy or cocaine that many times in my life. But that doesn’t compare to the odd experience of being a woman walking down the streets where young women wag their tails in narrow red-lit windows, beds visible behind them, the white lace of their bikinis and lingerie glowing under black lights.

It left me in sort of a grumpy and disturbed mood for the tram ride back to the hotel, but I abandoned in soon enough to finish the last of our packing – hardly a feat, as everything’s dirty at this point – and fall into bed. Morning came too soon and we were back at Schipohl caught up in the most ridiculous and over-crowded check-in set up I’ve ever seen.

Coming back to the states involves passing a brief interview with a security inspector before boarding the plane and each of us had to answer a variety of probing questions trying to explain who we were, what a fellowship is, why we were in Istanbul, why we flew to Milan mid-week, etc. But we all passed and with the exception of Charles Clover – whose connecting flight from London must not have come in on time – we all got on our plane, albeit after a delay caused by a wonky smoke detector. (It’s okay, though. I don’t mind waiting for something I feel pretty strongly we need to have working.)

We’ll touch down on time in Detroit, which always makes me wonder why they don’t just schedule the arrival time for earlier if they’re always going to make it up in the air. But never mind. When we land, it will be just before 1 pm Detroit time, 7 pm Amsterdam. I’ve gone back and forth about a zillion times about this but I’ve decided for a number of reasons not to immediately hop on another plane to St. Louis to make it to S.’s memorial service this evening. I’m still not certain it’s the right decision and I hope I won’t have regrets later, but I’m already exhausted and in pain and, as my friend Katie said, S. would probably have liked it better if I helped someone in her honor, rather than knocking myself out to get to her service and mourn her loss with a bunch of other people.

I hope she’s right, because I feel the need to get to my home, my kitties and rest. Until tomorrow, when two of my little nieces arrive to visit and I can scoop up their beautiful faces and kiss their cheeks, all rosy and bright with life, until they’re all wet and sloppy and begging me to stop. It sounds like the best plan I’ve had in days.