Sunday 5th October 2008, Amsterdam
Yesterday started as it intended continuing. We managed to damage Modestine's umbilical cord, bringing us electricity for everything we need when it's cold and wet outside – heating, computers, cooking, hot water and the fridge. Somehow the cable got tangled up when we wound up her rear stabilisers ready to move on and the casing has split. We've done a temporary repair job with insulating tape but will need to buy a new cable as soon as we can find a camping car specialist.
It was raining of course as we packed up and moved off. However, it improved as the morning wore on, so by the time we reached nearby Bergen it had actually stopped. Bergen seems a pretty, bustling little town on a Saturday morning, packed with bicycles of every shape and size. Many have fixed carts at the front or side for transporting several children as well as the weekly shopping. We prowled the various shops along the main street, trying samples of the different Dutch cheeses, most of which are rather salty. Around the old church was the weekend market where we joined a queue for our Dutch treat of the day – loempias. These are Vietnamese bean rolls, cooked on the street and served with a spicy sweet red sauce. The Dutch have many interesting dishes they have adopted from their colonies abroad – Surinam, Ceylon, Africa, the East and West Indies. We are attempting to try some of these while we are here including saté - savoury dishes served in a spice and peanut sauce usually accompanied by a rice dish – nasi goreng.
Continuing along the coast road we turned off into the dunes for a view of the sea. We soon gave that up. It was impossible to park except in designated places way back from the sea. It was expensive unless you intended staying all day, and with the rain-soaked wind streaming in across the IJselmeer there was no likelihood of that.
We wanted to see the Frans Hals Museum in Harlem and, distances being small in Holland, we were soon in the town. Parking though was impossible. We got quite lost, tangled up in residential streets with little idea of how far we were from the centre. The only campsite we could find was expensive, cold and basic in the extreme and anyway, too far out from the centre of Harlem to walk in and it was too wet to cycle.
So we gave up temporarily on Harlem and sought out a campsite on the periphery of Amsterdam. This was much better and lots cheaper. The downside is that although it is set in a pleasant park that stretches half way to the city, it is too wet to cycle in. So we have been using public transport. The transport system is entirely automated and all instructions are in Dutch, requiring a credit card to purchase your ticket at the unstaffed station. It has taken us ages to fathom out how the charging system operates. It's the most complex one we've ever come across. The metro station is fifteen minutes walk away through a bleak open, rainswept area, cut across by a couple of canals. It serves countless blocks of flats and characterless houses in a soulless residential area that lacks shops, cafes or anywhere with a sense of community. It is untypical for a nation that is so open, friendly and companionable.
So yesterday we achieved very little. We went to bed with the sound of rain and woke to the same tune this morning. By the time we'd made our way to Amsterdam we were soaked. In the city it has rained continuously and heavily the entire day. The streets are awash, cars spew water over pedestrians, cyclist holding umbrellas weave around them while the pedestrians jump this way and that avoiding puddles.
On such a day it was impossible to look at the sights so we made our way to the Rijksmuseum where we had to queue for well over an hour in the pouring rain to get inside. Everybody had the same idea and the number of visitors inside the building was restricted. We were soaked and shivering as we eventually shuffled through the under-heated galleries. However, we have to admit that there is a thrill in gazing at the originals of world renowned paintings by the masters of the golden age of Dutch art. Everything on display in the museum was from the 17th century and included not only paintings but marquetry and inlaid furniture, sculptures and ceramics, particularly blue Delft tiles, vases, dishes and urns. It was the paintings though that everyone wanted to see - works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Avercamp, Jan Steen, Van Dyck, Frans Hals, Pieter de Hoogh and others. The most famous work in the museum is Rembrandt's Night Watch, commissioned and paid for by the city council. It has never been sold since and its value is inestimable. Certainly it is an impressive work but his individual portraits have a more direct impact on the viewer. We have no photos but his works, and those of other 17th century Dutch artists are well known and frequently reproduced.
Large sections of the museum are closed long-term for refurbishment, so far too quickly we were through the museum and out in the wet streets again, leaving enough space for the waiting queues to shuffle up as two more bedraggled visitors were admitted.
Every cloud has a silver lining. Because of the wet Ian has not spent the day standing on street corners gazing at his map. Nor has he photographed a single man-hole cover. It has all got very dire though. What to do in Amsterdam when it is bucketing down, you are cold, wet and hungry and you have no real idea where you are in the city or where you want to get to. Nor do you properly understand the transport system.
We decided to go to the Van Gogh museum which was nearby. However, it was rather expensive, particularly as we'd already done one rather pricey museum today. So we changed our minds and gradually made our way back across the city towards the station, stopping to sit down and dry off a bit in a coffee shop. Out route took us through Amsterdam's famous red light district. It seems to have more interesting architecture there than we'd so far seen in the city. It's supposed to be sleezy and perhaps at night it is. At five in the afternoon all we saw were a few sex shops and girlie peep shows. There were several nymphs in red bras and matching thongs trying not to look bored on a wet Sunday afternoon as they waited in brightly lit shop windows to be purchased. Some had rather interesting tattoos round their navels but we didn't like to look too closely.
We returned with relief to Modestine where we changed into dry clothes and spent the evening surrounded by soaking coats, shoes and umbrellas. This is becoming far too regular for us to continue bearing with equanimity.
Monday 6th October 2008, Amsterdam
It wasn't raining this morning! Furthermore, it hasn't rained once all day and the sun has been shining! We've had a really good day around Amsterdam, returning after dark, tired but satisfied with our day.
It started with a stroll around the Jewish quarter of the city and a visit to the theatre known as the Hollandsche Schouwburg. During the Nazi occupation it was closed and turned into a holding place for Jews who had been rounded up prior to being sent to concentration camps from which almost none were to return. The theatre has now become a memorial to all those thousands who passed their last days in Amsterdam inside its walls. From Amsterdam alone over 85,000 Jews died in the holocaust, many no more than children. The text was in Dutch but the pictures on the walls and the artefacts on display told a very vivid story. Happy family photos, a wedding film, identity papers, school groups, photos of young children, sent off with their parents to the Dutch forwarding camp of Westerbork, leaving behind, as they were herded into trains and sent to Belsen or Auschwitz, a pair of tiny shoes, a few toys or a worn frock.
Where the theatre stage once stood is a stone memorial on a star-shaped plinth and along the walls lining the entrance is a list of all the families who were sent from here, never to see their homes again. One of the most touching things however was the messages in the visitors' book. The person before us had said her grandparents had both been brought here and that was the last ever known of them. She was visiting from England with her mother who had been very deeply moved to see her parents' names on the wall. There was a very touching message from a thirteen year old German boy who said it had made him feel very scared and shocked to realise what had happened. He'd written that he was so sorry and that he felt ashamed that he was German. Others had added their names too, saying they too felt ashamed. This is particularly sad. Why should innocent German children today feel they carry the guilt of the past? In any case, the evil was done not by the everyday people of Germany, but by the National Socialists - the Nazis. Most Germans were powerless to do anything and perhaps never really understood the full implications of what was happening. Who is to say whether we would have had the courage to act differently in their place? We are just grateful never to have needed to make such a choice.
Most of the Dutch too were helpless to protect their Jewish friends and neighbours, though some were very brave, hiding Jewish people in their homes, sometimes for years, between 1940-1945. All did so at enormous personal risk. Of course the most obvious example in Amsterdam is young Anne Frank and her family who hid at the top of one of the canal-side houses for two years before being discovered and transported to Belsen. Anne died shortly before the end of the war. Had she lived she would have been seventy-nine now. That is one of the things that really angers us. She, and 104,000 other Dutch Jews, plus six million more across Europe, have been individually deprived of their right to life. Collectively, Ian calculates, Hitler has robbed the Jewish people in Europe of some 200,000,000 years of life.
Another comment in the visitors' book was disturbing. Written by somebody from Israel it stated that it was complacent to assume that such things would not happen again and the only sure way of avoiding it was to continue to build a strong and powerfully armed Israel capable of defending itself. So, does this mean that the Palestinians become the new outcasts and the hatred continues?
Also in the Jewish quarter we found the massive Portuguese synagogue dating from the 17th century. It was built by Sephardic Jews fleeing from persecution in Portugal. Nearby is the museum of Jewish history housed in another four former synagogues.
We browsed the stalls at the local fleamarket and stopped at one of the street canteens for our Dutch treat of the day – meat and potato croquettes with a plate of chips and a tub of mayonnaise. It may not have been healthy but it tasted good and we were able to sit in the market listening to the stall holders, from Holland and the Dutch colonies, speaking Dutch together. This is impossible otherwise as they nearly always speak to us in English.
Nowadays mean sea level in many countries is based on a reading taken in 1684 in Amsterdam. In the civic centre are three columns of water each marked with a scale showing the Normal Amsterdam Level – the surface of the sea if the dykes did not exist and Holland was covered by water. One column then marks current sea levels at IJmuiden, another at Vlissingen. The third column shows the water level during the 1953 Zeeland flood disaster when it reached 4.5 metres above the N.A.L. There was also a mural showing a cross section through Amsterdam, which is built on thousands of wooden piles sunk into the sandy sea bed - this probably explains why so many of the buildings have subsided, slipped sideways, lean backwards or list outwards. Looking at the cross-section it becomes apparent that the entire city is well below sea level and is controlled and regulated by the pumps and sluices on the massive dykes protecting the country.
Continuing our stroll across the city we passed the house where Rembrandt lived and painted in the 1640s, at the height of his popularity, surrounded by beautiful objects in a luxurious setting. He eventually was forced to sell both the house and its contents to pay his debts.
Amongst these beautiful buildings we passed the offices of the Dutch East India Company. They were set up in 1605 when Holland was trading with Ceylon and Indonesia bringing back spices, coffee and hardwoods.
Dam Square is a huge, uninspiring place with a busy road cutting through the centre. It seemed to be a place for people to sit around on the ground wearing vague expressions. On one side the square is flanked by the huge and ugly Royal Palace, really intended as a civic building while another side accommodates the city's most exclusive department store, Bijenkorf (Beehive). We peeped in but it wasn't quite our scene.
The nearby Stock Exchange is a massive brick building dating from around 1900. The only place we managed to penetrate was the café with its decorative mosaics.
We strolled along the Herrengracht, one of the main canals, in permanent danger of being run down by the massive bikes that surge around the city. The streets are a clutter of uneven cobbles.
Amsterdam is full of "coffee shops". These sell drugs. Otherwise they are called cafés to differentiate them. We have been surprised at just how blatant the soft drugs scene is here. There are even shops selling seeds, neatly packaged in presentation boxes. They were not short of customers either. Of course it is legal to sell it, but not to import it back into another country though, quite honestly, it would be very difficult to control. How could customs officials find a few cannabis seeds in Modestine amongst all our belongings? In case HM Customs drug squad is reading this, we hasten to add there are none!
We have seen several happy, vacantly smiling faces from people tottering along beside the canals singing softly and waving their arms around. Passing near the "Flying High" coffee shop we watched a bearded young man toddle cheerfully out, climb on his bike, wobble across the road onto the pavement in front of us and fall off. There he lay at our feet laughing happily.
Finally we walked back to the train station through the Red Light district again. It was only when we got home Ian told me he'd had his camera open and had been taking surreptitious photos from his pocket.
Incidentally, the pretty houses in Holland's old provincial towns have fringes of Dutch lace along the tops of windows that are filled with potted plants, sleeping cats and Delft ornaments. Sometimes there is a wooden frame displaying a picture, also made in Dutch lace. It is called a hor. There are two main differences between these and the similarly named beautiful objects displayed in the windows of Amsterdam's red light district. The first difference is in the spelling. The second is that whereas lacy hors are designed to give a certain degree of privacy to the activities going on in the room behind, those in Amsterdam are in the window for the express purpose of making it quite obvious what happens in the room behind!