17: Learning to Ride – Diary of a Single Girl – Amsterdam, Nethlands

17: Learning to Ride

The day I came down to the lounge to use the internet and ended up goofy from second-hand smoke in just 10 minutes was the day I knew it was time to get the hell out of the Flying Pig. I really hadn’t done any tourist-type stuff, other than hang around the canals and tramp through the red light district with Captain Dan and Chuck, a friend from home who informed me that the hot hookers only come out at night. Now I figured it was high time to expand my horizons in a more constructive and educational way.

I moved in with my friend Meijke for four days for a little reunion, and to get a feel for a local Dutch experience. Meijke and I had studied Spanish together in Seville earlier in the summer and for two weeks, she, Brechtje (another Dutch friend), Mara and I were quite a foursome, so it was a treat to see Meijke again.

Meijke had a lovely loft-type apartment in a conveniently situated area of Amsterdam: close to the museums and far enough away from the “scene” to experience the Amsterdam the natives live in day-to-day.

My first Dutch outing was accompanying Meijke to the opening night of the cultural season. Three stages were set up in a big park near the Van Gogh museum, and we heard everything from classical Dutch compositions to some kind of scary hard-beating idunnowhat accompanied by surreal video images. We drank overpriced Heineken (as a local brew you’d think it’d be cheaper), sat on the lawn and took in the people sights. The next three days I spent visiting the Van Gogh (pronounced “Van Goff” by the way), Rijks and Anne Frank museums.

I’d never had an appreciation for either artist, nor had I read Anne Frank’s diary, so I learned quite a bit. The Van Gogh works are arranged in chronological order, and a very informative audio guide explains his changes in motif, colors and subject matter over the years. But even without the audio accompaniment it was plain to see the highs and lows of the master’s life, along with feeling his pain in his last dark tormented days. Unfortunately his famous sunflower paintings were not there, having, ironically, been loaned to the Chicago Art Institute for the summer.

I’m not familiar at all with Rembrandt and was very impressed by his use of color and shadow to create paintings that seem illuminated from above when really they are illuminated from within the canvas itself. A famous painting of his, commonly known as The Night Watch, is on display in the Rijksmuseum and besides the dramatic use of color, the most intriguing thing about this painting is that its focal point was altered when the canvas was cut to fit it in the museum.. The current focal point of the portrait is two commanders, created by the illumination of a pale uniform of one of the men and crossed poles over their heads.

However, a portion of the left side and top and bottom of the original painting were removed. In a copy of the original you can clearly see the focal point of the painting is a little girl with a dead chicken hung on her dress. I don’t understand the meaning of it, but it seems Rembrandt’s original statement has been drastically altered.

I found the Anne Frank museum – well, not depressing enough. I thought the same when I had visited the Dachau concentration camps years ago. The place seemed scrubbed down, too sterile to convey the desperation of the time. I think the claustrophobic quarters would have been better represented if furniture crowded the rooms and they had “recreated” the original scenario. I was, however, impressed by 14-year-old Anne’s mature observations of her life and situation, and I admired her father’s persistence in getting her diaries published. The story of Anne Frank is one of the most retold stories in the world, and the published diaries one of the most translated.


After Amsterdam I spent two days visiting another fellow traveler in Den Bosch, a college town in the south of The Netherlands. Remco and I had met in Barcelona, and I think he was a bit surprised when I actually took him up on his invitation to visit. Like Meijke, he was a great host. Remco took me on an “underground” canal tour that was given all in Dutch. He valiantly translated as rapidly as he could, and by day’s end was exhausted from trying to think in English all day. The canals in Den Bosch vary from the ones in Amsterdam, as most are under the buildings, having been covered to make as much use of the surface space as possible.

Remco also introduced me to a typical Dutch transportation mode: sitting side-saddle on the crossbar of a bicycle while he peddled. Now, having already ridden on the back of Mejke’s bike I figured I was a pro. On the way to the pub we started out with me on the package rack, but after about three blocks I called out “Remco, I think I’m falling off!” He called over his shoulder, “No, you’re fine, just hold on tight and keep your balance.”

“No,” I replied, “I’m certain I’m falling off!” and I hopped off the moving bicycle. He stopped and smiled at this novice indulgently, until he glanced down and realized the bolts that hold the rack to the seat were missing. A few more feet and I would have had tire tracks on my butt. So that’s how I was introduced to the crossbar ride. Sitting on the crossbar required much faith in Remco’s sense of balance. For the first time ever, I was grateful for my extra rear padding, not to mention impressed that Remco managed to get us home without a crash after a few hours in the pub.

And not only did I learn a new sense of balance, but I introduced Remco to something very American. The music of Dave Matthews. I really couldn’t tell if he liked it or was just being polite, but he’s had plenty of time now to decide as he still has my CD because, as usual, I forgot all about it.

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