Monday, December 26, 2011

Of COURSE I Want to Visit “Les Pays-Bas” At Christmastime! Um...Where Is That, Anyway???

Happy Holidays, Everyone! I hope everyone is enjoying the perpetual LACK of snow, both here in France, as well as in the U.S.! As the French newscasters are reporting the problems with kickstarting the tourist season in the Alps due to pas de neige, the report from both North Carolina, chez moi, as well as in Ohio, chez mes parents, is getting the same result. OHIO, even!!! This must really be a problem, because the area around my parents' house is well known for it's Amish communities, fields of corn and soy, and, well, TONS of snow! Tant pis (too bad) this kind of weather never happens whenever I'm visiting!

But to celebrate the fact that we no longer had school and had time to burn, I was suggested to go along with two of my friends, Alyx and Julie, to Les Pays-Bas. At first, we were trying to find a place to visit inside L'Hexagon, but finally decided that, since we're so close to the borders of other countries in Europe, we should go somewhere else within the E.U.! (Note: I say “within the E.U.” because, as Visa-carrying students, you are limited to where you can travel outside of France. If you're designated a student Visa for the E.U., you need to stay within those countries, or else!)

So where, exactly, are Les Pays-Bas​? I'll give you two hints: tulips and wooden shoes. Yep! We decided to ditch the idea of visiting the lackadaisical, non-snowy climate of the Alps in order to go to the Netherlands! There were three specific places that we wanted to visit while we were there, along with gazing at the general splendor of European, straight-laced architectural styles found in the designs of the buildings, crammed together without as much as a sliver of space for windows on the sides, but first, I'd like to reflect a bit on our journey there to illuminate the attitude of people from Europe and Amsterdam...
Ahhh, European symmetrical architecture!

Part One: Changing Trains

As we made our way to Amsterdam, Alyx, Julie and I had to change trains twice: once in Paris (which has TWO train stations, one in Charles de Gaulle Airport and one in Montparnasse), and once in a city that will not be named. The train change in Paris wasn't so difficult, with one quick trip on the métro (with a serenade of musicians sneaking on to play for money, bien sûr), and one very expensive, but very welcomed coffee at Starbucks (hey, we are Americans, after all!) along the way. Then, as we continued our journey, we had to change trains again. At this point, leaving so early in the morning, we tried to find a bench to sit down on as we waited for our connecting train to arrive. At the end of one particular bench sat a large, unattended piece of luggage. Five minutes go by, and the suitcase is still sitting there, owner-less. Ten minutes go by, and it's still sitting there.

As Americans, you can guess what we are taught about unattended luggage. This is a BIG no-no in America, and can cause a general sense of panic. So we, the American girls, decide to tell someone about said luggage, to get it checked out. We tell a serious-looking security officer at the train station, concern shining in our eyes about such a mysterious object being left to its own devices. He looks at us, and squints his eyes in a very “you guys aren't from around here, are you?” manner. (As Study Abroad students, you will learn very well what this look is!) He goes to stand by the luggage, and suddenly the owner shows up, disaster averted. The three of us, embarrassed by our American-ness, jump up as soon as our train arrives to avoid any other behavior on our parts that just prove how far away from home we really are.

Even though we were set back a bit in our self-esteem by this incident, we were really tested of our abilities when we arrived at Grand Station in Amsterdam. Due to a cruddy internet connection, we knew the name of the hostel where we were staying, but the connection was lost before we could write down the directions on how to get there from the train station. Mustering up all the courage we had, we walked solemnly toward an older woman, who was very stereotypically from Holland—complete with the long blond pigtails—who sat in a kiosk. Mind you, none of us know Dutch, and I only know how to say “Thank you”, “Please”, and “Catch you later” in German, due to my love of Tom Tykwer movies. We couldn't have been more out of our element, and all the streets ended in straat, which didn't help us at all. “Please”, we blurted out to her in English, “we don't know where our hostel is, could you help us?” We just hoped she knew enough English to point us in the right direction. 


Part Two: It Can't Be THAT easy!

Sure,” she replied in perfectly-understandable English. “There is a Tourism Office across the street, you can look up the address of your hostel there. Then just take the tram to where you need to go.”

Us: “How will we know which tram to take, and where to get off?”

Woman: “Just ask the driver.”

NO WAY it could be that simple. 

But it was. 

Furthermore, the people were friendly about it. No weird looks, no eye-rolling-because-we're-foreigners, no judgements. We found our hostel's address, no problems, and got onto a tram, asking the driver what to do. “Just enjoy the ride!” he exclaimed heartily, “I'll tell you where to get off the tram”.
Even the speedbump warning signs seem friendlier!

Part Three:  Touristy-ness

Amsterdam was already awesome, and it only got better. We met some really great people, including a bunch of Scots who had accents so thick it was sometimes hard to understand their own version of English, as well as meeting up with a high school classmate of Julie's, who just happened to live in a neighboring town, and who is Dutch.

We all had a wonderful time, so much so that we lamented a bit on returning to Angers on Christmas Eve, just missing the big Christmas meal at the hostel. A hostel that was dirt cheap, tremendously clean, and who served us breakfast!

I could focus on other (perhaps unsavory) aspects of this wonderful city, but instead, I will tell you about three places we went that were truly magical: the Van Gogh Museum, the tour of the Canals, and the Anne Frank House.

I will start with the Anne Frank House because that is the most sobering, and I would like to end on a cheery note.

For anyone who as read her diary, one can remember the church bells that Anne heard while hiding in the second and third stories of her father's jelly and canning factory. Those bells, and the church itself, can be seen from the attic that she so famously frequented to be by herself, writing her hauntingly innocent entries before being discovered by the Nazis on August 4, 1944. 
Approaching the West Church, whose bells rang while we were actually in the Frank House.  Eerie!

To this day, no one knows who told the Germans about their hiding place, whose entrance was hidden by a dummy bookcase hinged to a wall. We climbed the suicide stairs, banging our shins against each step, as we ascended behind that very bookcase, finding empty rooms coated in yellowed wallpaper, and, in Anne's tiny bedroom space, pictures plastered on the walls ranging from magazine clippings to a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. 

Otto, her father, refused to let the attic remain furnished after he returned to Amsterdam, discovering that his entire family had been killed in the concentration camps. My heart was especially touched by this, for I interpret this as his way of showing that this attic, with its cramped spaces, blackout shades, and lone stove used for two families in hiding, was no place to live. People should not have had to live in such conditions, and if the furniture remained, in my opinion, it could be seen as a nod that this kind of lifestyle was okay; on the contrary, living in hiding, worried if any creak of a footstep or glimmer from a lit candle in that attic is not an acceptable place to live.

As we left the house, humbly undistinguishable from any other by the outside, we needed to lift our spirits, so we walked around the nearby shopping district, passing by hundreds of bicycles. Amsterdam is known to have almost as many bicycles as inhabitants, and some were more unique than others, just as this metal homage to Heinz ketchup, which I really liked:

Ok, moving on!

The canal cruise was remarkable, touring all of the canals, built brick by brick, to create the city of Amsterdam by the Dutch. Many videos exist of such tours, and ours was particularly enjoyable, since we departed in late afternoon and arrived back in the early evening, which enabled us to see the city in the daytime as well as twilight, lit by hundreds of lights which lined the canals' tunnels, as well as decorated buildings, homes, and shops for the Holiday Season.

Not to mention the houseboats!

The third place, the Van Gogh Museum, was truly a marvel. Owned by the family of the widow of Theo, Vincent's beloved brother (and best friend), the museum's three floors depict the rise of inspirational movements that influenced Vincent's works of art along with his own massive collection. There is even a reproduction of his bedroom in Arles, constructed according to his depiction found in his paintings while he lived there. As a side note, there is much speculation about his death: many believe that he shot himself in a field, an early sufferer of bipolar disorder, yet new evidence suggests that he was accidentally shot by a pair of local troublemaking brothers. An article about this can be found here:

There were too many favorites for me to list them all here, ranging from one of my own favorite movements, the Opening of Japan, sometimes referred to as the Edo (Japanese for Tokyo) Japan movement, which brought to the world, especially France, the works of such great masters as Hokusai and Hiroshige, which Van Gogh often copied.  One example, displayed at the Museum, is a favorite woodcut of mine of Hiroshige's, entitled Flowering Plum Tree, which shows the original (right), and Van Gogh's copy (left): 

The works that came out of this tiny island, which remained uninvolved in world trade and influence for several centuries beforehand, not only inspired the likes of Van Gogh, but also my very favorite movement, Art Nouveau, along with my favorite artist, Alphonse Mucha.
One of my favorite Mucha works :)

With Amsterdam's high level of safety (a BIG deal for a bunch of girls, believe me!), its friendliness, and its rich history, Alyx, Julie, and I all left with the feeling that either we wanted to stay there for quite a while longer, or never leave. Either way, I am happy to have the Netherlands on my (slowly) growing list of countries I have been lucky enough to visit, as well as a new addition to places I want to go to see again. Dank je wel for such a memorable time, Amsterdam!

Happy Holidays from Julie, Alyx, and Me!

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