“I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out,” Anne Frank wrote in the annex above her father’s Amsterdam office. Anne saw a life beyond that annex where she lived with her family, the van Pels and Fritz Pfeffer; eight humans sharing four rooms and a bathroom at the very top of a building in the city centre, a building they didn’t leave for more than two years, whose windows they couldn’t go near for fear of being seen, whose taps they couldn’t turn on for fear of being heard.
I read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girlwhen I was a teenager, and obviously fell in love with her. She spoke with my voice – the voice of all teenaged girls. She had the tenacity, the humour, the hormones, the emotions, the awareness, the heart, the strength… And, sadly, the naivety to believe that she would survive. The hope. It’s this hopeful assumption I find most poignant.
But of course her hope was her saviour. Imagine being filled with a sense of doom for those two years, expecting any day to be caught and hauled to certain death. It would have made her diary even harder to write, let alone read.
Anyway, I had booked tickets to visit the Anne Frank house on our second day in Amsterdam, and was a bit apprehensive as we set off on our bikes. Anne is possibly one of the most famous… I don’t know what word to use here without offending anyone. One of the most famous victims of WWII? I’m loth to create a league table of all those murdered by the Nazis, but I think it’s safe to say that most people have heard of Anne Frank. Know her story.
And of course, it’s not a story. I was apprehensive because I would be treading the very floors Anne had walked, would be looking out the very windows she had looked out of when she said, “As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?”
It’s essential to book tickets online before you go. You’re allocated a 15-minute window in which to join the queue, but I don’t know what happens if you’re late (if you’re early you are kept waiting until your allotted time). And then the queue files through the newly built atrium reception, each visitor picking up an audio guide, before wending its way slowly and quietly up the stairs into the office block.
It was a humbling experience. (Only one man ignored the “no photos” rule, and I shot him A Look. (I am good at Looks.) He waited until I left the room then took another photo. I know he took another photo because he forgot to switch off the fake click on his cameraphone.)
When Anne’s father Otto returned from Auschwitz, the furniture had been removed from their enforced home; when the building was opened as a museum in 1960, Otto stipulated that the furniture (or copies of it) not be returned, so the rooms are ostensibly bare – but at some point furniture props were pictured in the rooms, and the resulting photographs put up on the walls, so you could see how the stowaways would have lived. There are also personal effects and private letters on show, Anne’s collection of movie star postcards on her bedroom wall, and, interestingly, Anne’s own rewritten and edited diary (she had wanted to have her diary published after the war, so was tidying it up.)
The point where I felt the sting of tears in the back of my throat was when we passed Anne and her sister Margot’s height marks on the wall, lines scrawled in pencil to record their growth. That’s a thing that parents do. And the humanity hit me, the vulnerability, the families’ desire for normality.
I recommend visiting the Anne Frank house. Take your time. Dwell on each detail. Never forget.
Our next planned stop was a tour of the bell tower of Westerkerk, but we had a couple of hours to waste so decided to hunt down the 3D printed bridge. This was something we had learned about on our trip to San Francisco; a model of the bridge was on show in the Autodesk Gallery in downtown San Francisco. We had understood it would be in place in Amsterdam in Spring 2018, so off we cycled, through the red light district to the canal at Oudezijds Achterburgwal.
It was during this brief but jolly jaunt through the red light district that husband somehow clocked the prostitutes posing in the windows. Children and I remained blissfully unaware, though, and sailed down the street to the canal, where we halted at a crappy old graffiti-strewn bridge across the water. Hmm, I said. Looks like the 3D one hasn’t been installed yet.
So I took a picture of husband and children on the crappy bridge to show where the 3D bridge will go, and only later noticed the “Live Porno Show” venue in the background of the photo.
A quick lemonade later and we returned to Westerkerk for our bell tower tour. In her diary Anne Frank talks about hearing the bells of Westerkerk, just a few doors along from the annex. Its clockface on the tower could be seen from the annex window, and Anne thought the chiming bells a source of comfort. “Father, Mother and Margot still can’t get used to the chiming of the Westertoren clock, which tells us the time every quarter of an hour. Not me, I liked it from the start; it sounds so reassuring, especially at night.”
Our lovely guide was a young man called Lloyd, whose impeccable English was learned from his Sheffield-born mum. Lloyd was a ton of fun, and very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the bells of Westerkerk. He showed us the carillons, whose chimes are powered by hammering one’s fists on a keyboard, and proudly emphasised the fact that the original bells were cast by the Hemony brothers, which is apparently the crème de la crème in bell circles.
There is a gentleman by the name of Boudewijn Zwart, an award-winning carillonneur, who travels round Holland playing the carillon bells in churches throughout the country. On Tuesdays he can be found in Westerkerk, hammering his fists on the keyboard of the bells. He’s something of a celebrity, according to Lloyd, and is allowed into parts of the tower even the guides are not permitted to enter.
The Westerkerk’s architect, Hendrick de Keyser, died only one year into the build, and his son Pieter de Keyser took over, changing the design of the remainder of the tower. Isn’t it funny how designers like to leave their mark on everything, like dogs scenting trees. Young Pieter might have stuck with his dad’s design to finish the church as a monument to his old man, but no, he wanted to show off what he could do.
To be fair, it is a nice tower, with a beautiful clock face, and a steeple topped by a magnificent blue, crown-adorned sphere. I’m not really complaining.
Standing on the terrace at the first level of the steeple afforded fantastic views across the city; tree-lined canals, and that tall, thin, Amsterdam architecture, so pretty and medieval. It’s a city that makes me think of fairy tales and dark magic.
Our day having passed in such an organised fashion, we spent the rest of the afternoon cycling leisurely towards the Rijksmuseum and the Art Square behind it. I say leisurely, obviously I mean scared out of our minds. Cycling in Amsterdam is not relaxing, it is a test of one’s wits and courage.
We took in the crowds in the Art Square, and husband pointed out the sculpture named Self Portrait of a Tumour, which overlooked the water feature.
“Self Portrait of a Tumour?” I asked.
“Dreamer,” he said. “Self Portrait of a Dreamer.” The square proved to be too hot, the gravel ground absorbing and throwing up the relentless sun, so we cycled on, admiring the stereotypical canal views. Amsterdam really does look like this.
Dinner was eaten in Gallizia, a restaurant staffed by very attentive, groovy young men. My pasta was beautifully cooked (yes, there is such a thing as badly cooked pasta), but with a sauce I can’t recall. I took photos of the restaurant but unfortunately my family were pulling faces in every one, so I won’t share them here.
On our third and final day in Amsterdam, we returned the hire bikes to the shop. We were supposed to have had them for only 24 hours but kept them for 48. Fortunately the police were not set upon us, though we were charged the extra day when we returned. That was it though. No extra fine or remonstration. Amsterdam is so cool.
We walked to Zoku, an “apartment-hotel” and restaurant on Weesperstraat, which was far too funky for the likes of us. The concept is quite a good one, and addresses the problem of staying in hotels when on business – the loneliness and conveyor belt décor. Zoku offers “loftspace” rooms to stay in for days or months at a time; social spaces for communal working and socialising; and the “kitchen”, where chefs lay out food on a buffet table. You place your order on an iPad on the wall, pay the fixed price, help yourself to butternut squash salad, cous cous with mixed olives, pan-fired Dorado fillets and courgette, pea and mint soup, among other dishes, then sit at long benches to chat with other guests. Or ignore them and read a book.
Even more exciting, next to the kitchen is a seating area with a ping pong table in the centre. (And a punch bag to one side; perfect for burning off work-related stress, and your anger at the ineffectual equal opportunities policies of your misogynist employer.) Son and I spent a good 15 minutes whacking the ball at each other, and often at people sitting in the chairs around us. Nobody smiled. They were all on tablets and laptops doing Important Work. Zoku might be a great concept but its patrons still need to loosen up a bit.
Leaving Zoku, we walked though Amstel and over the Mager Brug, or Skinny Bridge; through Prinsengracht and some exciting canal junctions; stopped off for a quick swing in a tiny playpark with a backdrop of graffiti; wended our way once again to the Rijksmuseum and through the Art Square (becoming distracted for some time by the “Hide and Seek” fountain. My children have a thing about fountains); before finally stopping off at the Van Gogh Museum. Both daughter and I hugely admire Van Gogh, so we were first concerned when we learned tickets needed to be bought in advance online, then delighted when husband managed it on his phone, then ecstatic when we saw that the queue was a fast-moving one.
The problem with visiting art galleries and museums with young children is that you rarely get the opportunity to dawdle in front of exhibits, reading the little information cards on the wall beside them, actually learning about what you’re looking at. This occasion was no different. Young visitors to the Museum are given a treasure hunt-style guide, with small snippets of paintings they must find, and questions to answer, before being rewarded at the end with a sticker and a postcard. Daughter invested heavily in this game, and we sped through the Museum, searching for the paintings relevant to her guide. This meant I wasn’t entirely free to linger and learn, but I certainly got the opportunity to see the scope of Van Gogh’s work, including a collection of Japanese-style paintings I had not before known about.
The artist’s fascination with farmworkers and “peasants”, as he called them, was obvious and interesting. It seemed patronising to me, his admiration for a bucolic idyll a romantic fiction he imposed on the scenes.
Still, I love his brash use of colour and the texture of his works. My favourite is Almond Blossom, painted for his newborn nephew, also called Vincent; and daughter’s favourite is Sunflowers.
A tram-ride back towards Oostenburg later, and we squeezed ourselves onto an outside table at the Indonesian Café Kadijk for dinner. It was very much a squeeze – tables crammed into the space in front of the restaurant, and each table crammed with diners. Service was erratic and laissez-faire, though the waiters were polite enough. They were so busy it was a case of having to wave them down when you wanted their attention. But the food was delicious; though my Satay Tofu & Tempé was squishily heavy on the tofu, daughter wolfed down her colourful, spicy, full-flavoured Soto Ayam chicken soup.
And thus ended our short but sweet trip to Amsterdam, a city of aloof tolerance, chilled-out confidence, generous honesty, baffling art works and over-assertive cyclists.
As Anne Frank said: “People can tell you to keep your mouth shut, but it doesn’t stop you having your own opinion.”