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August 2014 Trip: Amsterdam

A couple of years ago my sister suggested that we take Mom to the Lorraine region of France for her 80th birthday in 2013. A number of our Mennonite forebears hailed from this area, and we thought Mom would enjoy another visit to the ancestral homeland, which she had been to once before. Because I was already planning to go to London for the 2014 World Science Fiction Convention, we all agreed that we would combine the trips, which would still get us over there before Mom turned 81. Eventually Mom said she'd like to spend a couple of days in Amsterdam as well so she could see the Van Gogh Museum and the Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum. Thus it was that on August 3 the three of us met in the Amsterdam airport, because I flew over on a separate flight from theirs. We were about to discover a vibrant but peaceful city that was the perfect place to acclimatize ourselves to the new time zone.

I had been to Amsterdam once before with my brother during our grand European tour in 1980, when my naive 19-year-old mind was boggled by the seediness of the open drug solicitations and red light district and garish sex shops. Perhaps because we didn't hit those parts of town this time, the city didn't seem nearly so seedy as memory had it, although even thirty years ago I was struck by the beautiful architecture all around, especially the old townhouses. Now we were astonished by the teeming hordes of bicycles, which we were told almost equaled the number of people (around 800,000) living in the city. Mom proclaimed herself an immediate fan of the air quality in Amsterdam and said she was breathing much easier than usual. She had been concerned that she wouldn't have much energy for walking around, but the air and atmosphere of Amsterdam left her invigorated.

20140804_Street Art
Not all of Amsterdam's artwork is in a museum

On our first day there we visited the Van Gogh Museum, which had made a huge impression on me in 1980. It wasn't quite so mind-blowing the second time around, seen through eyes that have looked at a lot more paintings since then, but it's still an amazing collection. The thing that really hit me this time was that Van Gogh only painted for ten years. Incredible that such a brief career has had such an enormous impact. Other than that, the other notable event of the day was a very large pro-Palestine demonstration that marched down the main street near our hotel. I read somewhere later that the neighborhood we were staying in has a large Muslim population.

The demonstration

20140804_Bird Watching
Mom in Vondelpark, which was also full of cool art

The next day started with bird-watching in Vondelpark -- the large park a half a block from our hotel -- where we discovered that Amsterdam has a large population of wild parakeets descended from pets, just like San Francisco does. We bought tickets for a hop-on-hop-off bus that circles the city core, and we went most of the way around the circuit before getting off to look for the Singelkerk -- the hidden Mennonite church that my dad's cousin had told us about. I think we basically just wanted to take a quick peek at it to say we'd been there, but once we got inside we were introduced to the caretaker, Marcel, who proceeded to give us a high energy info dump about the church, the history of the Mennonites in the Netherlands, and the history of Amsterdam. He was clearly a man enthused about the topic.

20140804_Inside the Singelkerk
Mom, LaVelle, and Marcel inside the Singelkerk

The church was built along the Singel canal in the 1630s, and at the time it was forbidden from showing its face to the world and from having a clock tower, so its humble wooden frame was hidden behind a facade. Marcel assured us that by 1635 the outright persecution of Mennonites in Amsterdam was in the past, and he mentioned in passing the "Naked Mennonites" of an earlier era who perhaps were a bit extreme in their attempt to differentiate themselves from the run-of-the-mill Protestants of the day. (Further research indicates a variable number of "naked anabaptists" running or perhaps rioting through the streets in 1535 and paying for it with their lives.) One thing we learned from his discourse -- and it's amazing that even Mom didn't know this before -- is that the founder of the Mennonite Church, Menno Simons, was a Dutch man from Friesland. We had all thought he was Swiss, but it turns out that it was the founder of the Amish Church, Jakob Ammann, who was Swiss. To be honest, I hadn't realized that the Mennonites and Amish were founded by separate men either. I always thought they were two branches of the same tree, but it seems they grew together rather than apart. Unless you think of the tree as the anabaptist movement in general, I guess.

20140804_Outside the Singelkerk
Mom and LaVelle outside the Singelkerk's disguising facade

Well, it was all a lot to absorb, with much about Amsterdam's history as a refugee city on top of it, and we stumbled out an hour later more than a little glassy-eyed. A lunch of rijsttafel at Kantjil & de Tijger, which was recommended by two friends, did much to restore us, and we hopped back on the bus and hopped off at the Rijksmuseum, where we raced around looking for Rembrandts. It's a pity we didn't have more time to spend there, because while I like Rembrandt just fine, there was much more I would've liked to look at. In particular I was reminded once again how much I love the richly detailed, nearly photographic still lives so beloved of Dutch and Flemish painters of the 17th century, full of flowers, fruits, insects, shells, goblets, and skulls. It was also interesting to see early impressions of New World flora and fauna by artists who often were drawing from somebody else's sketches instead of their own eye witness.

20140805_Westerkerk from Canal Boat
The Westerkerk viewed from a canal boat

Our third and final day was less educational, although we started off with a boat tour of the extensive canals and waterways. After that we poked around the famous Flower Market before settling on a bench in Vondelpark to watch the city bicycle by for a couple of peaceful hours. It was fascinating to see people from all walks of life on bikes, from middle class matrons in heels and men in business suits to funky hipsters and even a few (but not many) serious lycra-clad athletes of the sort who seem to make up half the cyclists in Seattle and Portland. Dutch women all seem to be nine feet tall, with eight of those being leg, and the bikes keep them fitter than a fiddle. The scenery was thus very pleasant.

20140805_Flower Market
A ceiling of dried flowers in the Flower Market

Eventually we headed back to the hotel to meet Kelly -- a friend of my sister's whom she'd asked to act as driver, guide, and translator for the next phase of the trip. Kelly is from Normandy, but her mom is from Newcastle, so she's fluent in French and English. She's fluent in German as well, because her dad taught in Hamburg for years, and she went to school there. My sister met her when they were both teaching ESL in China a few years back. In any event, Kelly went over out itinerary for the next day, which called for a roadtrip to France with a stop or two along the way. We all loved our time in Amsterdam, but it was time to move on.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 23rd, 2014 10:44 pm (UTC)
Great report and photos.

I still regret that we did not convince my Mom to travel somewhere while she still could have. Back around 10 years ago, maybe, she could still have dealt with some airports with help. But she was convinced that she could not be away from my dad, "in case." Now with her multiple health problems a trip would be a nightmare. So glad your Mom enjoyed the trip!
Aug. 24th, 2014 11:11 pm (UTC)
Yeah, my Dad is done with traveling because of health issues, so it seemed like we had a narrow window with Mom. But then again: Art Widner.
Aug. 24th, 2014 11:29 pm (UTC)
He is setting a standard few will ever reach!
Aug. 23rd, 2014 11:36 pm (UTC)
Im amazed to discover you're even vaguely connected to being Amish! I had no idea how ny of these religions connected together at all.
Aug. 24th, 2014 11:12 pm (UTC)
Some of the more conservative Mennonites are practically indistinguishable from Amish, but that's probably a superficial view.
Aug. 28th, 2014 01:34 am (UTC)
And, of course, it goes the other way, with some Amish being a lot less strict than i think most people who don't live near the culture are aware.
Aug. 24th, 2014 01:37 am (UTC)
Good report and photos and I look forward to more. Thanks!
Aug. 24th, 2014 11:13 pm (UTC)
We'll see what I can come up with.
Aug. 24th, 2014 08:53 am (UTC)
Great report!
I love Amsterdam.

Westerkerk looks mighty familiar -
 photo P4150017_zps5743a5e6.jpg


Aug. 24th, 2014 11:10 pm (UTC)
Is that at Port Meiron?
Aug. 25th, 2014 08:18 am (UTC)
Yep, I took it last year standing on the beach below the cliff. The Campanile connects to our holiday let, Government House.

Aug. 28th, 2014 01:37 am (UTC)
I had fallen into thinking that Mennonite and Amish were diverged branches of the same original sect, but when you mentioned the names of the founders my brain kicked in and i remembered that i'd known about them at some point in the dim past. Coming from Central Pennsylvania, it's easy to see them as having a shared history since the lines between them are so blurred -- stories of women marrying outside an Amish community and so just becoming Mennonites instead, and so forth.

I love your trip reports.
Aug. 28th, 2014 01:45 am (UTC)
Thanks! In poking around the history of the Mennonites and Amish as I was writing this, I also saw mention of the Hutterites. That's a name I've heard, but I know basically nothing about them. Are there any in the US? Apparently they're often grouped with the Mennonites and Amish as part of the same anabaptist movement.
Jul. 30th, 2017 12:09 am (UTC)
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