The Dam: Part II

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Due to a series of happy occurrences, last week I found myself boarding a plane to Amsterdam. Again. This much-loved city is a real favourite of mine; perhaps on a par with Berlin and London (obviously) in terms of its ‘vibe’. Not a fan of the word ‘vibe’, but there we go. The thing is, Amsterdam just oozes its own.

As is evident from my Queen’s Day post, I’ve come to regard Amsterdam as my European home-from-home. Conveniently (and somewhat sadly as I wish she lived in London still), my good friend Babette lives in Amsterdam, or Amsterdam Zuid (South), a rather wonderful suburb of the city whose architecture reminds me of my own North London ‘hood’. Ever the hostess, Babette once again very kindly offered her flat for general accommodation purposes to my boyfriend Graham and I (bit of blog sharing there; I guess it’s about time).

So off we went, humming that rather irritating yet scary ditty I Saw a Mouse that nobody in Holland has actually heard of, but that apparently is an English schoolchild’s staple. Watch the video, it’s horrifying.

After a completely painless flight on Tuesday evening (“Please fasten your seatbelts for take off” *five minutes passes* “The captain has begun our descent”), and a lot of reliance on my directional memory from when I visited in April, we took a train to Zuid WTC and then the tram to Gerrit Van Der Veen, Babette’s stop. Her gorgeous flat was exactly as I remembered: immaculately presented, warm and homely (as was Babette herself).

That evening Babette, Laura (Babette’s sister), Graham and I took the tram to De Pijp to return to a Middle Eastern restaurant called Bazaar where I had eaten during Queen’s Day. The décor is not so much Bazaar as bizarre: a combination of Arabic, Hebrew and even Chinese on the walls. That’s not a mix you see every day. We then went to a little bar on the canal, all intent on getting some alcohol down our freezing throats, but ending up opting for hot chocolates all round. The thing is that almost as soon as we landed, it became clear that Amsterdam is much colder than London at this time of year (even with its recent snowfall); most of the canals had frozen over and daylight was short. Hot chocolates and mulled wine became the drinks of choice.

Despite Graham insisting he didn’t want to be a tourist cliché, it was his first visit so I wanted to ensure I was the best tour guide possible, hoping to instil some knowledge from my previous visits. I should also point out that Babette very kindly wrote us a kind of orienteering-cum-treasure-hunt list of districts, streets and canals to hit on our travels, of which we managed a fair few.

On Wednesday we headed over to Jordaan, a bohemian district away from the tourist hub. First stop: the Anne Frank house, where I wouldn’t be getting a new experience, but where I was certain I’d be feeling the same impact as the first time I visited. At times I’ve found the presentation of the Holocaust numbing; not so with this museum. It’s brilliantly done, completely harrowing and utterly thought-provoking. It evoked the same kind of horror, sadness and anger that I’d felt at the beginning of the year at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Next few stops: some traditional Dutch food (goat’s cheese, walnuts and honey – although I was still on the hunt for my much-craved bitterballen or mystery meat), a record shop and Noordermarkt for mulled wine (the first of many). We stepped outside to greet a spectacular early sunset and walked along the canals to meet Babette in Spui, where I finally got to attack some mystery meat (sounds and looks revolting, taste like heaven). That evening we headed to Babette’s friends’ house; a traditional apartment atop many winding staircases, spread out over three floors and with floor-to-ceiling windows. The fact that this couple – one South African, the other American – had comfortably lived in Amsterdam for three and a half years made me once again appreciate the multinational, all-embracing nature of the city.

And talking of all-embracing, Amsterdam wouldn’t be the city it is without the Red Light District. All I can say is that it really has to be seen to be believed: women illuminated in red doors wearing tiny underwear, either waving, beckoning, or just looking thoroughly depressed. Two notable things: one was a punter leaving, zipping up his flies and looking pleased with himself (disgusting); and the other, what can only be described as a herd / eyrar (depending on your dictionary of choice) of swans on the canal outside a sex show theatre. Odd. Interestingly, the city has created an initiative (to help clean up its image of vice and drugs) called ‘I Amsterdam’, whereby up-and-coming designers get to display their creations in windows that previously played host to whores. Make of that what you will.

Dinner that evening was Thai, followed by yet more mulled wines in a lovely bar near Centraal. All Amsterdam bars are unique, and at this time of year they are particularly traditional and Christmassy. The fact that I loved them (being neither a traditional nor a Christmassy person) says a lot about their atmosphere.

Thursday saw a slow start (nothing whatsoever to do with the mulled wine the night before), but once we eventually surfaced, we made our way to Museumplein. Following Babette’s advice, Graham and I stopped off at the Stedelijk Museum for an initial hit of modern art. Despite being in the process of renovation, the Stedelijk offered a fair few decent exhibits, including a cavernous black and white room of George Orwell quotes, a recording of millions of years being recited on a loop, and a room where visitors’ heights are recorded in black marker, creating what looked like a swarm of wasps. I was pleased to see that we were both at least average (or a little taller than average) compared to the rest of the Dutch population (tall).

We then ventured to the ever-popular Van Gogh Museum, which despite its lack of my favourite piece, The Starry Night, was certainly impressive. Inevitably, museum shlepping takes longer than you think, and before we knew it, it was time to go back to Babette’s place for a dinner party, hosted by Laura. A few more friends came round and together we enjoyed a traditional Dutch feast of more meat and mash, lentil stew, profiteroles and basically bucketloads of mulled wine.

Friday, and sadly our final day, made sweeter by a brunch visit to a pancake house where we scoffed poffertjes (small pancakes swimming in butter and sugar). Then it was back to Centraal and the Red Light District, where we decided to tick off some more tourist clichés in the form of the Erotic Museum and the Hemp Museum (neither of which I will go into detail of here, suffice to say I won’t be returning to either).

After consumption of yet more bitterballen and mulled wine, I dragged Graham to an über-amazing six-floored H&M where I got overtaken by shopping fever while he waited patiently. Surprisingly, there was a student demonstration on Dam Square just outside where we were shopping, but it looked to be relatively peaceful and nothing whatsoever like the disgrace that was happening back in London.

All too soon, it was time to take the tram and train back to the airport for one final meal with Babette, Laura, and Laura’s boyfriend André before departing on our merry way. What a fantastic trip.

Until next time…Amsterdam, goodnight.

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