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Dutch Wonderland: The Amsterdam Aesthetic

Dutch Wonderland: The Amsterdam Aesthetic

“How do you say hello and goodbye?”

“Hello and goodbye!”

“Okay. How do you say thank you?”

“Thank you!”

I clearly wasn’t getting the answer I wanted from our academic dean Professor Evers. Since he’s from the Netherlands, I thought it would be culturally considerate to ask him how to say some basic Dutch phrases before my impending trip to Amsterdam. But apparently, the Dutch all speak English anyway!

Despite the lack of a language barrier, Amsterdam still proved itself to be a significant cultural adjustment from both the U.S. and Italy, seemingly its own little Dutch Wonderland!

2016-11-19 14.53.56Our neighborhood for this weekend was located in the Amsterdam Noord area across the bridge from the downtown area. Idyllic and easily walk-able, this residential area was lined with playgrounds, grocery markets, and ginger bread-esque houses. When you think of quintessential Northern Europe, Amsterdam Noord fit the bill!

Ellen, our Airbnb host, came home from her shift at the hospital around 11 PM, just when we were about to head out to explore the downtown area. She was tall with fair skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes just like her son and almost every other Dutch person I’d seen so far.

When my friend Karisma and I told her our plans to explore the downtown area by night, she kept repeating, “But it’s late; it’s really late.”

This was interesting to us, because 11 PM is a normal time to go out in Italy. But apparently, the Dutch retire early. Well, almost all the Dutch….

Downtown, we discovered Christmas lights reflecting off canals lined with colorful boats and eclectic coffee shops. White swans floated upon the water’s glass-like surface, creating ripples that made the reflections dance. It was festive without even trying, like The Nutcracker ballet’s scenery plastered onto real life. If the North Pole melts because of global warming, Santa Claus would feel right at home in Amsterdam!

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On the other, shadier hand, another section of town juxtaposed delight with depravity. It almost snuck up on us, only marked by small silver posts close to the ground with red lights like little demon eyes. Window by pink fluorescent-lighted window, scantily clad women of all (legal, I’d hope) ages waited expectantly while the men outside openly weighed their options and made their selections for an evening of ostentatious objectification. Grand-looking theatres we didn’t dare venture into advertised sights we couldn’t bear to see. In case you haven’t guessed already, this was the Red Light District.

To recover from our shock and homesickness, we power-walked into the nearest Domino’s Pizza for some American comfort food. (Yes, they have Domino’s Pizza in Amsterdam!) Munching on our Domino’s, Karisma and I processed what we had just witnessed in the Red Light District. The question we both pondered is, why were we so shocked by sex work in Amsterdam when stuff like that happens all the time in American cities like Las Vegas?

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We both analyzed the situation and came to an interesting conclusion. Unlike Las Vegas–with its casinos modeled after famous structures such as the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids, and with its lines of glittering, feathered dancers–sex work in Amsterdam isn’t discreet or glamorized. Instead, it’s point-blank and depressing. The Dutch make no attempt to hide the fact that women willingly sell their bodies to put food on the table. While Americans are secretly sordid, Dutchmen are immodestly immoral.

Mind you, this didn’t change in my opinion of Amsterdam. I still loved my Dutch Wonderland! But all cities bear some underground ugliness. Political corruption lurks in the shadows of the White House. There are more homeless people than Hollywood hopefuls in Los Angeles. The City of Broad Shoulders doesn’t lift a finger to amend the gun violence that haunts its South Side. So I guess we take the good with the bad, too.

Still, I couldn’t help but think about my Airbnb host Ellen and her teenage son. I wondered how she was able to shield him from such readily accessible vice. Or maybe she didn’t try to shield him at all. Maybe it’s all just part of the culture. Still, if I were a parent, I’d be worried sick!

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On Friday morning, our friend Brenna joined us, and we met her at Amsterdam Centraal Station. As I walked through the throng of tall, blonde Dutch people, I realized that I felt way differently here than I did back in Italy, mostly because of my height. In Italy, I’m an Amazon, but in the Netherlands, I’m a dwarf!

Now, it was time for some tourist attractions! The first one we visited, and by far the most important on our list, was the Anne Frank House. This was the actual annex of the canal house that Anne Frank, her family, and four other Jewish people hid inside for two years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, until they were all tragically betrayed, arrested, and sent to concentration camps. Three interesting aspects of this museum stood out to me in particular.

One was that Anne dreamed of becoming a famous writer. Although she achieved her wish under unfortunate circumstances, no one can deny that the journal collected by her father Otto Frank and entitled Diary of a Young Girl indeed became a worldwide bestseller, translated into dozens of languages and taught in classrooms across the globe. I’m sure that Anne looks down from heaven and smiles that trademark grin, knowing that she made a difference in the world through her message of tolerance in spite of turmoil and forgiveness in spite of fear.

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That being said, another aspect of Anne’s experience that I’m glad the museum highlighted was her anguish. I remember reading excerpts of her diary at my Catholic grade school, the curriculum emphasizing her incredible grace under pressure and capacity for mercy towards her oppressors. However, I found it refreshingly real to read pages of her diary at the museum in which she wrote things about feeling emotional catharsis through crying, wishing she could run outside and scream, and yearning for the simple pleasures of fresh air and birdsong. Reading about Anne’s moments of weakness solidified my image of her as a living, breathing teenager, who whines and complains as all teenagers do. This made me empathize with her situation even more. Anne Frank was not just a martyr, but she was also a mortal.

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The final aspect of the museum that really stuck out to me was that Otto Frank chose to keep the annex unfurnished. At first I thought that this omission ruined the whole experience because it would seem more genuine if museum visitors could see their beds and all their knick-knacks in the way that they lived. Yet, as our tour concluded, I began to understand the deeper meaning of Otto Frank’s decision. Leaving the annex unfurnished served as a physical representation how the Nazis stripped the Jews and other marginalized groups of not only their belongings, but also their civil liberties. If you lose everything you own, you still have your rights, but if you lose your rights, you have nothing. Overall, visiting the Anne Frank House was probably one of the most powerful experiences I had during my semester abroad.

On Sunday, we went to the Heineken Experience, which was a museum attached to the Heineken factory where the Dutch make their world-famous beer! Our tour guide taught us that the four main ingredients for Heineken beer are water + barley + hops + the mysterious patented “A” yeast. I thought that, at any moment, Plankton from Spongebob Squarepants was going to come in and try to steal their secret formula!

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The best part of this museum was when I learned the proper way to pour Henieken from the tap and I became a Certified Pourer, all thanks to Brenda my bartending coach! I messed up a few times initially (if you would consider five times a few), and I had to drink all the pints I screwed up (yes, all five). As you can imagine, this only worsened my pouring performance. Still, I got a certificate!

My last stop was a solo excursion to the Van Gogh Museum. Brenna and Karisma weren’t too enthusiastic about seeing it, but I’m super artsy, and Vinny V has always been a favorite of mine, so this was a must-see! So without delay, I steadied myself from all the Heineken I just drank, and walked in as-straight-a-line-as-possible across the museum campus to the modernist Van Gogh building.

While it was wonderful to examine some of his most famous works up close and personal, I was a bit disappointed that “Starry Night” was absent from the exhibits. Turns out that it is held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This sitation reminded me of how the Elgin Marbles were stolen from the Parthenon in Athens and moved to the British Museum in London. Ever since the Greece trip over fall break, I have questioned if pieces of art should be appreciated out of context, outside their place of origin. In this case, it doesn’t make sense to display the most famous Van Gogh painting anywhere else but in Van Gogh’s home country! I mean, New York doesn’t have trees like that, but Amsterdam sure does! And you can’t see the stars from all that Manhattan pollution, but in the Netherlands, the stars shine clear as day…or should I say, night.

“You should ask for it back,” I slurred to a museum tour guide, still tipsy from my Heineken adventure less than an hour ago. With a ladylike hiccup, I floated away from the museum to find my friends by the giant, red-and-white iAmsterdam sign.

Maybe they’ll listen. Then I can say I made a difference in Dutch Wonderland.

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