Amsterdam: Everyday life

I love spotting the little details that make life in other countries just a little different from what it is back home in Northern California. What stands out to me when I’m visiting someplace new to me must be old hat to the people who live there. But I’m sure it’s that way too for people from around the world who come to California looking to be dazzled.

I’m no shutterbug, yet having a smartphone makes it so easy to take photographs when traveling. It can be done quickly and discreetly, which is key for me since my style is to hang back and observe unobtrusively wherever I am.

Here are some snaps from my walks around Amsterdam’s historic center.

vintage fiat 500 cinquecento prinsengracht amsterdam

There’s my dream car, a vintage Fiat Cinquecento (500) parked canalside along Prinsengracht. I wish you could see the sedan next to it but out of the frame, just for scale. It’s such a wee car.

amsterdam houseboat

Next time I visit Amsterdam, I want to stay on a houseboat. Like this one (it’s where Joanna Goddard stayed during her long weekend in the city)! It’d be so cool to sleep on the water, or curl up on a living-room window seat or out on the deck with a book and a cup of tea as boats motor past.

bruin brown cafe canalside pannenkoeken

Few things can be more idyllic than pulling up a chair at a brown cafe and settling in for pannenkoeken, favorite book in hand. This outdoor terrace sits at the junction of Prinsengracht and Leliegracht, where I watched canal boats lumber by on the water and bikes roll over the bridge, Lucy Knisley’s graphic memoir Relish: My Life in Food for company and a koffie verkeerd (essentially a caffè latte) within reach. It’s so liberating to have nowhere particular to be on a particular day.

bicycle rush hour amsterdam

Meanwhile, for Amsterdammers it’s business as usual on a weekday workday. Above is a vestige of bicycle rush hour; the bicycle stoplight had just turned green. Since I’m not used to urban cycling even in the States, I didn’t dare take a bike through the bustling center for most of my stay, striated as it is with tram lines and roadways and bikes whizzing past, ridden by folks who actually know what they’re doing. Still, I do admire how in A’dam there’s the sidewalk, and the road, and between them a wide, specially demarcated lane for bikes. Is that flat, well-paved shield from both motorist and pedestrian (and potential collisions) the reason why bike helmets haven’t caught on among the general/nonracing biking public there? I wonder if the 2013 release In the City of Bikes by Pete Jordan has some insight on that.


Bike rush hour in Utrecht, the Netherlands. It only looks
like it’s on fast-forward.

Amsterdam: Anne Frank

Visiting the Anne Frank House is practically required when visiting Amsterdam. Between the long lines outside and the crowds within, though, it can be tough to have a meaningful experience without feeling like you’re shuffling along in a herd, jostling for a view of the very artifacts that bring Anne’s diary home, conscious of the growing line behind you.

Anne Frank

Even so, if the house where she hid were not such a tourist attraction today, I would still move earth and heaven to see it. Anne Frank and her writing had such a great influence on me when I was 10, 11, 12 years old. To this day I remember being 13 and reading her Tales from the Secret Annex along with the Miep Gies book Anne Frank Remembered and poring over her family photographs in Anne Frank: Beyond the Diary, as well as getting to play her in 8th grade literature class when we were reading  The Diary of Anne Frank play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (which was a big deal to otherwise quiet, introverted me). In short, I was obsessed. Her adolescent perplexities, her wonder about the world, her growing love of nature and classical music and art history and ancient Greek and Roman mythology, and most of all her desire to live abroad in London and Paris someday after the war and become a great journalist … I identified with all of it, as well as with how much more free she felt to be herself and write herself out through her diary. She became such a hero to me because in her I recognized a lot of who I aspired to be. That’s what made visiting the Anne Frank House such a girlhood pilgrimage for me.

On my first night in A’dam I decided not to go inside but instead just leaned against the black rails along the Bloemgracht bridge across from the house and gazed up at the Westertoren, the bell tower of the Westerkerk nearby. In her diary, Anne talked about how she used to open an attic window for fresh air at night and loved listening to the carillon tunes emanating from the tower. That first evening, I watched dusk fall and breathed in this view as the carillon played for 9.

westertoren westerkerk amsterdam

In Gies’ 2010 obituary, The New York Times quotes Gies from her memoir as saying that upon reading Anne’s diary,

“The emptiness in my heart was eased. So much had been lost, but now Anne’s voice would never be lost. My young friend had left a remarkable legacy to the world.

“But always, every day of my life, I’ve wished that things had been different. That even had Anne’s diary been lost to the world, Anne and the others might somehow have been saved.”

It made me think of Eva Schloss, who had also gone into hiding and later survived Auschwitz with her mother—who in turn later married Otto Frank, Anne’s father, after WWII. Schloss thus became Anne’s posthumous stepsister.

“I was very happy for my mother in the beginning,” Ms. Schloss says.

“But I was also very close to her, as you might imagine, and to suddenly have to share her because she shared everything with Otto—she helped him with the publication of Anne’s diary, they traveled together, went to lectures together, she answered his letters and Anne was their life’s work—was difficult for me.

“I was in Anne’s shadow. My mother and Otto were very happy but, yes, I was sometimes jealous. And then I would think: how can you be jealous of somebody who hasn’t got a life?

“How could I be jealous of Anne? I got married. I had a family. I have three daughters. Anne suffered. Why not let her have that limelight?” (source: National Post)

Put that way, it’s monumental to think that—even as Anne’s story became known the world over and she achieved her stated desire, “I want to go on living even after my death”—those who knew her would trade what has become her iconic status for a chance for her to live an “ordinary” life. It invests the things we take for granted, like seeing a matinee at the local theater, or riding a bike and feeling the wind rush past, or eating a pastry warm from the bakery, with a sense of what a privilege it is to experience and savor those things.

Amsterdam: Anne Frank House

It’d be easy to walk right by the Anne Frank House and not realize what it is, except for the line snaking out the entrance (which you can’t see in this photo, but it’s there! It’s off to the right, entering the building next door that has since become part of the museum).

anne frank house prinsengracht

Looking up at Otto Frank’s former Opekta offices
from a canal boat on Prinsengracht. The hiding place
(Het Achterhuis, or Secret Annex) is in the back.

anne frank house entrance entryway door 263 prinsengracht

Anne Frank and her family once walked through these doors.

Anne Frank Huis sign

On the advice of a couple of friends, I showed up at the house an hour or so before closing time, when they said you’re more likely to walk right in even without a reservation and have the place relatively to yourself (meaning you can linger over what interests you and double back if you like, without feeling you’re in anyone’s way). And it’s true. Even making a res online ahead of time and skipping the ticket line outside doesn’t mitigate the crowdedness once you’re inside—unless you go in the evening, when everybody else is out having dinner. This strategy worked so well, in fact, that I visited the museum twice; once on the last Saturday night of August, when the house was open until 10 p.m., and once again the night before I left, when it closed at 9.

You’re not allowed to take photographs inside, but The Secret Annex Online takes you through a 360° tour of some of the rooms in the hiding place, include Anne’s bedroom along with the attic (which is off-limits to visitors). Some of the smallest things about the annex were the most moving: the pencil marks showing how much taller Anne and her sister, Margot, grew while in hiding (Margot grew about 2 inches, while Anne shot up about 5!); or the very postcards and magazine cutouts that Anne plastered on the walls of her room, typical teenager-style.

10 Seinfeld Quotes That Sum Up Your Life Perfectly

#9 is exactly the way you want to be and what you want to say when something or someone enrages you to no end. Ha! If only we could be as eloquent in the moment and not after the fact (in our own heads).

Thought Catalog

Seinfeld is, of course, the best show of all time (to quote Poppy, quite fittingly, “On this issue there’s no debate!”). For those of you who are less fanatical about it than I am (which is a bit disappointing, as an aside), you might not realize that it serves as an incredibly accurate blueprint of human behavior. It’s a biblical document, in its way.

Here are ten quotes that will hopefully convince you that the Seinfeld writers already canvassed your life problems. Consult the show to see how things turn out (Hint: not well. Sorry).

1. “Ahh, what’s the point? When I like them, they don’t like me, when they like me I don’t like them. Why can’t I act with the ones I like the way I do with the ones I don’t like?”

My all-time favourite quote from the show. Part of the genius of it is in…

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Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

The one souvenir I’d wanted to bring home from Amsterdam was a copy of Barbara Stok’s graphic novel Vincent in English, from the Van Gogh Museum bookshop. When I got there the Friday night I arrived, though, it was completely sold out—and the soonest it’d be back in stock was the day after I left! Blarg. Only after I returned to the States did I realize it was still available at the American Book Center on Spui, which I’d chanced by earlier the same afternoon that I visited the museum but hadn’t thought to check before I departed the city six days later.

barbara stok graphic novel vincent

The book appeals to my nascent love of graphic novels
as well as my longstanding love of introspection.

So that evening at the museum, I consoled myself with buying greeting cards taken from panels in the book, to send to friends as airmail souvenirs. (Don’t you love the idea of carefully sticking a foreign stamp on a letter, popping it into a mailbox, and imagining its journey in planes through the air and in trucks over roads to its destination back home? Way more tactile than texting photos, as immediate as that is.)

van gogh bedroom barbara stok graphic novel

Van Gogh’s bedroom, as interpreted by Barbara Stok.

van gogh bedroom

In the meantime, I felt chills being in the same room as paintings like this! The Bedroom (1888) by Van Gogh was supposed to have inspired Egon Schiele’s similar painting The Artist’s Room in Neulengbach (1911) too, though I hadn’t covered the latter in my master’s thesis.

I arrived on a Friday, which meant the museum was open until 10 p.m. So I decided to make the artist’s acquaintance (at this point I was still running on an espresso doppio to power through the jet lag).

van gogh self portrait as painter

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait as a Painter, 1888

Visitors were fairly free to get up close and pore over the paintings as they liked, along with snapping photographs on their smartphones—particularly of the well-known works. Isn’t it incredible to peer at the very daubs of paint that Van Gogh himself had applied to the canvas? Stroke by stroke, until the now-familiar image emerged.

van gogh irises

Vincent Van Gogh, Irises (detail), 1890

van gogh wheatfield with crows

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows (detail), 1890

To see how Van Gogh applied color theory was pretty fascinating. That is, when placed side by side in a painting, colors opposite each other on the color wheel—red opposite green, yellow opposite purple, and blue opposite orange—heighten an image’s overall intensity.

van gogh color theory boats

Vincent Van Gogh, Fishing Boats on the Beach
at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (detail), 1888

van gogh garden saint paul's hospital

Vincent Van Gogh, The Garden of Saint Paul’s Hospital
(‘The Fall of the Leaves’)
, 1889. I love how the saturated blue of the wall
picks up the blues off center in the painting.

(Barbara Stok’s Vincent panels via the Van Gogh Museum’s Google+ and Pinterest)

Amsterdam: The Begijnhof

When I travel, I pretty much like to hit the ground running as soon as I arrive. I tell myself that I’ll just walk around and acclimate, get some sun and a feel for the city, but inevitably I end up wanting to check some places off my list too.

That’s how I found myself at the Begijnhof, an oasis of calm founded in the Middle Ages that I’d read in Nat Geo’s “I Heart My City: Keith’s Amsterdam,” which was an ideal first stop in the city. As I sauntered in, a wedding party was just emerging from the small church, toting pastel balloons, taking pictures, and talking quietly. I tried to watch from a discreet distance and also looked up through the trees at the top windows of the houses surrounding the small square. The general hush of the place was soothing, so I found a bench and just sat and breathed it all in.

amsterdam begijnhof

Imagine how a light, cool breeze must feel wafting in
through those partly open windows.

“Soppy” by Philippa Rice

This panel from Philippa Rice’s mini comic Soppy was recently posted on Susan Cain’s “QUIET: The Power of Introverts” communal Pinterest board. “Introvert bonding time!” the poster said. It’s sweet. Even “dangerously sweet,” as the website It’s Nice That put it. (“It will get you. You will be won over by the charm, the illustrations, the painfully lovely relationship that plays out in front of you where boyfriends kiss girlfriends’ heads, order them pizzas, make them cups of tea, fall asleep on top of them on the sofa, and yet still refuse to bake them biscuits.”)

soppy philippa rice introvert

Being alone, together. 

The original 16-page Soppy is currently sold out but should be available again soon in Rice’s online shop, alongside prints of certain Soppy panels (though not the one above). The likewise 16-page mini comic Soppy 2 is still in stock and going for £4.