København

August 30, 2015 at 8:36 am (Uncategorized)

Alyssa awoke at noon today. Only because Dave finally awakened her. At the time, I was on the computer; Hayley was playing some game on her phone; Dave was finishing a book on his Kindle. We all needed to do very little today, and our decision was the right one.

Danish kitchen overlooking shared garden

I had taken a jog this morning and got lost on my way back from a lovely and huge park, adjacent to a castle. Ho-hum. During the run, some man walking toward me addressed me, in Danish. It sounded like the German “morgen.” I ignored him, as American women are taught to do in any such situation with a stranger, whether in Copenhagen or Camas. After another loop, we crossed paths once again. This time, he said in only slightly accented English, “And so we meet again!” How the hell did he know I was American, or at least an English-speaking tourist? One simply cannot put anything over on these Northern Europeans.

At the crack of 1 p.m. (13 o’clock, that is, in military time, which Hayley has really taken to), we left our very spacious, very well-appointed and well-stocked apartment for the Tivoli Gardens. We walked there in about 15 minutes, thinking we were going to gaze upon gorgeous, well-manicured gardens, perhaps in the Danish style, similar in their majesty to the Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, B.C., the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, or Boston Commons. The girls were un-thrilled, to say the least, with their parents’ choice. So imagine their joy — and Dave and my initial concern — when we approached the Tivoli Gardens’ entrance and realized it was an amusement park of impressive proportions. It is no Disneyland, but I’d venture to say the people-watching cannot be rivaled by another amusement park.

We knew Hayley would be game for roller coasters and the like, but we thought Alyssa would pooh-pooh the option and want to go elsewhere instead. Just like most things these days where raising a full-on teenage girl is concerned, we were dead wrong. We were at the Tivoli Gardens from about 1:45 p.m. to 5 p.m. (nearly 14 o’clock until 17 o’clock), and the time passed in a flash. With the exception of one ride Dave took with Hayley — as Alyssa was DONE at the end of the day — Dave and I merely watched the girls advance in the rides’ lines and swoop up above the park on a ferris wheel, three-loop roller-coaster, and other sundry attractions. We also engaged heavily in people-watching.

The girls also got to enjoy the obligatory ice cream cone, which Alyssa ordered in Danish on her own, pronouncing every word off the menu as an American speaker of English would do. Frankly, it was great hearing her make such an effort, and I appreciated even more so the kind younger gent behind the counter who, while responding to her in perfect English, didn’t mock her attempts. (I believe she ordered “softice chokolade dyppet kegle.” Oy.)

Danish ice cream at Tivoli Gardens

Danish ice cream at the Tivoli Gardens

Danish is truly a language out of which we cannot make heads or tales. I’ve figured out a number of prepositions and conjunctions (like and, to, the, from, by) but not one verb, and the nouns I’ve deciphered are those that come from some universal stem, often having to do with food or a medical profession (like rijs is rice and fysisk terapi is physical therapy). I believe the Danes resent the fact they must speak English, which, based on its perfection from the street sweeper to the bus driver, they must begin learning at the moment of conception. How else to explain the fact these people come across as serious sour pusses?

My guess is as good as yours.

My guess is as good as yours.

People here make eye contact, but they don’t follow up with smiles, or even a softening of their hard stares. And due to their height, they always are looking down at you. Also, when walking along the narrow sidewalks toward people coming at you in the opposite direction, they do not move aside. Even when they’re walking two astride, with a bike, and walking a dog (off-leash, of course). We thought perhaps we were coming across a few rude people here and there, but we soon realized it’s the cultural norm to be rude. Or, it’s simply a cultural norm to not acknowledge the stranger. Their MO make the French gentleman we happened upon in his “luxe” French grocery store seem obsequious in comparison. (I had a hard time leaving his wonderful store, where he offered free samples of French cheeses, olives, pate, cornichons, wine from a couple different regions in France and rows and rows of gorgeous French jams and mustards on which to gaze; for a glorious two seconds I felt I was in my favorite European country. Moi? Obsedee? Oui!)

The one other place (other than the ice cream stand inside Tivoli Gardens) where a Dane was kind was at the post office, open seven days a week, until 7 p.m. (15 o’clock)! Who ever heard of such customer service! As the postal worker was very quick to state (yes, in perfect English), the post office wants to make tourists like us love the Danish people and their country and show off their fabulous Nordstrom-like ways. Why, then, even in the visitors’ center that caters nearly exclusively to English-speaking tourists, were the employees there so snippy? Instead of snippiness, it could be envy for their fellow Danish postal workers that put them in a foul mood. Final observation for the time being: It’s the men (fathers and grandfathers) who every morning take out their babies and toddlers in jogging strollers, prams, and wheelbarrow-like contraptions affixed to their bikes rather than the moms and grandmas. It’s refreshing and also jarring, as it’s not the typical scene I’m used to in our corner of the States. By the afternoon, it’s the women with the little ones in tow. From the outside, it seems like a nice division of labor between parents.


								

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Van KHAKH

August 29, 2015 at 7:11 pm (Uncategorized)

The Van Gogh Museum is singularly amazing. While strolling throughout it, I had to continually remind myself that this genius and tortured artist shot himself in 1890, and died two agonizing days later, at age 37. He was so prolific during his final decade that his works — and letters — fill an expansive, four-story building. Wall after wall after wall is hung with works so famous, you can’t believe you’re looking upon the real thing. The Sunflowers, the Almond Blossoms triptych, the Potato Eaters. So enamored is one with all Van Gogh, all the time, that you find yourself disdainful of the works by other famous artists that pepper the walls, too; Manet, for example, inspired Van Gogh’s later Impressionist-style pieces created in Arles. Gaugin took inspiration from Van Gogh and vice versa. The academic exercise of comparing an artist’s work to that of an apprentice or a mentor is interesting and important for the sake of context. But as I heard one American sniff aloud while looking at a few pieces by other (lesser!) artists, “Those aren’t even Van Goghs!'” and off he strutted to the next display, willing only to see pieces by the Dutch-born crazy who toward the end of his life was living in France and painting one masterpiece nearly every day.

I suffer museum legs as much as the next person, but I couldn’t get enough of it all in the Van Gogh Museum; we purchased a museum book on our way out, to have and to hold for evermore the pieces we couldn’t get enough of gazing at. We did a good job of not getting sucked into the truly random assortment of other available Van Gogh tchotchkes in the gift shop, from hors d’oeuvres trays featuring the Sunflowers to ball point pens in the shape of a tube of oil paint. Around Amsterdam — and so many others cities on this continent — there are pet dogs all over the place, but very few are on-leash. (I liken the dearth of leashes to the dearth of bicycle helmets.) Why, then, did the gift shop feature a matching Sunfloweresque set of a dog collar and leash? I’m certain that that item catered strictly to stupid Americans with all our stupid, up-tight rules (like non-legal pot and no animals in restaurants.) The girls begged us to buy the leash-and-collar set for our dog. I almost acquiesced until I heard the phrase “Stupid American!” rattle in my ears.

Also slightly distracting during our visit was a short corridor filled with upright wooden closet-like structures that are supposed to cure Van Gogh fanatics of something called the Stendahl Syndrome, which, I learned “is a psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to an experience of great personal significance, particularly viewing art.” At first, I thought the placards affixed to the closet-like structures were a joke. But then I realized their messages were entirely serious. Were those heart palpitations I was feeling? Did I need to sit down to clear my head? All because of Van Gogh, who likely suffered a debilitating inner-ear condition and was probably certifiably insane…and died of a self-inflicted wound during an abyss of depression? It’s so incongruous, so sad. What would it be like for Van Gogh to return to Earth today, to the site of his museum, and observe both the anaconda-like line of people that seemingly encircles central Amsterdam and, inside the building, patrons pawing at scarves, oven mitts, and paper napkins emblazoned with replicas of his most recognizable works?

Visiting the Van Gogh Museum was our Amsterdam visit’s climax; we found a lovely cafe (not coffeeshop, mind you) in which to toast the city, its beauty, its friendliness, its canals, its gabled buildings, its history, its erotica shops and endless Asian-named massage parlors, and its indecipherable language.

Toasting Amsterdam.

Toasting Amsterdam.

A couple observations from Amsterdam/The Netherlands:

  1. Everyone is Dave-Knudsen tall (or taller), the women included. And the children. They also are very fit. And they should be, as health is clearly important to them, given they walk and bike everywhere. And smoke, too. Guess it’s good for you. (I did not see children smoking.)
  2. I’d never before seen bike riders doing all the following at once, (and during rush hour): texting with one hand, balancing two children (one perched near the front handlebars, the other behind the parent’s seat) and a plastic crate filled with groceries, negotiating cars and dumb American pedestrians uncertain which way to look to cross the 1′-wide bike paths, and carrying on elaborate conversations with aforementioned children. Likely warning them about the dumb Americans they will encounter for the rest of their fit lives while battling Black Lung.
  3. While speaking in English in this foreign country, say nothing you’d like others to avoid hearing. These folks speak better English than most Americans and Brits, and their hearing is quite good, too. Oops.
  4. The sickeningly sweet smell of marijuana is everywhere. The girls now are very familiar with its scent and know exactly what it is. What a relief it’s now a legal substance in Oregon. Not.
  5. Bongs should not be sold alongside key rings and slippers shaped like wooden shoes, but they are. We purchased none of the above. Only Van Gogh Museum tchotchkes.
  6. Decaf coffee does not exist here. Only leaded.
  7. The Tower of Babel is alive and well in this city, if not in this country. I cannot remember ever being anywhere where I heard so many languages, all at once, all in one place. Including French, which elicited within me the usual giddy response I have when hearing it. Of course, I only heard French when in museums. Because that’s what the French do. I’m certain they stayed in as many museums for as long as they could, likely being unable to abide the Dutch cuisine, nor their friendly, helpful nature.
  8. It’s humorous to listen to the people around you speaking rapid-fire Dutch and then throwing in “FUCK” and other sundry words every once in a while. It’s so wonderful what the export of American pop culture has done for the rest of the world.
Welcome to Copenhagen!

Welcome to Copenhagen!

Today, Saturday, we’re in Copenhagen. We arrived last night by plane and then took a train to the general vicinity of the amazing Airbnb apartment my travel agent, David Knudsen, found for our three-day stay. While on the packed train that reeked of pot and B.O. (Alyssa’s observation), I was startled from my reverie by a flying drunk man in a leather coat that, thank goodness, was easy to grab on to to help him regain his balance. He haltingly slumped into a seat across the aisle from us and commenced taking out of the plastic bag he was barely holding on to a nearly dead bottle of Smirnoff. Into it he poured from another bottle something resembling Orangina and promptly downed his concoction. The girls were visibly stunned and very bothered by what they were witnessing, including the gentleman’s eventual sway off the train and onto the platform some miles from where he’d swooped on.

The girls are really loving Europe and its fantastic pastries, beautiful architecture, and sleazy underbelly. As Alyssa said before we disembarked to find our new apartment, “Thanks, parents, for this awesome vacation. We’ve seen the Red Light District and real-live prostitutes, plastic dongs and glass bongs in store windows, we now know what pot smells like, and this dude greets us in Copenhagen.”

Thank God her observation actually was tinged with sarcasm. A little, anyway.

P.S. Danish sounds really weird. More on that later.

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Three-in-One

August 29, 2015 at 8:01 am (Uncategorized)

Pardon the delay in updating this blog. I owe my pooped state to having visited on Thursday three museums, a task we’d not even ventured to consider before we left the States. In fact, such a feat was nowhere on our itinerary. Which is likely why that day was such a success. And why our subsequent night was so swiftly concluded, as we all fell into bed nursing very tired feet (and very happy and stimulated brains). Lest you think it was all picture-perfect, don’t fret: There was whining (but Dave eventually stopped doing so; beer-o’clock always comes just in time).

I’d purchased advance tickets to the Van Gogh Museum, which, to the non-Dutch-speaking among you, is pronounced something like Fan KHAKH. I’m sorry, but Dutch is not as beautiful as, say, Italian, of which I have heard tons while here in the Low Country. The Dutch really should become as good at Hebrew as they are at English, given the back-of-the throat pronunciation of Rs and guttural pronunciation of Gs, much like the chet and chaf in Hebrew.

We made the mistake (unbeknownst to us at the time) of arriving at the famous museum at 10 a.m. The museum opens at 9 in the morning; the line to get in already was snaking around two blocks. We knew, even with tickets in hand, we’d wait far too long and then be unable to appreciate Van Gogh’s myriad self-portraits, uber-famous sunflowers, and the very detailed story of his slicing off of his own left ear while in a fit of pique over a bit of a tiff with friend Paul Gauguin.

We were told to return any day at 9 a.m.; if you arrive at the Van Gogh Museum after that time, you’re shit out of luck. We decided to return the next day, Friday. More on Mr. Fan KHAKH in a later post.

What we couldn’t delay until Friday was a visit to Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter (Joods Kwartier), including its Grote (Grand) Synagogue, since turned into the Jewish Historical Museum, and the Portuguese Synagogue, which remains an operating house of worship, but today mainly is a museum complete with a shop and interactive displays. (But it’s closed on Fridays.)

I have found in my experiences travelling to and around a few Western European countries (and Czechoslovakia, before it became the Czech Republic) that one simply cannot avoid coming face-to-face with this continent’s Jewish history. And I personally am drawn like a magnet to cities and villages’ Jewish quarters, synagogues, museums, and once-inhabited buildings that today only are marked by educational placards, all of which tell the tale of once-thriving communities completely and totally decimated during and in the wake of WWII.

Take The Netherlands. A full 10 percent of the population was Jewish prior to WWII. (Portland, by contrast, has a Jewish population of slightly more than 1 percent.) After the war, a pittance of that original population still existed in Holland. After 1945, the Joods Kwartier became a place bereft of Jews. Now, it’s a tourist destination with a nearby opera house rather than the place where Amsterdam’s Jews once upon a time had lived, worked, worshipped, thrived, and were simply a part of the larger community. This is the tale that today is repeated over and over solely via the surviving buildings, old paintings, and some grainy photographs.

Europe’s Jews today seem to sneak around without really being seen. How could it be any other way, given their countries’ roles in WWII and the genetic scar left as a result of the millions sent away, who fled, and who perished horridly at the hands of the Nazis and their sympathizers in the hell of the Third Reich and its reign.

The Portuguese Synagogue was established in 1675 and for centuries supported a huge and active community. There, Dave chose to wear a kippah while touring the building, its mikveh, library, and mourning room. We both noted that Jewish history simply is part of Europe’s greater historical narrative. It has defined so very much of contemporary continental history that to not learn of it, from it, and face it as a tourist with eyes wide open would be to skip a huge part of the European experience.

(To be quite fair to Dave, it wasn’t he who’d been whining about visiting a few museums all in one day. It was the girls who, while at first grumbling, did cease their moaning when walking inside the hallowed sanctuary of the Portuguese Synagogue, looking upon familiar ritual objects and clicking to scenes of various special services and audio from key prayers with which they’ve become intimate.)

It was on this hallowed ground that Hayley began making connections between the Anne Frank Huis and what it stands for and the near-total destruction of Amsterdam’s Jewish community in WWII. It’s been very interesting seeing her wheels spinning and synapses firing; her timing is good, as this year in 6th grade she’ll begin to learn more about the Holocaust.

Our next stop was Museum Het Rembrandthuis, not far from the Portuguese Synagogue. We’d planned only to view its façade and skip the tour. But, as Dave said to the flagging girls, “We don’t know when we’ll get back to Amsterdam; let’s go.” So in we went and each took away a little something fun and unique from the experience.

Significantly, Rembrandt was painting his subjects emerging into light from dark corners of his visual field about the time the Portuguese Synagogue was thriving. Indeed, one of the original paintings on the wall of Rembrandt’s house is of Eleazer So-and-So, sporting a long, gray beard, all-black garb, and a skullcap. I figured Rembrandt had painted a prominent Jew of the time. Nope. It was the commissioned painting of a prominent minister. Coulda fooled me.

Hayley’s favorite feature was huis’ box beds. Quite small and compact, these beds – literally enclosed in wooden box frames – were in nearly every one of the numerous rooms of Rembrandt’s house, which is situated right on a canal (gracht, in the sonorous Dutch language). The beds were cropped short by today’s standards, for two reasons: We’re simply taller folks than walked the cobblestones in the mid-1600s, and people then slept partially propped up, believing that lying completely horizontally would cause too much blood to rush to their heads and result in poor health. Seems their remedy actually was a detriment. Enlightenment- and Renaissance-era Europeans weren’t known for their longevity.

I loved Rembrandt’s various sketches he took of his own face, demonstrating different emotions, such as surprise, cunning, and serious. He apparently didn’t have the cash at a certain point in his career to pay for models, so he stared into a mirror while at his easel and went to work. I wonder how he’d feel today knowing his expression of surprise that hangs outside his huis like a welcome mat. I find it a little unfortunate, given that his expression of surprise resembles that of Bill Hader when he played Stefon on SNL and pulled the slightly queer “Oh my goodness” face.

Our museum-filled day was simply terrific, with one major flaw: While waiting in the original line at the Van Gogh Museum, Dave stepped off a curb he hadn’t realized was there and sprained the crap out of his right ankle. To prove it, he has a raging bruise in multitudinous shades of purple and a limp he’s clearly trying to hide. Poor guy; I’ve been plying him with Advil, and while that’s helped – along with an ankle wrap we found at a store called Bokker (who the hell knows what that means) – it’ll take some time for it to heal up entirely. He’d been such a trooper, including up the nearly vertical stairs leading up, up, up, to the fourth floor of Rembrandt’s house.

In other news, I have a collected a couple more photos demonstrating perhaps Dutch’s longest word.

Longest Dutch word III

The contest winners?

The contest winners?

And, should you actually want that I post pictures of the Red Light District’s plastic penises standing at attention like toy soldiers, just ask and I’ll do so. But not without requests.

Tomorrow: Reflections on the second-to-none Van Gogh Museum and a few observations about the Dutch culture we got to glimpse via Amsterdam before leaving in the early evening for Copenhagen.

But first, with Dutch on my mind, a knowing it’s a close cousin of German, I want to share that today I had my first real experience of the essence of schadenfreude.

Portland State University’s top two development officers just resigned their positions after having been publicly humiliated in their roles as complicit, irresponsible fundraisers for the university. One of whom told me to my face and in myriad emails – when I was employed at PSU – that I was shockingly unprofessional in a situation that few others found unprofessional in the slightest. Look who’s unprofessional now, running with a ghost gift that never was to materialize and that the pair even had been informed from the inside likely was a dubious windfall. To employ another apt SNL comparison: As the faux Sean Conery said to the faux Alex Trebek on the late-night show’s “Jeopardy!” parody: SUCK IT.

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We are the Best Parents Ever

August 27, 2015 at 7:06 am (Uncategorized)

And why? Because we took our two daughters to the Red Light District.

Dave had been before (not as a customer, of course) and, this being my first time in Amsterdam…well, we just had to go. After my experience, Dave asked me my impression, and he was puzzled by my response. “What do you mean you were shocked by what you saw?” he queried. While I’d read about Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District and seen oblique photos from there in the past, being there is a wholly different thing. Especially with 14- and 11-year-old daughters in tow.

It’s the weirdest thing: You cross over one of the old city’s many canals, and — wham! — there you are, on a narrow street flanked by very large windows, some of which are covered on their interior by red curtains and illuminated red tube lights, and others of which are not. And those without the window dressing of the inorganic variety instead are filled with scantily clad organic material — in this case, all manner of women wearing all manner of erotic lingerie. There are signs posted everywhere — mainly in English…hmmm…I wonder why — verbotening anyone from snapping pictures of the goods in the windows. But I gotta say it was very hard keeping my hand off the shutter; I so badly wanted to photo these women profiting from the globe’s oldest profession in the most public of ways.

During this tour of Amsterdam’s den of iniquity, Alyssa had a very “Oh My God!” expression glued to her face, while Hayley — in her inimitable fashion — asked many questions hours after our trek about the (legal) prostitutes-in-the-window. In fact, she chose dinnertime to wonder why the hell the Red Light District exists and to describe her melancholy over the women on display, particularly one reaching her dotage and another who was chatting with a man leaning through her doorway (a customer? We just don’t know). (For example, Hayley cried about the loss of Uncle Ken 48 hours after his funeral; this is just how she operates. I mean no disrespect by juxtaposing a reference to prostitution with one to Uncle Ken; in fact, he might have found this structure humorous, de temps en temps.) Mainly, Hayley wanted to know if, and then why, I had wanted to see the Red Light District in the first place; I delicately explained that it’s historic, fascinating, and a one-of-a-kind venue worldwide. I’m not sure she bought it. She just found it utterly disgusting. I suppose, then, this blog title is erroneous.

Red Light District art

Red Light District art

Good thing we’d completed our grocery shopping before venturing into the Red Light District.

I adore grocery shopping in foreign countries; doing so is a cultural experience of the highest order, and it requires no pre-purchased ticket to do so. Just guts and a great sense of humor. Foodstuffs in foreign languages often sound either like torture devices in one’s native tongue, or downright nasty. I still don’t really know what “slagroom” is, but it might be used by Red Light District customers.

?

?

I appreciate that 100 varieties of refrigerated, partially prepared potatoes were at the ready in the chilled section of Lidl, the “supermarkt” we went to and whose name I don’t know how to pronounce nor its meaning.

A sampling of prepared potatoes take up an entire refrigerator section.

A sampling of prepared potatoes take up an entire refrigerator section.

Going up and down Lidl’s few aisles, we four resembled grown-up people with a serious case of arrested development, as we guffawed our way past peanut butter (Pindakass, which I think means something like “peanut-cheese”), potato chips (brought to you by a marketing genius who calls them “Crusti Croc”), and “Duetti,” which must be a sandwich spread for young children, but, based on its questionable-looking label, Alyssa seemingly accurately described it as “poo in a bottle.”

Crusti Croc

Crusti Croc

Duetti

Peanut cheese

Peanut cheese

Lidl is half the size of a regular neighborhood Trader Joe’s, but we must have spent at least an hour in the one that’s walking distance from Peter’s pad. It didn’t upstage the rest of what we did today, but grocery-store shopping in the foreign place one visits should have a solid place on one’s travel itinerary and not thought of solely as a passing necessity to run through and dismiss like so much Crusti Croc on an empty stomach.

Months ago I’d purchased tickets to the Anne Frank Huis. It is located not all that far from the Red Light District and is in the center of town. Throughout my life, I’ve read her diary and analysis of its discovery by her father, Otto Frank, the only person in her family to survive WWII. I’ve also visited a number of Holocaust-related exhibits that note Anne Frank and her family’s horrid wartime trial in a secret annex, and I’ve seen myriad films from the period. Still, I wanted badly to be at, tour, and experience the site of the family — and their sundry wartime roommates’ — brilliant and incredibly vertical hiding place. The line to enter the Huis snaked around two blocks and featured what sounded like tourists speaking every possible language on the globe. On the advice of seasoned friends who’d been here before, I bought tickets in advance, and we thus gained immediate entry at our appointed time.

Exterior of the Anne Frank Huis.

Exterior of the Anne Frank Huis.

Inside, the space is very dimly lit. It’s hard to read the placards and preserved images on the walls, such as postcards and pictures of movie stars from a beloved Theater and Cinema magazine that Anne and big sister Margot had pasted and glued to their bedroom walls so they had something other than blank space to stare at. Hard to decipher in the gloom, too, were items that had survived the war from the family and Otto’s business, things like lists, actual diary pages, and a siddur, or prayer book, open to a page with Hebrew on the right-hand side and German on the left. And, on a wall in a shared living space, Otto had followed with pins the Allies’ progress across Northern France, and the two girls had tracked their growth with pencil. All such poignant reminders of the tortured souls’ hiding place and the lives they carved out there were preserved within plexiglas.

Some staircases are barred from tourists’ heavy footfalls. Despite the Huis requiring timed entries, the place was packed to its rafters with visitors; moving along at one’s one pace only was possible if you liked the speed (or lack thereof) of the Italian-speaking gent in front of your nose.

But indeed it’s the sparseness — the scarcity — of decor, the very low light, and the brilliantly selected quotes (in their original Dutch and in English translation) on a number of the office and annex’s walls straight from Anne’s diary that make the Anne Frank Huis what it should be: An extant relic from a period of historic hell open to the public for reflection, consideration, education, and tears.

There are a few videos throughout the Huis’ exhibit, including those with reels of unspeakable images from the Brits’ 1945 liberation of Auschwitz. And the entire experience ends with a video featuring footage of and quotes by famous people (Nelson Mandela, Emma Thompson, Steven Spielberg, the Dalai Lama) that serves as the epilogue to the entire experience. I find it very fitting that a few statements — such as one by Natalie Portman, who’d played Anne in a movie — note that Anne herself was not a saint, nor was her family unique in their hiding, struggle, discovery, detainment at concentration camps, and sickening and untimely deaths (all save for Otto). But it’s Anne’s words that were found after the war and survive today, and around them has grown an ever-expanding world of education and awareness about that which can and cannot be articulated about the European theater of WWII. Seeing and experiencing all that exists within the Anne Frank Huis’ walls, in Europe, in the Netherlands, which neighbor the erstwhile home of the Third Reich, is singularly powerful and awe-inspiring.

Hayley, who has to be really fascinated by a topic to visit it via books, was moved to buy a graphic novel from the gift shop; it depicts the Nazis’ relentless search for Europe’s Jews prior to and during WWII.

Over our homemade dinner tonight (including some of the potato products purchased earlier today at Lidl), the girls shared some of their initial reactions from the days’ shocks, the Red Light District and Anne Frank Huis topping their list. Hayley wishes we hadn’t visited the former. Maybe we did make a mistake on that one. Maybe we don’t deserve the title of this blog entry.

Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t point out the shop we passed hocking its wears of huge penis dildos lined up like plastic toy soldiers. Or that we didn’t step into the pot-infused cafe we happened upon while heading toward the tram (lijn 2) that takes us to our temporary Amsterdam home. Perhaps we should stick to other pursuits, like our clever game, Who Can Find the Longest Word in Dutch? We got a real chuckle out of that one.

This might win our Longest Dutch Word contest.

This might win our Longest Dutch Word contest.

And Hayley and I almost were killed by a rush-hour biker. That was hilarious, too.

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I AMsterdam

August 26, 2015 at 6:34 am (Uncategorized)

We made it here. Our Lufthansa flight landed around 3 p.m. on Tues., Aug. 25. As things go in Europe, one hears endless languages, so many that after a while a number of them are impossible to guess at. But upon landing in Amsterdam, suddenly the prevalence of German (given the flight departure from Frankfurt) switched to Dutch. As we land and Hayley and I both awaken from our dead slumber (we hadn’t slept since we-can’t-remember-when), we hear a couple talking behind us and Hayley asks me, “What language is that?” “That’s Dutch,” I tell her. Kinda like German, but more guttural.

In the Amsterdam airport, the signage switched from a mixture of English and German to an amalgam of English and Dutch.

I AMsterdam

I AMsterdam

We exit the airport, greeted by the I AMSTERDAM sculpture, snap the picture I was hoping to get on record, and then easily find a taxi to take us to our Airbnb apartment. The taxi drivers lined up along the airport’s exit all are wearing suits. SUITS. Dressed more dapper than many at my Uncle Ken’s way-too-recent funeral. And the car we four pile into? A slick, navy Tesla.

I asked our cabbie if he’d ever been to New York, to Manhattan. “No,” he says, in good English, “but my wife keeps begging me to take her there.” Wait ‘till he hails a cab from La Guardia into the City. Our taxi driver likely dresses better at the gym than the drivers he’ll encounter in the Big Apple. (Before dropping us off, he momentarily gets distracted by our questions and finally says, kindly, “I must concentrate to safety get you to your destiny.” If Amsterdam is my destiny, it’s a damn good one.)

Just like in Manhattan...not.

Just like in Manhattan…not.

Dave has secured a terrific apartment, just outside the Centrum, or the main center of Amsterdam. The allure of Europe for me is so visceral that it’s beyond words. And that allure exists in everything we find inconvenient in the States and, incongruously, have created conveniences to alleviate.

For example, on the street level, outside the sprawling and vertical brick apartment building, we spend a while trying to open the slightly poorly hung, narrow wooden door that leads up three very narrow and steep flights of stairs to Peter’s pad. (Who’s Peter? We don’t know but immediately love his taste and his place.) We rouse a neighbor between flights two and three; she opens her door to figure out what the hell the racket is, and then smiles sweetly, saying a few sympathetic things in perfect English, before allowing us to continue our struggle up to what feels like the top of the Empire State Building with our roller suitcases in tow.

The bathroom in Peter’s apartment has no sink or mirror. The kitchen is about 1’ wide. The two bedrooms are exactly the dimensions of the single queen beds squeezed into each one. “Welcome to Europe!” Dave kept saying to the girls, as we ascended the staircase to heaven, tried assembling as a foursome in the kitchen, noted across the alley a neighbor who keeps his or her bike on the top-floor terrace, and fell into the beds from their ends, as there is no bedside from which to access the beds themselves.

An excellent place to store a bike when not in use.

An excellent place to store a bike when not in use.

 

The kitchen and stairway in Peter's apartment are of identical width.

The kitchen and stairway in Peter’s apartment are of identical width.

Amsterdam narrow stairway

Indeed, I LOVE EUROPE and am so thrilled to be in this old part of the world. Here, the interiors are sparsely and smartly appointed (minus the bathroom sans sink) and, by contrast, the outside spaces are wide, beautifully manicured, and alluring venues to which to entice the public from the confines of their small homes.

In America, it’s so often the opposite: Homes are downright large and finely if not clutteringly appointed with so many comforts (including toilet paper that doesn’t take its inspiration from sand paper), that one often is inspired to remain within the home instead of seeking out harder-to-find public spaces in which to move and gather and be active. As our taxi driver had maneuvered his smooth-as-silk Tesla in front of the apartment building, his fancy parking job had taken at least a full five minutes as he waited for bike after bike of non-helmeted riders of all ages to whiz past us. Many of them elementary-school children.

On Aug. 26, our one scheduled adventure for the day is the Anne Frank Huis. The rest of the day likely will be spent trying to internalize what we experience and perhaps trying to shrug off the inevitable sorrow that will come from it. Even more so given the unscheduled stop we made before leaving the States for Europe.

As many of you reading this will know, my Uncle Ken (my dad’s sister’s husband) had been battling for two years a very rare form of melanoma. So rare in fact was his ravaging disease that the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Mass General Hospital oncologists – near where they live in Newton, Mass., west of Boston – couldn’t even stanch its inexorable and horrid spread. Uncle Ken died the morning of Fri., Aug. 21, his body — but never his spirit — ravaged from the mucosal melanoma with which he’d been diagnosed about two years ago.

Uncle Ken’s first year battling the cancer was kinda OK. His second year was one dashed hope after another. Until this summer, at which point he and his family, by necessity, descended into a living hell. We in Oregon began every day by checking our texts and emails from my Aunt Eli for any Uncle Ken update from Boston, and we ended every day by doing the same obsessive thing.

It was Abby who, in late-July, flat-out purchased a late-August ticket to come visit our aunt and uncle, knowing deep down it would be good-bye. Her scheduled departure date, Aug. 23, would be the day before my family was to leave for Europe, a trip planned nearly a year ago and that was to commence on Dave and my 19th wedding anniversary.

As August approached and I mentioned to Eli I’d like to spend the Jewish High Holy Days with them in mid-September, it was clear from her uncertain response that that timing probably would be too late for an in-person good-bye. So my parents and I purchased tickets to Boston to piggyback on Abby’s prescient itinerary.

We arrived on Aug. 19. Uncle Ken died two days later. And only two days after that, a huge crowd of family and friends from all over the country came to pay its respects to Ken, support Eli and their daughters, and help cover with sprays of dirt and rocks Uncle Ken’s pine coffin after it was lowered into the ground and Mourner’s Kaddish had been recited at an immaculate Jewish cemetery in Wayland.

Upon receiving the news of Uncle Ken’s death, Dave escorted our daughters and Abby’s daughters to Boston; we all were together to attend the funeral and that evening’s shiva minyan. I’ve been to quite a number of shiva minyanim, and the one honoring the memory of Ken and mourning his loss was by far the most packed I’d ever experienced. And why wouldn’t it have been? In a word, Ken – with Eli right by his side for their 36 years – was a love, and he was loved by myriad relatives, friends, co-workers, mentees, neighbors…and the list goes on.

The Eastern seaboard was its usual humid and sticky self, and the Kimmel’s living room, in which Uncle Ken had very peacefully (thank God) passed only two days prior, is where mourners again recited Kaddish. Some guests left shortly thereafter, citing the oven-like heat in the home as their reason to skedaddle. Mainly, though, I believe it was the heaviness of the loss of a man, who at his death weighed less than my 11-year-old daughter, that compelled people to return to their own intact families and hug them a little tighter on that day of extreme sorrow.

I hadn’t cried for so many days in a row, nor for as long, nor with as much abandon as I did as Ken descended into death and a merciful place where his suffering ceased.

Boston being Boston, the humidity of late-August remained, and we boarded a flight from Beantown instead of from Portland for our previously scheduled European vacation. On the evening Aug. 24, Dave and I toasted our 19 years with a gratis drink aboard a Germany-bound Lufthansa flight, with our daughters on either side of us groggy both with sleep and sorrow.

We awoke to an Amsterdam with autumn in its fresh, crisp air. Perhaps this environment will help lift the weight of the oppressive humidity that blanketed all of Boston and clamped to our skin and our psyches leaden with sadness.

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