Saturday, March 1, 2014

Backpacking through Europe -- days 1 & 2

From the moment I first heard the phrase "bucket list", I didn't like it; on the contrary, I do like the idea of a "100 Things" list. I first heard about such a list over 10 years ago from a group of scrapbookers, and I began my own list. I don't have a clue what this says about me, but even now (over 10 years after starting my list), there only 34 items on my list of things I'd like to accomplish in my lifetime.

Last week I was able to check off another item on my list -- "backpack through Europe". I'm not going to get too picky about what constitutes "through" Europe. Over the course of 7 days, I traveled through 8 countries (and stopped for at least one day in 4 cities), and that's good enough for me.

I left England (I'm counting it as one of the 8 countries, by the way) very early one morning and traveled through Belgium to The Netherlands, stopping to spend one night and the entire next day in Amsterdam. I arrived late in the afternoon, checked into my hotel and put my backpack in my teeny-tiny room, and went back out to explore a bit before nightfall. I had intended to at least venture into the Red Light District; my travel consultant back in England had assured me I'd be perfectly safe by myself after dark in that part of Amsterdam. However, the 2 very nice, helpful young ladies at the hotel's front desk expressed such dismay when I asked for directions to that area that I asked them if I should wait until the next day and listened to their advice that I should.

Instead, I strolled around the streets near my hotel until well after dark, stopping in a nice diner for a wonderful dinner of calamari, and then went back to my hotel room to watch the winter Olympics on television. The commentators were speaking Dutch, of course, and I had to laugh at myself when I realized that I had turned up the volume and was listening intently, as if somehow if I could just hear well enough I'd understand something! I finally muted the sound and enjoyed the images of the various graceful and daring athletes.

Day 2 dawned gloomy and drizzly, and I walked from the hotel to a busy dock area near the hotel to take a 90-minute canal boat tour. I was fortunate to get a front-facing seat next to the window of our glassed-in boat, and as the tour progressed, I realized I was also on the "best" side of the boat. Fortunately, the audio tour was given in at least 4 languages (English being the 2nd one in each segment), and I thoroughly enjoyed the many, many interesting places and buildings we slowly passed and the interesting tidbits of information that were shared.

For example, adjacent to the train station is a huge, multi-level bicycle garage that looks exactly like one of the large car garages in downtown St. Louis. According to the audio tour, it's one of the largest bike garages in Amsterdam, and it holds 2,500 bicycles! I had passed it the previous evening on my walk from the train station to the hotel, and it was as full then as it appeared to be that morning. The number 2,500 came up again -- there are 2,500 boat slips for business and residential boats along the canals of Amsterdam. The city will not issue any more than that number, and there is quite a waiting list for occupancy.

After the boat tour ended, I started out on my walking tour. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I had researched online and come up with a walking tour for each of the 4 cities I would be visiting. Each tour had a starting and ending point; between the two were lots of "walk north until you get to ___" types of instructions. As both of my children will gladly tell anyone who asks, I am directionally-impaired, so I knew heading out that morning that the day could end disastrously. I was, quite frankly, not too confident of my ability to find the first item on my list, much less all 12 places!

I asked (by drawing a compass and circling the word "North") the canal boat ticket saleslady which direction was North; she asked the teenage boy stocking the postcard rack, and he in turn went outside and asked a man working on one of the boats. He returned, pointed in the direction of my hotel, smiled, and said what I think may have been "good luck". I thanked both him and the saleslady and headed out.

Street names were not posted on every corner as they typically are in America (I've found that to be the case everywhere I've been here), and that presented some challenges. Also, I had the English version of the name of the places I was looking for; that wasn't at all helpful. I found the first two places on my list almost by mistake. I stopped to reread my instructions, looked up and to the right, and there was the Magna Plaza, the former post office and now a shopping plaza (#2), which meant that directly across the street and on my left was Dam Square and the Queen's Palace (#1).  I stopped in the Magna Plaza and visited a few shops before circling around to the back and continuing on to find the Torensluis Bridge (#3).

I walked for awhile, crossed a bridge, and continued walking about 200' more before deciding to stop in a very cute shop that I thought sold items sold by local artisans (4 years of high school Latin helps me read some foreign languages). The lady in the shop spoke English fairly fluently, and when I told her I was looking for the Torensluis Bridge, she explained that if I had just come from "that" direction (I had), I had just crossed it. I bought a pretty delft blue bracelet (very reasonably priced) and backtracked so that I wouldn't miss the house at Single 166. I found it and was taking a picture of it when 2 young men of about college age strolled by. I asked them if they'd take my picture by the building, and they were happy to do it. When I explained to them why this house was of interest to me, they were shocked; they told me they lived 3 doors down and never realized they lived that close to the narrowest house in all of Amsterdam. Both immediately got their own smart phones out and asked me to take pictures of them by the front door of the very narrow (not much wider than 4') house.

From there I walked through down a busy street -- lots of bicyclists and pedestrians strolling the sidewalks past buildings housing restaurants, bars, and shops -- past the Theater Museum and to the Westerkah, the tallest church in Amsterdam. I had planned to pay 3 Euros to go up in the bell tower for what was touted as the "best panoramic view of Amsterdam", but scaffoldings surrounded the tower and a sign on the church door indicated the tower was temporarily closed for construction (well, that's what it appeared to say, and the door was locked).

I continued on my way and saw several more sites before seeing a long line of people and realizing that, without knowing it, I had arrived at the Anne Frank Huis, which I had wanted to visit but thought would be impossible. I had tried to purchase a ticket online (as advised), but tickets were sold out by the time I made my travel plans. I asked a lady in an official-looking uniform near the front of the line if it was possible to purchase tickets at the door, and she said it was, but that the wait was about an hour. I followed the line back to its end and joined those waiting to see the Secret Annexe.

To my delight, a family of 4 (dad, mom, 2 teen-aged sons) from Massachusetts got into line behind me. After 2 days of not hearing an American voice, I was overjoyed to hear them talking, and I introduced myself. The father and the 2 boys went off in search of a bite to eat, and the mother and I had a wonderful chat while the line slowly moved forward. She told me their family loves St. Louis (and told me a heartwarming story I'll share at another time), and we talked about America, traveling, children, and the normal stuff that moms talk about. I barely noticed the blustering winds, dark skies, dropping temperatures, and wait.

Finally, we all entered the Anne Frank Huis. In several respects, it was not what I had expected. The rooms are empty except for a few pictures in every room showing what they looked like when the Franks, et al were in hiding. I lingered in each room, imagining each one filled with furniture and inhabitants. As I paused for a bit to stand where Anne's desk chair would have sat, I thought of the young Jewish girl who had sat where I stood and written the diary that has been read by so many people around the world. I thought back to when I first read Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl when I was in 5th grade, and I remembered how I had lain on my bed and tried to imagine being Anne, hiding in the Annexe. I had always wanted to see the Annexe for myself, and over 40 years later, there I was. On the wall to the right of the desk, and over the spot where Anne's bed would have been, were still some of the "movie star" pictures she so loved.

After slowly wandering around the rooms within the Annexe, I spent a considerable amount of time in the museum housed in the rooms that are (as best I could tell) what were the offices and work areas of Mr. Frank's business. The rooms are filled with artifacts from the lives of the Franks and the others who shared their hiding space. The actual diary is on display, as are the "admission cards" that were filled out when each of the Franks entered Auschwitz and numerous documents, photos, pieces of clothing, etc. The museum was as heartbreaking as it was interesting.

By the time I left the Anne Frank Huis, I realized I didn't have time to finish my walking tour. As I looked at the items that remained, I saw that I had seen each of them while on the canal boat tour that morning, so I didn't feel bad about abandoning my plan and finding a place to eat. I found a charming restaurant and enjoyed a pastry and a cup of rich hot chocolate topped by an amazingly-light and refreshing whipped cream while I jotted some notes in my travel journal; then I collected my backpack and walked back to the train station.

The Amsterdam train station is very impressive. Busy but well-organized and very clean, with large arrival and departure signs with train number, destinations, departure times, and platform number. After a short wait, I boarded my train (destination: Prague), and found my sleeper cabin.

The steward informed me that I had the cabin to myself for the night and that he would make up the bed whenever I was ready. I settled into my cabin, which was comfortable and roomier than I expected, and relaxed with my journal and a pot of tea. It was a delightful end to what had been an absolutely wonderful day, and my only regret was that my children weren't with me.

As I sipped my tea, I thought about my day. Four things stood out to me. First, the beauty of Amsterdam -- the city itself, the buildings, the canals and boats. Second, the fact that almost everyone I had seen that day was smiling and friendly, and the atmosphere of the city was very positive and cheerful as a result. Of course, I couldn't help but think about the Anne Frank Huis and the emotions it evoked.

I also reflected on the fact that I hadn't gotten lost a single time. Amazingly, language issues and either a lack of a street name on my list (some cases) or the street names not being posted (the remaining cases) had not been a problem. I had double-checked -- by showing the next destination on my itinerary to a passerby -- where I was several times while I was walking from place to place, but other than the one time when I bypassed the street with the narrowest house in Amsterdam, I hadn't had to backtrack a single time. What a great start to my trip!

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