Friday, September 16, 2011

Anne Frank and High Tea

One of the things I love about our trip here in Amsterdam is that we took a more relaxed view of sight-seeing. We definitely saw a lot of stuff, but we didn't embark on day-long trips that left us exhausted (we learned lessons from our Mediterranean trip). We just went at a more leisurely pace and had plenty of time to chill on our houseboat (de boot as we called it).

We got started on Wednesday by heading to the Anne Frank house, located on the west side of central Amsterdam near the trendy Jordaan district (more on that later). The museum is one of Amsterdam's most popular attractions and the line to get in the door can stretch down the block and last for hours. BUT. Because we had done our homework we knew that you could buy tickets in advance online. This allowed us to skip the line and go to a separate entrance. You just ring a bell, go inside and show your tickets to a person at a counter, and go right in. Easy peasy.

So Anne Frank: she and her parents and older sister emigrated to Amsterdam from Germany in 1933, the year the Nazis gained power in Germany. As The Netherlands were more accepting of Jews and had a good economy, it seemed the perfect place for Otto Frank to move his business and take his family. However, in 1940 Germany invaded Amsterdam and the Franks began trapped by the Nazi occupation. As the persecution of the Jews intensified Otto made plans to hide his family in a secret annex at the back of his shop and warehouse (most buildings in Amsterdam had these "secret" rooms, but the Nazis didn't know and so didn't suspect anything at the beginning of the occupation. In July 1942, Anne's sister, Margot, got her work orders to report to a work camp (i.e. concentration camp) so the family went into hiding in the secret annex where they would remain for two years.

The house itself is very unassuming on the street. It looks like any other house, but the museum was clever and purchased the two buildings next door so the outside off Anne's home could remain as it was in the 1940s. You enter from the building at the end of the block and then work your way through the Anne Frank house. First, you start on the ground floor and first floors which were used by Otto Frank as his store front and warehouse (he sold wholesale herbs and spices). On the second floor, you walk behind the moving bookcase used to hide the entrance into the annex and into Anne's world. The Franks inhabited 3 rooms in the annex (and shared the overall space with another family--a mom, dad, and their teeenage son).

There was a common dining/living room and kitchen, and several bedrooms. All 8 people in the house shared one bathroom. All the windows were blacked out and the family lived without sunlight for 2 years. Otto Frank's employees helped them by bringing food, supplies, and keeping people away from the entrance to the annex. During the day, the Franks had to be as quiet as possible; they could not speak above a whisper, had to avoid all squeaky parts of the floor, and were not permitted to flush the toilet. Anne had always been an aspiring journalist and writer, and one of the reasons she kept her diary was because she was aware of the importance of chronicling her experience. She also planned to write a novel based on her experiences in hiding called The Secret Annex.

Going through the Anne Frank House was very emotional and gave me a new perspective on the holocaust. We usually look at WWII and the extermination of the Jews through such a large lens: looking at the millions of people killed, the countries where the entire Jewish population was wiped out, etc. But in the Anne Frank House you are looking at the very personal experience of just 8 people; as you move through the rooms that comprised their home for 2 years, you have a laser focus on the different kind of horror the war wrought and aren't just dealing with numbers. You feel close to the flesh and blood people who lived there and can't help but imagine yourself in their situation. Anne's diaries themselves were also on display, as were Anne's notebooks that contained her many short stories, the beginning of her novel, and her favorite quotes and passages from other books.

In August 1944, working off a tip from a person still unknown, the Nazis found the annex and arrested all 8 inhabitants. The Franks were processed by the Germans, split up, and sent to different concentration camps. Anne was eventually sent to the camp Bergen-Belsen where she died of typhus in March 1945, only a few weeks before the camp was liberated by British troops. Of the entire Frank family, Otto, the father, was the only one to survive the war. He was given Anne's diaries and other notebooks by a friend who found them in the annex after the family was taken by the Germans, and spent the rest of his life seeing that they were published so people could learn and perhaps one day understand what had happened to his family.

The actual Anne Frank House (the museum also encompasses another three row houses on the right)

Original door to Otto Frank's store (and the house with the Secret Annex)

The block and canal of the Anne Frank House (you can see the people lined up on the street to get into the museum).

That's enough serious stuff for one email, right? After the Anne Frank House, I needed a break from the emotional so I decided to go for a stroll through the Jordaan (my guidebook included a walking tour with info on the area). The Jordaan (pronounced yor-dahn) is kind of like the Old Town Alexandria of Amsterdam--it's full of yuppies, hippies, and hipstirs and is the trendy shopping and cafe area. It's quiet, beautiful and was a great place to finish off the morning. Especially when it started pouring rain and I ducked into a cafe for some hot chocolate.

Chris and Kent outside a coffee house in the Jordaan.

Houses in the Jordaan--notice the different shapes of the gables and if you squint your eyes you can see that there are hooks hanging from the top. People use these to hoist large furniture up through the upper windows. Clever!

After wandering around the Jordaan (and buying some chocolate at a little shop), I headed back in the direction of our houseboat to pay a visit to the Museum of Bags and Purses. Amsterdam has more museums per capita than almost any other city in Europe and many of them are very specialized. The Museum of Bags and Purses is exactly that: a small museum that traces the history of handbags from the sixteenth century.

It was fascinating to see how purses have changed according to need, and they had some very unusual old and modern items. Chris and Kent weren't super interested in going through the museum (they are boys after all),but they did meet up with me at 3:00 for high tea in the museum cafe. We were seated in a lushly decorated dining room with murals and gilding, and were served sandwiches, a selection of pastries, quiche, and of course, tea. It was a very relaxing way to spend the afternoon,especially since it was so rainy, and we felt very posh.

Outside the Museum of Bags and Purses

Purse made from an armadillo (those are the legs wrapping around the edge), circa 1800s (I think).

The Museum tea room

Our dessert spread

After tea we headed back to the houseboat to relax a bit. Because tea had come so late in the day, we didn't really need anything for dinner, but we struck out again that evening for our Red Light District tour, since it had been rained out the night before. Luckily, the sky cleared right before our tour and we had our first taste of Amsterdam's famous Red Light District!

It was certainly as advertised; prostitutes stand in windows framed by red neon lights trying to entice one of the roving bands of randy young men. There's something for everyone: girls of different ages and nationalities, transvestites, and homosexuals. Surrounding the windows are streets of sex shops, movie theaters, bars, and coffee houses (coffee houses are where you buy pot). But here's the thing: it didn't feel really sketchy. In fact, it reminded my a lot of any party area of a city, think Adams Morgan in DC or Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Just with prostitutes. The entire area is also becoming extremely gentrified as the Red Light District houses many of the oldest buildings in Amsterdam and the rich people are starting to move in. Our tour guide estimated that in the next 10 years many of the seedy parts of the area would be gone.

I have to admit that I was kind of uncomfortable walking around there, but not because of the overt sexuality on display. The best I can equate it to is when you go into a shop just to look at the wares, but you don't intend to buy anything and the pushy salespeople are coming over to you "can I help you can I help you can I help you" and you feel SO AWKWARD. It was kind of like that. You've got these young women just trying to make a living and here I am in a tour group just wandering by. Weird. But the Red Light District is certainly part of the Amsterdam experience and you've got to do it!

Coming up next: the Van Gogh Museum, and a walking tour of the city itself!

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