It wouldn’t necessarily seem that a volunteer at a commune in Argentina and a wedding photographer at a small get-together in rural Manitoba have a lot in common, but I’m sure that the one thing they do have in common in obvious: the Netherlands!! (Right? Isn’t it obvious?)
Three years ago, Josh and I arrived at the commune at the same time as three other WWOOF volunteers. We quickly became friends, but knew our contact with each other would be limited once we parted in Buenos Aires, since our homes were spread across the world in Winnipeg, Wisconsin, Washington, and Amsterdam. Still, we offered the quintessential travel-friend promise of “If you’re ever in _____, come visit me!”
One year ago, Josh and I arrived at his grandparents’ home in rural Manitoba to attend a small get-together where his cousin got married. After the wedding, Josh and I and the wedding photographer, his cousin’s YWAM friend from Rotterdam, spent the night at his grandparents’ place. Her flight home didn’t leave until the next day, so the three of us spent the day sitting around the table playing Dutch Blitz and discussing why exactly it was called Dutch Blitz when, according to our resident Dutch expert, there was nothing Dutch about it. This of course led into a discussion of all things Dutch, which eventually culminated in that wonderful phrase: “If you’re ever in Rotterdam, come visit me!”
As stated previously, our goal of this trip was to make good on all those generous offers. Happily, it turned out that this time there was something we could offer in return. When we emailed our Argentine WWOOF comrade about visiting him in Amsterdam, he responded enthusiastically, then added that he was getting married the week after our visit. “Would you be up for some WWOOFing in my garden to get it ready for our wedding reception?” he wrote.
We arrived in Amsterdam armed with excellent directions to his apartment, but when we arrived, we couldn’t find the right house number. We contemplated singing some of the commune’s mihnka songs loudly in hopes that it would draw him out, then finally found a doorbell to a building we thought could be his. “Wouldn’t it be great,” we mused, as we waited nervously on the stoop, “if Edwin himself could just magically appear at the door?” And then… He did! Never mind the fact that we hadn’t seen each other in three years, and that the last time we saw each other was in a Buenos Aires McDonalds as we sat shell-shocked from the abrupt adjustment from the commune to mainstream civilization. It felt as though we had just said ¡ciao! yesterday (the fact that we were wearing the same travel clothes as three years ago may have helped).
That evening, Edwin and Farah (his lovely fiancée) left us with insiders’ tips on where to find good music and amazing views of Amsterdam. Josh and I watched the sun go down from Bim Huis, enjoying excellent jazz performances, art exhibits, and red wine.
Since we were in Holland, it only made sense to see Amsterdam by bike… canal bike, that is! Built on a network of canals that rivals Venice, Amsterdam can only be truly appreciated from the water. Albeit a bit goofy, pedaling down the canals of Amsterdam offered a relaxing and gorgeous tour of the city, starting from Anne Frank’s house and climbing out of the river at the Van Gogh Museum.
Josh and I have discovered throughout our travels that we are infinitely more engaged by museums focused around the story of a particular individual, rather than museums that are simply massive warehouses of culture. The Van Gogh Museum* guides you chronologically through not only Van Gogh’s works of art, but also through significant events in his life, personal and professional relationships, places he lived and worked, and the evolution of his painting techniques. It was incredible learning to appreciate his work on two different levels. On one hand, great works of art have the capacity to provoke a personal response regardless of what you know or don’t know about the artist. On the other hand, knowing the technical details of a piece – the health issues leading to a move to a certain location, the history of the place where it was painted, the relationships the artist was invested in at the time of painting, the revolutionary painting techniques that discomfited society – can tell countless other tales.
*FYI pretentious people everywhere: it is not pronounced “Van Gof.” It is “Fon Hchuhch,” or try clearing your throat twice with a hiccup in between.
The Anne Frank House is an unassuming (except for the line winding around the block) apartment facade on the corner of a quiet square. Inside, all the rooms have been left untouched and completely empty at the request of Mr. Frank, as a memorial to the void left by the thousands of extinguished Jews. As you slowly move through the home, reading the accounts of co-workers who participated daily in hiding the Franks and seeing the tiny rooms still wallpapered in Anne’s magazine clippings, you begin to feel like you know this girl and her family. In so many ways, you do know them – they are simply an ordinary family who happened to live through an extraordinary time. The realization of their ordinariness makes the final room even more devastating: the attic has a series of video clips playing footage from concentration camps, and you see the brutal horror that this ordinary family was forced to endure.
There was nothing unique about Anne that she should be remembered over any other little girl. But her incredible story serves as a reminder that this horror could happen to anyone, and is happening right now to so many little girls and ordinary families. Hatred – whether it’s towards Jews, women, First Nations people – is hatred. The cause of hatred is ignorance, and the result is always destruction.
Ignorance and destruction also go hand in hand in the Red Light District. We had the chance to tour the hostel where Edwin and Farah had both worked and where they met. The Shelter is not only full of comfortable rooms, fun cafés and bars, and wonderful staff, but it also uses its proximity to the Red Light District to educate tourists on the consequences of an abusive industry that is often just taken for granted as part of the “Amsterdam experience.” The hostel is also connected with Not For Sale, which “provides job training and access to dignified employment to survivors of human trafficking.”
Amsterdam is a beautiful city with a rich culture of innovation and personal freedom. However, it needs to be asked:
Is it innovative to still participate in the medieval mindset of selling and buying humans as merchandise? Where is freedom when “personal liberties” depend on another person being enslaved? And when choices are made in ignorance, who is held responsible for the resulting destruction?