Thursday, December 28, 2017

Amsterdam, Bruges, and Cologne

Amsterdam, Netherlands:

Amsterdam is a hipster’s haven. I stayed in quite possibly the coolest hostel ever – they had a trendy coffee shop in front, an extensive collection of books, an indoor tent set up for movie watching, and an overall incredible aesthetic. The irony came at a cost, however. I selected the largest and cheapest dorm, because in my opinion, so long as you are sharing a room with lots of strangers, it matters not whether there are three of them or eleven of them. Besides, Western Europe is expensive, and my mission was to stretch out my funds. My room was cheekily titled, “Those who want everything but aren’t willing to pay for anything,” or something along those lines. Above each bunk, rather than offering a personal lamp or an outlet, they painted a lamp and an outlet on the wall. That’s right, rather than giving travelers something useful, someone actually took the time and effort to taunt them.

The prettiest hostel kitchen

The hostel had a teepee for movie viewing, of course
Perhaps the best part of this hostel was the people I met there. John, my favorite Canadian, was in the bunk directly above me. He has a fantastic sense of humor – laundry day fell on this part of the trip, so as soon as he saw all of my bras hanging around he quipped that he must have stumbled across a garment sale. We became quick friends and explored the city together with a few other people from my hostel. I also had a great political conversation with a group of women from Quebec, Germany, and the Netherlands. It was just a few days before the US election, so they were all fascinated to know how I as the representative American felt about the situation. We argued agreeably about how a person could come to support Trump or any of the various European alt-right candidates, and the extent to which a person was responsible for shaping their own worldview regardless of their cultural or social background.

One of my favorite days of my entire trip was the afternoon I rented a bike and simply rode around the canals aimlessly, listening to Vampire Weekend and grinning like a fool. There was a forecast of rain, and although it drizzled for most of the ride, I only had to stop and wait under an overhang for a few moments. Amsterdam is an incredibly charming city, particularly in the fall, with the lazy late afternoon light filtering through the leaves and reflecting off the water.

I got to check a very important item off my bucket list: visiting the Anne Frank house. When I was a young girl, her story fascinated me. I used to pretend that I had to go into hiding, or alternately, that I was a citizen concealing a group of Jews from the Nazi. I also remember reading her diary in one of my favorite classes ever, Mrs. Luther’s eighth grade English. The chance to see the Secret Annex was incredible. It’s right in the heart of Amsterdam, and looking from the outside, you would never know of the space hidden within (except, of course, nowadays there is a line of tourists which stretches around the block). But then, past the office space on the entry floor, a bookcase swivels open to reveal a dangerously steep set of stairs. Inside, the space is absent of furnishings. to reflect Otto Frank’s wishes that it be left empty to represent the way in which the Holocaust abruptly and tragically interrupted peoples’ everyday lives. However, you can still see the post cards and magazine clippings which Anne pasted on her bedroom wall. Somehow there was more space than I was expecting, in that there were multiple levels and rooms, although it would still be a soul-crushingly confined space in which to pass years of one’s life. Anne’s original diary, with her handwriting, is on display.

The houses near the Anne Frank house
Another highlight of the city was visiting the Van Gogh museum. As a lover of art, and particularly impressionism, I enjoyed getting to see not just some of his famous pieces (not Starry Nights, unfortunately – that one is in New York City), but also how his work progressed and changed over his career.

One aspect of the city I did not enjoy as much was the Red Light District. I went during the daytime, but even still it was a mildly uncomfortable experience for me. I’m certainly not accustomed to seeing prostitution, and particularly not in such a public and normalized setting. For example, just strolling down an alley, as you look on either side there are women just inches away behind panes of glass. I wasn’t sure where to look. I saw all kinds of ordinary men soliciting their services, including several police officers who may have just finished their shifts.

The windows where prostitutes advertise themselves
Bruges, Belgium:
There's sometimes a pattern in my life that when I cry, the sky cries with me - whether a light drizzle or sheets of rain pouring down. Such was the case in Bruges. I checked into my hostel on November 8, 2016, and went straight to sleep. Since I was 8 hours ahead, I figured I'd just wait to check the election results when I woke up and everything was counted. I had Skyped with my friends that week, and with three of the four of us being out of the US, all three of us were certain that Trump couldn't possibly become President. Katy, the only one of us in the US, was terrified that he might. I remember being so confident that that wouldn't be the case. Unlike most Americans who stayed up all night and watched the election results with growing fear and dread, I woke to a slew of WhatsApp messages and a news alert on my phone saying that Trump had won. It felt like a bad dream, and as soon as the shock wore off, I was flooded with dread and rage. The skies were flooding right along with me - a deluge poured down.

Every cell of my body knew that I needed to run, regardless of the rain. I dressed and walked down in the hostel lobby, where the TV was loudly broadcasting the US election results. People of all nationalities watched, and I wanted to vomit watching Trump step up on stage to give his victory speech. As I choked down sobs, I went to the front desk and asked where one could run in town. "It's very rainy outside, are you sure that you want to go out there?" I nodded and simply said, "I need to." Bruges is a walled medieval town, so they pointed me to the dirt (er, mud) path that loosely followed the wall and passed by all the windmills. "It's 12 kilometers, are you sure?" I was already out the door.

As the cold rain pelted my body and dripped off my face, and the mud coated the inside of my calves, I ran. I thought of all the women, minorities, undocumented - how many people were going to be adversely affected? How bad would this be? My Facebook post from that day sums up what I was feeling at the time:

As I've traveled these past few weeks, I've seen cities which were torn apart by war based in ethnic cleansing - Berlin, Sarajevo, Krakow. I've been to Auschwitz, Schindler's Factory, the Anne Frank House. In years past, I've visited Chilean torture camps from the Pinochet era. Reading and seeing stories from these times in recent history, a few things struck me. First, the way in which the economic concerns and anxiety in reaction to societal change could drive huge swathes of the population to support evil. Second, how many people who survived such times didn't think it could happen in their country, in their time, and their initial unwillingness to realize what was happening. Third, the importance of resistance. Fourth, that peaceful coexistence between religions and ethnic groups, such as that which exists in many of those places today, is beautiful, and worth striving toward.

Earlier this election cycle, I posted about how I felt it was important not to dismiss Trump supporters as ignorant, because they had legitimate frustration with a political system that doesn't listen to them. Clearly, it was right to think that such people should not be underestimated. However, having watched this election season unfold, and having seen what I've seen lately, I modify that statement: many people in our nation who were gripped with fear about the state of our country and our world elected someone who promises to make it all great again through hatred.

It was wishful thinking that the US was somehow above this type of outcome. What is to come is uncertain, but I do think each of us has a personal imperative to fight for human dignity and progress, and to try to prevent the repetition of tragedies that have destroyed so many lives.

After a hot shower, I wandered down to the kitchen and instantly bonded with my new friend Emiliano over our shared sadness. He is Mexican-American in the most literal sense - he works in southern California but lives in Tijuana and crosses our border literally every day. We spoke for hours about our anger and our fear, wondering what was to become of our lives. I then retired to my twin bed and didn't leave for the rest of the day, refreshing my newsfeed and trying to stay calm. The weather was so bad that I wouldn't have wanted to leave anyway, but my emotional state wouldn't have allowed me to enjoy anything.

The next day the rain had all but stopped, and I forced myself to explore the town a bit. I didn't try the Belgian waffles because gluten, but I did get to try Belgian chocolate (heaven) and potato fries (also heavenly, they're fried in animal fat instead of oil and that is why they taste so magical).I've said this about plenty of towns, but it's true about Bruges as well: it feels like a fairy tale with the windmills, the canals with swans peacefully floating on their surface, and the stone walls and buildings.

Cologne, Germany:
When I went to visit my good friend Kieryn in Vienna, her friend Mira invited us to come celebrate Karneval on November 11th. Like Brazil's Carnival or New Orleans' Fat Tuesday, Cologne has a massive rager right before everyone goes clean for Lent. Unique to Cologne is a wild one-day celebration on November 11th to mark the opening of Karneval season.

I missed Halloween, but I made up for it by devising a Karneval costume. When you're living out of a backpack and roll into town 30 minutes before all of the stores close, you have to improvise. In a hurry, I grabbed a children's tiara and wand set, shiny white tinsel, and sparkly little girl's makeup to transform into a fairy princess.

The next day, I met Mira the Ringmaster and Kieryn the Cat Woman at the train station bright and early. They ate a proper German drinking breakfast at McDonalds (i.e. generous portions with lots of fat) and I, stupidly, ate oatmeal. For the Germans do not stop the festivities to eat, and I would grow quite hungry as the day progressed. We then went to get ready at Mira's childhood home because her family generously opened their home to us, and I instantly fell in love with her parents. They are the sweetest couple, and the way they took in complete strangers, one of whom (me) doesn't even speak German - it was truly beautiful.

We then went to a birthday/Karneval party, followed by bars, which had wonders upon wonders. For the sake of propriety, I can't tell you much about this day, other than the following facts:
1. It was very long. We began drinking at 9 am, and most people did not cease until well past midnight.

2. There was a magical fountain which cascaded green liquor which tasted like cream soda.

Kieryn making me laugh, between me talking about serious things and dissolving into a helpless romantic. 
3. Strange men said really creepy things to Kieryn because they thought she was dressed up as a dominatrix, not Cat Woman. It was disturbing.

4. German adults with normal day jobs - lawyers, teachers, etc. - morphed into wild youth. Sexual orientation became wildly fluid, and everyone flirted with everyone, awkwardly. It felt like the most bizarre daydream just watching everyone around us. Kieryn and I would find each other and say, "Oh god, it must be late, things are getting so strange." And then we'd check the time - 8 pm, or 8:30 pm.

5. I earned the nickname "the Resurrection Queen" because I pulled a total American move and died early in the day, only to come back to life after a few hour nap. Since I was napping on a bed in the middle of the party, lots of random Germans came up and checked my pulse to make sure I was ok. I would roll over and use all the German in my vocabulary: "Ja, ja, alles ist gut, danke schön."

The most well-deserved meme I've ever received
6. These people really, really love Cologne. I did too - I don't even speak German, and I could practically sing this song by the end of the day, which is a song about how awesome Cologne and Karneval are.

7. I met a man who dressed up as Trump and wore a sign saying "Horror Clown."

A wallet was lost, and a responsible German citizen found Kieryn on Facebook and returned it to her. However, before they found her on Facebook, we all got to witness the German police report in action. Mira's mother phoned the police, and we could hear her saying, "Yes, yes, of  course there was drinking involved, it was Karneval!" We also got to go to the police station, which was surprisingly brightly lit and orderly.

We ate lunch at a traditional German restaurant, which was delicious, and walked around Cologne. I especially enjoyed seeing the cathedral all lit up by this Christmas tree:

One of the most beautiful moments of my life was when Mira's parents took me to the airport. I offered to take a cab, but they insisted on taking me themselves! Upon arriving, her mom kissed me on the cheek and squeezed my shoulders as she engulfed me in a hug. Her dad handed me my luggage and remarked, "You know, I do think that a Diamond is forever. Best of luck in your travels!" I almost cried, because it had been so long since I had been surrounded by familial love. Just amazing.

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