Tag Archives: Museum

Travel Guide: Amsterdam and Haarlem

The impetus for my trip to Europe was to visit my brother during his semester studying in London, but prior to meeting him, I spent time in Leiden and The Hague, Brussels, and Ghent and Bruges. We chose to meet in Amsterdam because KLM has a direct flight from Amsterdam to Singapore so it would be easy on both of us.

It was raining, windy, and unpleasantly cold when we found each other in Amsterdam’s central train station. I was reading a book next to a baby grand piano that invited travelers to sit and play, heard my brother call my name, and looked up. I hadn’t seen him since July and it was so great to reunite, give him a hug, and go off on an adventure in a place new to both of us. As travelers, we both enjoy just walking around and seeing what there is to see. So, after dropping our backpacks at a storage facility in the middle of the city, that’s mostly what we did for the couple days we were there.

Growing up in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York in a city built around a canal and a river, we’re both used to life along the water but Amsterdam was constructed differently from any city we’d been to. It felt like it was designed for people instead of people fitting themselves around the design. Being in Amsterdam made it easy to understand the emphasis on commerce and exploration that made the Netherlands a European imperialist power. Of course, we loved all the bikes and houseboats, too.

As we wandered, we spent a few minutes in the Begijnhof, the former residence of a Catholic sisterhood who took no vows lived like nuns . . .

. . . stepped into De Krijtberg to verify that it was indeed a church (the Jewish stars above the doors left us a little uncertain) . . .

. . . and walked through a lovely flower market. It’s April in Amsterdam, after all!

Before returning to pick up our bags to take them to our Airbnb, we snacked on Dutch waffles (very different from Belgian waffles) at Albert Cuypmarkt. It sells everything, as markets do, and is located in a cool neighborhood. Market visits are my favorite travel activity because of the diversity of people and products. Look through a market and you’ll know what people buy, what they eat, the cost of living, and how people get along with one another.

We were lucky to find Café Gollem Amstelstraat our first afternoon in Amsterdam and made friends with the bartender while enjoying the largest cheese plate we’d ever seen. I loved that the bar had wifi and people were there working on laptops. Reading the chalkboards on the walls, my brother noticed that they sold Westvleteren 12, often voted the best beer in the world (though this may be changing). Oddly enough, we’d talked about that beer earlier in the day and just looked at each other for a moment.

We asked the bartender if the bar indeed had it in stock. They did. We asked if it was actually the best beer in the world. He hesitated. He told us that it’s been called the most perfect beer and that it’s unique, special, and really indescribable. He confirmed that the scarcity and mythology around it only add to the appeal and assured us that we’d enjoy it, but that we should be aware that we were unlikely to immediately experience a “wow” moment.

At 10.2% alcohol, our second drink of the afternoon, and a price tag of €15, we figured we’d split a bottle. Koen, the bartender, poured the beer into two glasses that looked like wine glasses, reserving the last couple swallows to split into two shot glasses. He told us to wait until the beer warmed up a bit and to drink the shot glass pour, where all the yeast settled, slowly, alongside the glass of beer.

The first thing we noticed was the aroma. Koen was right that we wouldn’t be able to describe it, but it was indeed unique and special. As advertised, the taste of the beer was not a “wow, how delicious” moment; it was more like experiencing beer for the first time in its most perfect, pure form as in, “Oh, this is what beer tastes like.” The liquid in the shot glasses tasted and felt completely different; it had more texture and a deeper taste than the rest of the drink. The whole experience was new and interesting and one that my brother and I were glad to share.

Before we left, Koen told us he’d be hanging out at the bar that night if we wanted to stop by again. He taught us the word gezellig, which I had recently come across (though had no idea how to pronounce) in a book on language and emotion. It means feeling pleasant and cozy with friends, which is certainly how we felt leaving the bar and when we returned later that night.

After it got dark, we spent some time in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s infamous red light district. For obvious reasons, photography isn’t allowed there. (Though everything else seems to be, so maybe it’s not that obvious.) The red light district is full of bars, weed cafés, and shops selling all sorts of interesting objects. And women beckoning provocatively behind glass doors. And promoters advertising shows of all kinds. It took me until much later that night to accurately articulate my reaction to what we’d seen. Without knowing it, and as a result of its absence, I realized that I had expected the atmosphere to playful; it was anything but. Human bodies were up for sale and people were shopping and buying. Sex is an industry and one can buy, sell, and commoditize any and every part of it. The whole thing becomes really dark and grim when you realize you’re walking through a flesh market alive and well on city streets.

DSC03795

We got up late the following morning and decided to escape the city for a while. We took a train to Haarlem, just 20 minutes west of Amsterdam. After the busy day and late night were glad to be in a much quieter, sunny little town. We stopped for hot chocolate, the special kind where you choose a real piece of chocolate and stir it into steamed milk, and followed my usual plan without a plan of walking towards the tallest building. We found the town’s central square and toured St. Bavo’s Church . . .

. . . and then spent our time wandering through the cobblestone streets and looking into windows of shops and restaurants. We mostly just enjoyed being away from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam and looking at pretty gardens down little alleys in front of homes and small businesses.

We also enjoyed the architecture outside of the Cathedral of St. Bavo (Bavo was born in Ghent but is the patron saint of Haarlem) . . .

. . . and only stepped inside for a moment to see some very interesting stained glass. Hebrew and other Judaica are very common in Christian buildings if you know where to look, but somehow always surprise me.

DSC03882

Our bartender friend suggested we check out one of his favorite bars in Haarlem, and naturally we did. My tiramisu stout was delicious and my brother had his first sour. Of course, there was cheese to go along with it.

DSC03889

Haarlem also had a bit of an attitude, which made us laugh:

The sun was still out when we walked through Kenaupark along a canal on our way back to the train station late that afternoon. We agreed that Haarlem would be a lovely place to live, both because it’s really nice and because it’s close to a real city.

Back in Amsterdam, desiring to maintain some of the peace and quiet that we had experienced in Haarlem, we followed the canals towards their source in the tributaries off the North Sea. The sky had grown cloudy but I was glad to be on the docks with the boats.

The next morning, we brought our bags to the same storage facility in city center and made our way to the Rembrandt House Museum. I really love seeing how people lived way back in the day. Rembrandt’s life looked quite comfortable and, as my brother pointed out, it’s rare that an artist was so celebrated while still alive.

DSC03934

Amsterdam also has a really cool statue dedicated to Rembrandt in the aptly-named Rembrandtplein, the city’s central square:

DSC03782

Feeling cultured, we decided we’d visit one more museum that day. On our way to the museum district, we walked through a flea market selling clothing, shoes, and cool pieces of art . . .

. . . which led us to a statue of Amsterdam native Baruch Spinoza (the birds were symbolic, but I can’t remember why) . . .

DSC03940

. . . and a memorial to the victims of World War II. . . .

DSC03942
“O that my head were (full of) waters and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people.” – Jeremiah 8:23

Amsterdam has a historic Jewish Quarter but we didn’t spend much time there. We happened across the Portuguese Synagogue one evening and meant to come back, but that’s the day we went to Haarlem instead. Normally, we would have visited the Anne Frank House, but it was unfortunately closed for Passover until the night that I left. Lucky brother went without me.

Our plan for the last afternoon was to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Vondelpark, full of people on the first warm day all week. On arrival, though, we learned that new rules meant tickets were timed and only available online. Unable to get tickets for that day, we opted for the Rijksmuseum just across the park, which houses very famous Dutch art, including several pieces by Rembrandt we’d learned about that morning.

There were street musicians playing in the covered museum courtyard and we stopped to listen. I’m always impressed with just how talented some people are and it reminds me over and over how difficult it is to make it in the arts worlds.

DSC03960

We had a very late lunch after the museum and wandered around a little while longer, enjoying the canals and the sunshine, before I took a train to the airport. There was a lot I enjoyed about just being in Amsterdam because the people of this city have something to say and want to be heard.

DSC03933

As usual, I appreciated the flavor and feel that street art and graffiti lend to a city. It’s a way of getting to know the people of a place and understand a bit about who they are and what matters to them.

In all, we really enjoyed being in Amsterdam. A city built on canals and for bicycles feels different than many places I’ve been. The graceful bridges and buildings that go right up to the water lend a lot of beauty to the city and I think the locals have a right to be concerned with negative impacts of tourism. Our Airbnb away from city center helped us understand what it means to live in Amsterdam and made me like it a lot more than I did in the crowded tourist areas. As usual, I haven’t seen everything yet, which means I’ll have to come back. Amsterdam, thanks for having us!

DSC03909

Travel Guide: Washington, DC

Last week, I spent three days in Washington, DC with the seventh grade students at school. The most difficult part of the trip for me was not knowing any of the students I was chaperoning. It’s hard to manage a group of 60 when I’m constantly trying to describe what I’ve seen or overheard to other colleagues because I don’t know who I’m talking about. For example:

“Three boys with glasses and brown hair are standing in the back of the bus.”
“A tall skinny girl is crying in the hallway.”
“I think two kids were out in the hall after lights out but I don’t know if they go to our school.”

Etc.

But DC itself was fun! The highlight for me was seeing my brother, who is a sophomore (second year, for those not attuned to American school slang) at a university just outside of DC. He joined us for lunch and a trip to the National Archives one afternoon.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How did our 60 students spend three days in DC? We ate a lot and visited a lot of washrooms, but managed to take in a few cultural sites, too.

Washington, DC is about six hours from New York City by bus, so we left first thing Monday morning. Our first stop upon reaching DC was the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which I cannot recommend enough. It opened in September and it’s quite difficult to get tickets – and I completely understand its popularity. The museum is designed so that visitors begin at the bottom, in the “belly of the boat,” as it was explained to us. From there, visitors work their way up through the darkest hours of African American history in the United States, including the slave trade and the aspects of America that were built on the backs of slaves. The exhibits devoted to the civil rights and Black Power movements were fascinating, too. The museum ends in sun-soaked galleries highlighting achievements in sports, the arts, and politics, as well as a look at how discrimination stills plays a huge, ugly role in American history and culture.

The design reminded me a lot of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and the stories run parallel to each other in dark, sad ways. When we “other” the people around us, we lose our collective humanity and we do terrible things to each other. That’s the sorry moral of the story that society has yet to learn.

I truly wish we had time in the museum without students. I could have read every single artifact description, all the names of slave ships etched on the walls, all the names of those sold at auction. Like when visiting Holocaust museums, I felt this pressing need to pay my respects to those who died at the hands of people who didn’t consider them people. I’d love to go back on my own when tickets are easier to get so I can spend more time learning than I was able to on this trip.

That evening, we took a boat cruise on the Potomac and I was completely in my happy place. I love water and boats and it was sunny and the kids, though not the best museum-goers, were excellent DJs.

The next morning started with a visit to the US Capitol, which I don’t remember doing the only other time I was in DC about seven years ago. We had a really interesting tour and learned about the architecture of the building. There’s an awful lot of patriotic symbolism in there! And, no surprise, there were differences in political opinion each step of the way, lately regarding selection and placement of statues, which are gifted by the states but placed by the federal government.

I was responsible for picking up House and Senate passes from our local Congressional representative, which was fun because the Congresswoman’s aide gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the underground connecting hallways of the Capitol when she brought me back to my group. She told me how the whole underground structure was redesigned after 9/11 to allow safe access from the Capitol to other government buildings across the street.

The House wasn’t in session (what do they do, exactly, aside from pass healthcare bills that will ruin all of us and then promptly exempt themselves from regulations?) but the Senate was! After yet another round of metal detectors, locking up all of our belongings, and still another metal detector, we were let into the gallery overlooking the Senate with strict instructions to remain silent. For a few minutes, all we could see were pages fetching water or sitting around and talking to each other. Senators occasionally entered the chamber and walked through it to one of the three or four doors along each wall. Just as we were about to leave, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey began to speak. From where I was sitting, all I could see was the cameraperson filming his speech. Without that speck of a visual, he was just a disembodied voice, though one speaking very passionately about healthcare. The strange thing, at least to me, was that he was speaking to an empty chamber. He addressed the presiding officer who was seated on a dais looking out over the Senate desks. A few minutes in, Markey noted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s entrance to the chamber and gave Schumer the floor. Again, Schumer spoke into a camera in a room empty but for pages, Markey, and the presiding officer. It appears that the senators often watch speeches from the comforts of their offices rather than on the floor. Who knew?! Schumer, too, lambasted the Republican healthcare bill and it was so exciting to hear him. Especially because I know I was not alone among our trip staff in voting for him!

IMG_0605

We lunched in the Sculpture Garden across from the National Archives and that’s where my brother met us. We fed him and he joined us for our exploration of the Archives. As a former student of history, I love old documents. It’s fun to piece stories together and to find accounts that corroborate and contradict each other. I still remember the thrill of finding the source when I was writing my undergrad thesis on the Hitler Youth movement. There are some really amazing memoirs out there by people who were children in Nazi Germany! The National Archives are a lot of fun because they freeze moments in time, moments when key decisions were made that shape the history of this country.

Every school trip to Washington, DC includes visits to the monuments. We started at the Lincoln Memorial . . .

. . . which is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech . . .

DSC00139

. . . and provides a great view of the Washington Monument, which we did not visit because it’s closed.

DSC00144

A lot of the kids were tired after the Lincoln Memorial but about half wanted to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and we gladly obliged. The kids know very little about Vietnam and they’re not alone in that. While most students can talk about World War II starting in elementary school, the vast majority of students I’ve taught know nothing about Vietnam until we bring it up in class. And they have a lot of questions. One of my favorite lessons involves Vietnamese textbooks that explain the Vietnam War in very different words than the (*cough*) big name, biased, overly simplistic, corporate, Texas-influenced US textbooks (*cough cough*) use. Having been to the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam since my last visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I had a different understanding of the pointlessness and devastation of Vietnam. Land was burned, lives were lost, and stories were buried. That’s what shame means, I think. And that’s why the memorial is important. It’s a black expanse of wall that lists names of the fallen, explains nothing, and invites questions for everything. The kids asked those questions and I was glad for the opportunity to answer them.

I was also glad to spend a moment at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which I hadn’t seen before.

DSC00161

The next day, we spent the morning at the Newseum, which was full of flashing headlines about the FBI. As good a time as any to talk about freedom of speech (and the press and religion and assembly and petition)! Now that I’ve lived in Malaysia and Singapore, neither of which have all of those freedoms, I find myself wondering about the merits of such a free society. For instance, freedom of speech in the US led to an acceptance of hate rhetoric, which led to Trump. So I wonder.

Before hitting the road for our drive back to New York, we stopped at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which was a nice bookend to the National Museum of African American History and Culture that started the trip. Martin Luther King, Jr. was my professor’s chosen case study for a required college course on rhetoric and argumentative writing, so I am very familiar with King’s life, writing, speeches, and civil rights partners, including the SCLC, SNCC, and the NAACP. It was really powerful to see his words carved into stone, especially because of their implications for our choices and policies today.

One of my coworkers kept laughing at my penchant for taking pictures with my well-traveled Converse and suggested I try one with my hand instead. So I chose to photograph my hand with the word that seemed the most meaningful, the most important, the most pressing.

DSC00169

At the end of the day, that’s what we’re working for.

Wanderings Roundup

Back in October I was in a pretty dark place and amused myself by wandering around New York and taking photos of whatever made me smile. I’m in a much healthier place now, which means exploring alternative work/life/living options but also becoming increasingly positive about the possibility of staying where I am and continuing to do what I’m doing. The more time I spend in New York, the more I like it. Most days, anyway.

Lately I’ve been taking pictures of things that surprise me, things that don’t instantly come to mind when I think “New York City”. Below are some of my recent favorites. Enjoy!

img_3010
Playground in Stuy Town
img_3014
Museum of Natural History
img_2974
Times Square , which is not surprising but still takes my breath away at night
img_3401
Bridge in Koreatown
img_3015
Church on the Upper East Side
img_3392
Children’s bookstore on the Upper East Side
img_3393
Cemetery in Greenwich Village
img_2985
Homes in Greenwich Village

There’s no question in my mind that New York is an incredible city. It’s unlike any place I’ve ever been and I’ve been a lot of places. I will never be sorry for the time that I’ve spent here, even the times I looked into the East River and wondered what it would take to disappear. New York has made me stronger, braver, more compassionate. I am continually astonished at how hard people work here, how much energy there is for all things at all times. The more people I talk to, the more stories I hear. Everyone is on a quest for something and everyone is sure they’ll find it.

I hope they do.