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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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) . . .

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

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“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.

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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.

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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!

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Travel Guide: Brussels

Spring break this year took me to Europe with the excuse of seeing my brother who’s studying in London. After two nights in the Netherlands with days spent in both Leiden and The Hague, I started for Brussels on what should have been an easy journey of just under three hours with a change of trains in Rotterdam. Well then. For reasons that are still unclear to me but likely relate to the train strikes that are not entirely uncommon in Europe, the journey ended up being far more exciting (and only about an hour longer) than I’d expected.

It took about 20 minutes and two stations for the fun to begin. We were stopped for an abnormally long time in Den Haag HS before an announcement prompted grumbles, eye rolls, irritated looks, and a flurry of activity. I can make very little sense of Dutch, but I do understand the universal language of mass transit delays. We got off the cancelled train; I asked directions and took the next train to Rotterdam. This train was due to arrive about two minutes before my originally scheduled train to Brussels and those two minutes were surprisingly enough time to grab my backpack and change platforms. All was well and good on train number three until that train, too, stopped unexpectedly. This time, the announcement came in Dutch, French, and English so I was clued into what was happening by the second announcement. We were in Roosendaal, I found our later, and a conductor told me I had two options: I could take the train about to leave for Antwerp and then go to Brussels from there, or I could wait an hour and take a train directly to Brussels. The Antwerp train, he told me, would be faster. And Antwerp, as I learned from the Dutch lady who told me where we were, had a really pretty train station.

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In Antwerp, I again asked directions and finally got on the train to Brussels. Now that we were in Belgium, all announcements came in Dutch, French, and English and I was pleased that high school French left me able to understand and communicate what I needed to know and do. And after deciding not to take one train and listening again to announcements, I also learned that Bruxelles-Midi and Brussel-Zuid are the same station. Noted.

It took five trains and four hours but finally I was in Brussels! A few friends had told me to be careful there and that they had not felt safe, and I immediately understood why. Brussels is metropolitan and creative, gritty and unapologetic, with a metro system that has seen better days. There is very visible income inequality and poverty and all the social problems that come with it. Homelessness is hidden in Singapore and the small towns of Leiden and The Hague are not the places where that’s generally a problem. Brussels, however, was a different story. Brussels also has very large immigrant populations and significant racial, ethnic, and religious diversity and I know (though it’s upsetting to realize) that’s often intimidating to people. More than anything, Brussels reminded me of Manhattan and I had one of those moments where I missed it.

As in Leiden, I dropped my bag at my Airbnb and headed out. I stopped at the first pancake restaurant I saw to get my bearings. Everyone in Brussels speaks multiple languages, much like in Singapore, and it was a great opportunity to practice my French. With the exception of a bar I’d visit later on, planning for my time in Brussels amounted to zero but the day was warm and sunny and that’s all I needed.

 

Not too long after I started walking along the Mont des Arts, I heard music coming from a group of street performers. Ed Sheeran gets me every time so I sat down on the steps, ate some almonds, and just listened to them play. Brussels and I were going to get along quite well.

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I really enjoyed the street art that I passed throughout the day. I like seeing how the people of a city want their city to look and I am fascinated by the social norms around street art all over the world.

 

Europe is easy to explore because every city, even the most modern ones, have stunning churches that act both as something to do and a landmark on map. Brussels was no exception and I stepped inside the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula when I accidentally found myself in front of it.

 

I followed signs to Brussels Park to see the Royal Palace . . .

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. . . and then more signs to the European Parliament, which was celebrating the life and work of early twentieth-century philosopher Simone Weil. I read an anthology of her work a year ago, so that was cool and unexpected.

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I realized that I’d accidentally skipped a whole section of the city I’d wanted to see, which happens when you lack a plan, map, and cellular data, so I doubled back to visit Notre Dame du Sablon but decided not to go inside. One church was enough for the day.

 

When it started to drizzle, I took a seat on a bench in the park front of Egmont Palace, which is not a palace but a mansion, to figure out a plan . . .

 

. . . and realized that I was right near the Great Synagogue. My dad’s voice in my head led me in that direction and I asked the four Belgian soldiers at the heavy side door whether I was allowed in. You can knock, they told me, but we’ve been knocking and no one’s answering.

 

I took that as a no because I know that the Jewish community of Brussels is almost always on high alert. Instead, I kept walking and came across a World War I memorial that wasn’t on the maps posted around the city.

 

Just beyond the memorial was a pretty view that really captures Brussels for me. The picnicking couple had actually climbed over a fence to get to their spot and they weren’t the only ones. You’ve got to love a city with freethinkers like that.

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The only actual plan I had upon arriving in Brussels was to visit Delirium Café, a Mecca for beer lovers. Walking there took me past Belgian souvenir shops that made my mouth water . . .

 

. . . through the absolutely stunning Grand-Place (or Grote Markt), which is impossible to capture in still imagery and where I took photos for several groups of tourists . . .

 

. . . past the famous Manneken Pis . . .

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. . . and down more than one little alley lined with restaurants and shops and decorated with fancy street lights. But get there I did!

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I wandered through what is essentially an entire complex dedicated to good beverages and then found a seat at one of the many bars. I ordered a beer and some cheese and took out my journal and a book, planning to stay put for a couple hours. When the bartender brought back my change, I was too distracted by where I was and watching all the people to remember that euros, unlike Singapore dollars, come in two-dollar coins instead of notes. I ended up leaving a really big tip but became friends with the bartender as a result. And with a French medical student an hour later who asked me whether the wifi was working (it wasn’t) and to help him understand a word in the English medical textbook he was reading. The student nodded approvingly when the bartender asked what kind of beer I wanted to try next, brought over two bottles for me to choose from based on my requests (local and dark), and waved away my wallet when I asked to pay before getting up to leave yet another hour later.

It was raining hard when I stopped for Mexican food on the street where I was staying. One thing I noticed throughout my travels is how spoiled I’ve been in Singapore and New York where everything – grocery stores, convenience stores, full service restaurants – is open at all hours. Europe closes early and after 9pm, one cannot be picky.

The following morning, though, was bright and sunny. I was heading out to Ghent and Bruges for the day but I’d return to Brussels for the night. Brussels is a city I was happy to explore and would be glad to spend more time.

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Titanium: A Commentary

You shout it out
But I can’t hear a word you say
I’m talking loud not saying much
I’m criticized but all your bullets ricochet
You shoot me down, but I get up

We all know that words hurt. We all know that words can beat us down and tear us apart. We do children an injustice when we teach them,” Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.” We’re lying and we know it.

Communication can be difficult because it requires us to step outside of ourselves and listen to what someone else is saying. We should only reply once we’ve truly heard them, but many of us do not take the time to listen.

I’m bulletproof nothing to lose
Fire away, fire away
Ricochet, you take your aim
Fire away, fire away
You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium
You shoot me down but I won’t fall
I am titanium, I am titanium, I am titanium, I am titanium

We are often the target of words that are not meant for us and have nothing to do with us. Words often say more about someone else than they do about us. These are the words that should not hurt, but we know that they do. We have a tendency to fixate on criticism, angry tones, words that have caused us pain. We remember them.

But we also bask in words of comfort. We save messages, notes, and letters that are meaningful to us and cause a smile, even (and perhaps especially) years later. We replay these words over and over in our minds, memorizing the most important things our loved ones have said. They give us courage when we lose our way.

If you’re made of titanium, can you feel those things?

Cut me down
But it’s you who has further to fall
Ghost town, haunted love
Raise your voice, sticks and stones may break my bones
I’m talking loud not saying much

Silence can be as deafening as painful words.(And there are indeed things we should not hear, things we should not be forced to listen to.) We fill silence by looking for things to do, things to say. We block others out when we turn their words to noise, when we cease to give them meaning.

Sometimes, we should also listen to silence. It has layers and textures. Sometimes it crackles. Sometimes it’s cruelly cold. But other times, it’s safe and warm. What does the silence between our words say to us? What does it say about us?

I’m bulletproof nothing to lose
Fire away, fire away
Ricochet, you take your aim
Fire away, fire away
You shoot me down but I won’t fall
I am titanium
You shoot me down but I won’t fall
I am titanium, I am titanium

I am not bulletproof. I have much to lose. If you shoot me, I’ll fall. I will hurt, I will break, I will mourn. I am human, only human.

I will fall but I will get up again. I’ll get up again because I have let myself feel, I have listened, and I have learned. I let you in knowing you might hurt me or that I might hurt you. I let you in knowing I might love you or you might love me.

Stone-hard, machine gun
Firing at the ones who run
Stone-hard, thus bulletproof glass

I no longer wrap myself in armour. I’d rather know and love than never know. Any authentic, meaningful connection with others requires vulnerability; we need to be and to feel.

You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium
You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium
You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium
You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium
I am titanium

I might fall. I might be wounded. I might miss how we used to laugh or talk or spend time together.

But if I fall, I’ll stand up again. Because that’s living. It’s a journey through a landscape of hills, valleys, and mountains. We pass through wild forests and neat gardens. Sometimes we know what lies around the corner and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we find ourselves lost or confused. We lose our way.

Armour can be tempting when we’re afraid but if we are unwilling to shed the armour, who are we, really? There’s life and there’s living. We might have a life protecting ourselves, but the adventure is in living.