There was a reason I had put Amsterdam near the end of my manic Europe tour.
Whichever mishaps would no doubt befall us under the irrevocable logic of Murphy’s Law, whatever stress I would surely have accumulated after crisscrossing Europe in a succession of trains and buses – sixty-six of them altogether, we counted – and however much whining to the power of four I would have been at the receiving end of, the one thing that without doubt would cure me of all these ills, so I told myself, would be a visit at one of the numerous Amsterdam coffeeshops.
The mere thought of the scents wafting out onto the street from within and the calm and serenity that would engulf me as soon as I had settled in a comfortable chair and started ingesting the thing that people ingest in Amsterdam coffeshops – that thought was enough to get me through the moment of panic when I thought I’d forgotten a suitcase in New York; the night I spent in a shabby-and-not-chic-at-all apartment in Paris holding one of my kids’ hair back while they puked their guts out; the endless waiting for delayed trains on drafty train platforms; and the time I found myself covered in pigeon poop without a tissue to spare.
Once you are in Amsterdam, the need of the coffeeshop, if anything, becomes even stronger. Because the moment you arrive you will run for your life. So that after just a few hours of sightseeing you will feel like a hare being run down by a pack of vicious terriers.
The culprit? Amsterdam’s bike culture. Coincidentally, the New York Times reported on this phenomenon just as we were there. Amsterdam, we learned, has more bikes than people, resulting in what must be half of Amsterdam’s population out on their wheels at any given time, while all the unwitting tourists, out on foot, basically have no chance. Whatever comes along on a bike path – including, to my horror, motor scooters going at up to 50 km an hour – has the right of way, while everything else has to develop a method of jumping out of the way at the last second, sort of like the Knight Bus carrying wizards from Diagon Alley to the Ministry of Magic.
Our host, my nephew, seemed to have a sixth sense of how to weave in and out of this traffic. Lifelong training on the streets of Amsterdam will do that to you, I’m sure. Being something like two meters tall, he also didn’t have to worry so much about not being seen. He stood out of traffic like a beacon. But me, leading a pack of kids raised outside of Europe and therefore already behind on the most basic lessons on how to simply cross a street, was a complete basket case. The bikers, always in a rush to get to where they’re going because of the ever-present threat of imminent rain, will happily extend you the courtesy of ringing their bells so as to inform you of their presence, but the thing they will not do is actually brake for you. The same goes for the myriad streetcars crisscrossing the city center. Inevitably, you will dutifully glance left and right before placing a tentative foot onto the street you’re trying to cross, having waited obediently for the green pedestrian light, but you will fail to consider that you’ll also have to cross a bike path as well as some train tracks, and all of a sudden you will have several vehicles bearing down on your from three different directions blaring at you with an indignant shriek.
The only way out of this frenzy is to take to the relative safety of the one place bicycles can’t go – the canals. Amsterdam’s inner city is laid out around a web of canals, or grachten (my South African readers will know how to pronounce that word, and everyone else can approximate it by clearing their throat once), and taking a 1-2 hour canal tour, like the one offered by BlueBoat Company (€15 per adult), is an excellent way to see a lot of Amsterdam and learn a little bit of its history in the process.
More history, together with tons of art, can be ingested at the Rijksmuseum, if you’re prepared to stand in the rain for about half an hour while waiting in line. It’s a nice museum, completely renovated over the course of the last ten years (!) and just completed in time for our visit. The highlight of Rembrandt’s Night Watch alone, in addition to a couple of Vermeers, is worth the entrance fee. You’ll even get the opportunity to take a seat right in front of it and study a laminated guide to the painting provided in several languages, thereby totally trumping the bone-crushing experience of catching a glimpse of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It’s possible to purchase tickets online ahead of time, but it won’t get you in any faster.
The museum I wouldn’t skip, when in Amsterdam, is the Anne Frank House. It’s easily manageable for any age, except perhaps if you can’t climb stairs, and its message to anyone is universal and powerful. Most of my kids had already read the diary and could draw on their memories of it to complement what they saw in this actual house, or rather secret annex, where Anne Frank hid with her family for three years during World War II. And if you hadn’t read the book yet, you will feel compelled to do it afterwards. It’s a story of such sadness but also such a testament to the endurance of the human spirit. My kids’ favorite part was the series of movies at the end, each one of them about some controversial topic such as whether head scarves should be banned or not, where you could voice your opinion at the touch of a button and then see what the prevailing opinion was. We could hardly tear them away from it.
Being the good mother that I am, I didn’t. Although, frankly, I probably could have stripped naked and done a hula dance without my boys taking any note. They had their eyes glued to a lot of almost-nakedness in other places, displayed prominently under the forgiving glare of, well, the red lights. It was a veritable feast for the eyes, if only to be able to boast of it afterwards to all their friends back home.
We also gazed at an entire assortment of magic mushrooms in a shop window, all of them in different vials with elaborate descriptions as to what kind of high they each promised, where it might take you, and how long it might last. Not being the kind of family that easily tries out new things, however, we sought and found our high in more quotidian pleasures: The sprinkling of Hagelschlag, an essential Dutch breakfast supplement much like giant chocolate sprinkles, onto our oven-fresh buttered rolls every morning. Heavenly. We smuggled some past customs to bring home with us. (Hagelschlag. Not magic mushrooms. Just to be clear. In case the NSA is listening in on this conversation. Not that the NSA probably cares much about magic mushrooms. Or chocolate sprinkles. But I’m sure they’ll be storing it somewhere just in case. The email, I mean. Or perhaps they’re also storing Hagelschlag and magic mushrooms. I wouldn’t put it past them.)
I did sip some actual coffee at a Starbucks I spotted, but judging by the prices it might as well have been coffee of an entirely different nature.
My true Amsterdam coffeeshop reward will have to wait for another day.
If I wait long enough, I may just find one at any American street corner.
Stay tuned for more Europe with kids blog posts. Also see: