Hannah’s grand trip to Amsterdam in 1969:
My grandmother would have never imagined that the two year old she babysat in 1969 would grow up and become a Dutch citizen. Long before Hannah visited Amsterdam as a tourist with her daughter and me her grand-daughter in tow, her family had been linked to the Netherlands. Born in Saskatchewan, she grew up as descent of a branch of the Mennonite faith. My grandmother’s ancestry included Dutch names such as Harms and de Vries. Her parents, my great grandparents, left the Mennonite fold on the Canadian plains, striking out for the United States, where they raised five children, my grandmother being the eldest. The extended family was huge and my great grandmother’s generation spoke a mix of English and what they called Low Dutch. When she came to the Netherlands in 1969, her only trip to the Netherlands, my grandmother looked, like all tourists, for similarities between the Dutch and herself and also for a “home” feeling.
I discovered in my grandmother’s bookcase a set of red bound photo albums with gold lettering stating “Scrap Book.” I had never seen them as a child. There was one for Amsterdam and one for the United Kingdom. During the time that my parents and I lived for a while in the United Kingdom, my grandmother came to visit us. The second part of her trip across the globe was to treat her daughter and her granddaughter to a journey to Amsterdam, a sort of family Mecca. The mystery of the forgotten scrap books can be explained in a number of ways. Firstly the loss of connections between direct family members when I was in my early teens. Secondly, the neglect to set the photographs and letters in a place of honour; they are interesting but not spectacular. My grandmother finished high school as an adult, and passed her GED in her 40s. When the five page description of the trip to Amsterdam was written down in her steady but folksy hand, she hadn’t yet returned to finish her schooling. However, she felt compelled to write down many things because for her, the occasion was about family and about heritage. There are two copies of the trip, a first rough draft in red ink and a cleaner version. It is obvious that in the red draft version she started to relate information that she quickly abandoned as uninteresting. I never spoke with her about the two scrap books because when I found them she had already descended into Alzheimer’s disease. Tragically I had been absent from her life for seventeen years, and now I am thankful that she left this small document of our time together. My interjections are in italic.
October 26, 1969 Five Days in Amsterdam
“Starting out for Holland (we lived near Wales) with L. and Persephone (2 ½) and myself with only two changes of trains. L. didn’t like the Midlands of England and I really didn’t blame her as the scenery wasn’t very interesting and Manchester was of industry and rather Blah. (Here you can hear the anticipation of the wonders of Amsterdam.)
The airport was quite a ways out of the area so we took a cab and saw some residential areas that were similar to areas here in Amsterdam. (Interesting pulling of time around when she might have considered comparing Amsterdam seen secondly to the residential areas of Manchester seen first on her way to Holland. When she’s writing this part she’s already in Amsterdam where there is an implication that she feels she’s known Amsterdam longer and relates to it without having previously been there.) One passenger waiting with us was a delightful old lady (going to Holland) with grey hair in a knot and large men’s type of high top shoes, heavy sweater, woollen skirt and a very sweet face full of gentleness and humour. P. and she were flirting with each other from across the benches. Oh how I wish I could have talked with her!
At the gate to the Irish Airlines plane, everyone gathered as usual and we were at the back of everyone as L., P. and me plus two tote bags made us slower. Soon the stewardess came and told us to go first, much to the dismay of all the business men going on that plane which consisted of ¾ of the passengers.
We were treated royally after leaving the plane and with another couple with a child, we rode a “golf cart” to customs. What a wonderful way to come into a country! Saving us that three block long walk! (She definitely had a sense of humour.) Next we were taken to a desk where a computer lined us up with a room in the Swiss Hotel – ½ block from the Palace in Old Amsterdam. (I like the way she’s keen to mention being well received, as our ancestors left Holland for Prussia as a result of religious persecution and here she’s back staying near the palace.) No bathroom for 2 nights (ye old Europe). The bathroom (toilet only) was down the hall, to the left and then a right and the last door on the left. If we wanted a bath, a maid took us to the room for bathing giving us soap and towels. Thank goodness for the basin and water in our room!
You wouldn’t believe the mattress on my bed in that first room! It was in three sections with the middle one slightly higher than the other two. Imagine sleeping on something like that. I found the only way to be comfortable was on my stomach and letting my bust hang down between the sections as they parted, without my help! Except being very uncomfortable, it was quite a challenge and very funny!
At the Rijksmuseum they were showing Masterpieces by Rembrandt for the “Exhibition Rembrandt 1669 – 1969.” Very interesting and would have loved to been there longer but after one and a half hours P was restless and I was tired because of a cold I’d caught so the two of us came back to the hotel while L. could stay and enjoy the paintings. Taxis are inexpensive, the hotel was quite a ways from the museum and the cost was 3 guilders which is about 75 cents in American money. (Quite a turnaround from today when taxis in Amsterdam are quite expensive.)
About this time P. needed a little extra P.A. as so much sight-seeing gets to be old stuff to a little one, so L. and P. napped and I decided to take a canal ride. As we went under the bridges in the sight-seeing boat, it was a tight squeeze around some corners and the paint scraped off the boat. As there are fences at the corner edges, occasionally, especially Saturday night cars go a little too far and end up in the canal and have to be hauled out for 50 guilders an hour (which is about 4.50 our money) which is considerable, as a girl working in a department store makes about 3 guilders an hour.
I’m in the backpack on my mother’s back.
And after a small description of taking me to the zoo…..
I wanted to get a stroller but afterwards I realized that L. is right, there is no room on the streets for a stroller! Even people on bikes walk them except for the main thoroughfare. (She didn’t know about bike regulations, and mainly the Dutch cart their children around on bikes.) Early Sunday morning (a beautiful first day), I went for a walk (L. and P. still at hotel). The streets were bare of people, cars and only street cleaners sweeping by brooms with long strands of brush. They were singing and laughing going down the sidewalk and street where as far as I could see, it hadn’t been cleaned since the Sunday before. It was lovely at that time of the morning and as I was going back to the hotel for breakfast, coming up to the back of the Palace there were two uniformed policemen walking casually in front of me turned the corner as I had to do and as they came to a door halfway down the walk, it opened and out stepped Princess Beatrix’s husband and without missing a step. The policemen parted and he stepped between them and continued on to the corner joking and laughing and I went on to the hotel. What a day it had been so far!
To this day I haven’t been on a sight-seeing boat tour of Amsterdam. I hear the best time to go is in the winter when the trees are bare. When I arrived in the Netherlands, I hadn’t the luxury to spend money on a canal boat tour, however I was sleeping on a similar set of cushions on a fellow Conservatory student’s floor. Neither had I had the opportunity to see Prins Claus step out of a doorway. When I moved to Utrecht from Paris, I arrived by train with one suitcase. In those early days, I was mainly occupied with finding a room to rent and keeping warm – the climate was much colder and damp than Paris. Far from my glorious return to a native land, I was dazed and confused not understanding any Dutch and I had to learn it rather quickly; it was a far cry from tourism. The references to the canal boar tour impressing the tourists with facts about cars dropping into canals and the cost of living are typical visitor entertainment. Within the first few months of living in Utrecht I managed to drop my bicycle keys one night into the pond in front the theatre while trying to unlock my bike with frozen fingers. I had to go to the ticket window the next day and ask if they could fish them out. The guy smiled and said of course, and then went outside with me and lowered a magnet into the pond to retrieve them. Par for the course.
After breakfast (on Sunday) we took a long walk past a Lutheran Church I had passed before – it was closed and locked as before. We decided to go to a Catholic Church where “A Mighty Fortress is out God” which we recognized but couldn’t understand. The priest read the gospel with such feeling, it sounded like a Protestant Church here (meaning the states, I’m guessing). Also the church had such warmth! Went on to the English Congregational Church, lacking because services were over – we were allowed to view it but it was very plain. Our greatest treat was as we were coming back to the hotel, we found a Greek Orthodox Church where the doorway was about 10 feet across with stores on either side. As we went through the doors we came into a very beautiful church. Down the centre were raised pews on wooden floors presumable because the winter cold. We got there as a service was starting and what a great and beautiful and warm and reverend Christian feeling there was in that building! Just to hear the services even if we couldn’t understand the language, the understanding came with the knowledge that these people loved their God and church!
We went to a museum with a secret Catholic Church in the attic – the house was built in 1661 and by 1888 it wasn’t used anymore so friends bought it and preserved it as a museum. The stairs were very steep with no hand rail – but a rope to hang on to when going up or down the very steep slightly winding stairs. The rope practically stays straight when in use so you can realize how steep they are. A pretty girl guide told us about the toilet off the kitchen – in which the door had to be open to use as no one could sit on it and close the door. It was a tiny closet with two windows high one above the door and the other towards the outside of the kitchen.”
Visiting churches was a vital part to the trip to Amsterdam. Of course, architecturally churches are monuments erected perhaps by a hand of genius, but nowadays they aren’t always on the trendy tourist agenda. Unlike France, churches in the Netherlands are normally locked when not in use and, yes, the Dutch Protestant ones can be very plain. The reformation took care of the décor budget. That we went to a Greek Orthodox Service was remarkable, as well as the two Catholic edifices. I went to the Catholic Church in the Attic and walked around trying to figure out how my grandmother took it all in. The un-American narrowness, cramped and dark, the beauty of the wood work, the glory of the crookedness of the joints and lopsided walls. To me now, this is home, these old buildings with all their drawbacks, but to her it was a past and a complete confirmation of the march of progress towards a better life.