Thursday, 26 September 2013

Amsterdam. Or, My Last European Adventure For A While.

So my last European jaunt c.2008-2013 is officially done. And it was delightful.

Gem and I started talking about a weekend away months ago, when her UK trip was first mooted and credit to us both for actually booking the fucking thing and not just talking about it as something we should totally do.

I’m not sure how we decided upon Amsterdam but I was happy to go, never having been before, and happy to look past the weed and porn clich├ęs in the hope of experiencing something memorable for all the right kinds of reasons.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a certain odour to Amsterdam that does nothing to diminish the seedy vibe but look past that and there is abundant architectural charm, affordable meals and treasure to be had and healthy dashes of history and culture to make more than amends for a lack of interest in tits and bongs.

Sunrise over Terminal Five
Gem flew to Amsterdam on Friday, I flew out at the arsecrack of dawn on Saturday, having gone to a lecture at Australia House the night before in the dim hope of retrieving favour for the RA’sAustralia exhibition (no favours, but mini lamingtons so not entirely a bust…)

So, Saturday was always going to be a slog, what with a lack of sleep and a 5.40am car pick (I couldn’t bring myself to ride the Piccadilly line at that time of day #firstworldproblemiknow) but it was an easy trip to Amsterdam and a bus into the city before wandering through the Joordan to meet Gems at our accommodation, an airbnb-sourced 18th century canal house with a set of stairs so steep you really should just call it a ladder.

Amsterdam has a bevy of world-class cultural institutions, the newly re-opened Rijksmuseum amongst them, but on Saturday, it was all I could do eat lunch and wander through a flea market. Thankfully Amsterdam’s markets are as impressive as their art galleries and as luck would have it, the monthly market on the north (?) side of the river was on that weekend. This then precipitated a walk through central Amsterdam before a ferry ride in the company off tens of bikes and some rather stylish Dutch girls.

The IJ-Hallen market is the largest in all of the Netherlands, with over 750 stalls sprawling over an otherwise unmemorable plot of industrial land abutting the river. It’s all second-hand and it’s all gloriously cheap. I think collectively we didn’t spend more than 40 euros and for that we walked away with a handbag, two scarves, three pairs of earrings, a pair of shoes, a necklace, a belt and a bag to carry it all in. It was borderline overwhelming – and friends, that is Saying Something.

Just one part of the enormous monthly IJ-Hallen flea market
We decided, raging middle class gals that we are, that we would visit Anne Frank’s House that night, in the hope of avoiding the queues and in lieu of dank nightclubs or noisy bars.

On the way home for a nanna nap in anticipation of dinner, we walked past a tattoo parlour I’d spotted earlier, not for the ink, but for the amazing vintage kimonos hanging from a rack at the door. Gems had sensibly dragged me past in the morning, saying we’d be back later and could look at them then. By the time we had got back I had lost my nerve and was too chicken to ask how much it was, resigning myself to a price tag beyond my even my foolish reckoning. 

So Gem went in to ask. THIRTY-NINE EUROS. I had to get her to tell me twice. And then we spent a good half hour trying on every kimono in the place, to a soundtrack of dull buzzing as the man in the back room had his chest engraved. We both left with kimonos. Because why buy a kimono in Japan when you can buy one from a tattoo parlour in Amsterdam?

Anne Frank's bedroom, with her posters still on the walls.
Image courtesy: Anne Frank House
After a heavy hour of napping in said kimonos, we sought dinner and then joined the line to walk through Anne Frank’s House. Not the most rocking of evenings, indeed it could be described as hugely sobering. But honestly, it was such a profound experience. I don’t remember how old I was when I first read that iconic, important diary, but to walk through the house where she spent two years in hiding, where she wrote every day, where she glued posters of film stars to the wall and generally lived the most fraught existence, is truly humbling. And to actually see her diary, I mean, it’s just overwhelming.

The moveable bookcase concealing the stairs to the hidden apartment.
Image courtesy: Anne Frank House
On Sunday, well rested and fed, we made our way to Nieuwe Pijp, over near the museums, where Gem’s B&B for the rest of her time in the ‘dam was conveniently located. Bags thus dumped, we ambled over to the Stedelijk Museum, recently re-opened and full of all things modern art and design. 

Amsterdam locals refer to the newly re-opened
Stedelijk Museum as the big bathtub...
Prepped on a lunch of champions (hot dogs and diet coke) we had a good couple of hours wandering through here, admiring both the art and the architecture, before a solid, obligatory half hour in the gift shop.

Dinner that night was a great little tapas bar in a buzzy street just around the corner from the B&B before retreating home with ice cream to swan about in our kimonos and generally congratulate ourselves on a good couple of days well spent (figuratively and otherwise…)

Monday involved more treasure hunting, this time at the flea market on Noodermarkt. If I was staying in Europe and more ridiculous than I already am, I probably would have bought myself a fake fur coat or two but as it was I left empty handed but for a garish pair of pink love heart earrings. Gem however scored a leather jacket.

We had a sort of game going throughout all this retailing, where we’d negotiate a top price – “what’s the most I am prepared to pay for this?” – before actually finding out how much it was. Call it a weak attempt at budgeting. This proved hilarious at the IJ-Hallen, where the most expensive thing we bought cost 17 euros, and thrilling when buying 39 euro kimonos that would have easily been £100+ in London but Amsterdam’s relative affordability was a surprising treat.

It wasn’t quite enough to mitigate the distaste at having to pay 15 euros to get into a museum  (London, you’ve spoiled me) but every little helps I suppose...

Both of us were also keen to check out the flower markets, I think having visions of riots of colour, so were hugely disappointed to discover that it’s nothing more than a scrubby garden centre. I mean, who wants to actually grow their own flowers?

DIY flowers at Amsterdam's floating flower market
It was at this stage in the afternoon that I dragged Gem back to this little antique store we’d walked past earlier (and consequently gone into…) as I couldn’t get this:

Out of my mind.

I’m flirting with words like curation and collection now when it comes to my jewellery… problem, as I’m hoping it somehow shifts the idea of my prolific love for accessorising from being a weakness to a carefully considered passion-slash-obsession. But then I’m aware that’s probably delusional bullshit too.

The problem with owning this extraordinary thing, which wasn’t nearly as horrifically expensive as you might think (sadly those diamonds aren’t real…) is that I don’t know where I go from here. But that is truly a first class problem. 

With only an afternoon left before I trudged back to London, we decided to visit the Van Gogh Museum. As sacrilegious as it is, I just couldn’t face the thought of centuries of art and history at the Rijksmuseum and blithely dismissed it as an excuse to return another time.

The Van Gogh Museum was impressive – expensive, crowded, but beautiful, tracing as it does Van Gogh’s artistic career from his earliest studies to his last works. Not surprisingly it made me think about our visit to the asylum in St-Remy where he famously stayed.

By the time they kicked us out when the museum closed at 5pm it was basically time to get my bags and schlep back to the airport and back to London.

One of Van Gogh's palettes
It was such a lovely couple of days, keeping company with fabulous friends while exploring a new city. I really rather like Amsterdam and I’m really looking forward to being that obnoxious person back in Sydney next month reminiscing about that time we went to Amsterdam and….

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