Dear Amsterdam: A Love Letter to the City that Almost Broke Me
I don’t like putting blame on others for my shortcomings — much less putting the blame on entire cities. But, Amsterdam, I have many bones to pick with you.
I looked forward to my weekend in Amsterdam with an inflated sense of confidence. My time spent in Barcelona was an unfortunately quick thirty-six hours, and I spent it frantically racing from museum to cathedral to whatever else I sought to explore. But I had done it all and returned safely to Edinburgh in one piece. I imagined that traveling in Amsterdam would come with similar ease. Plus, I planned to have a friend to accompany me — it was the only trip I anticipated having company. In my time leading to my departure, I was imagining myself walking alongside canals and red-lit streets in the presence of a friend, without the stress of being a solitary young woman traveling on her own.
Instead, my friend missed her flight and was unable to make it to your city. And instead of smooth sailing, your public transportation system failed on me (and other tourists and Dutch citizens) and made my expensive three-day transit ticket obsolete (I hope the M17 Tram Line is up and kicking again). I walked along your cobbled pathways with a suitcase in the dark, in a city whose picturesque qualities made it deceptively massive. It is difficult to admire the curious qualities of a romantic city when your hostel is a thirty minute walk away, your internet service (i.e., means of navigation) is becoming unreliable, and you are frantically looking over your shoulder and all other directions to foster some sense of safety.
My first night came to a terrible apex when I left the Van Gogh Museum, where I stayed until closing. Due to the lack of public transportation, I walked a little bit more than a mile to get to the museum, which was a difficult task at 10PM when I needed to return to my hostel. Even a touristy area such as Museumplein was desolate by nighttime, and my walk home came with unwanted catcalling and being followed for a short amount of time. I ran away, and by the time I had caught my breath I was crying at a bus station trying to find the safest way home. My night itself ended with an obscenely expensive bus ticket, a broken SD card, and a temporarily maimed spirit. I slept in the next morning and awoke with limited expectations of my day.
Amsterdam, I understand that any of these minor travel missteps could happen in any city. But it was in your city that the stress of solo travel truly crushed me. Amsterdam, you showed me that I can never be prepared for everything. Research and planning is all done within the means of a limited perspective, and that weakness is an inherent human quality that I cannot overcome no matter how much I try. This weekend taught me the realities of my dreams — that traversing across Europe comes with the reality of how stressful traveling is, how demoralising being alone can be.
But as these things often go, it was after I had gone to my lowest point and that things began to slowly turn around. (Fun Fact: I was crying in front of the I AMSTERDAM sign when a sweet couple asked me to take a photo of them. Then they realised I was crying and but still the photo got taken. Kinda uncomfortable, very memorable).
Little by little, my weekend was redeemed: first, by the quietness and grandeur of the Rijksmuseum, next by a cinnamon waffle enjoyed while taking refuge from rain. I tried making it to the Rembrandt House and Museum before closing but instead allowed myself to take my time, to allow myself to follow wherever my whims would take me. I decided to treat myself kindly and buy a beautiful yellow leather journal to remember this trip — the colour that Van Gogh taught the world to love years after his death. My phone’s navigational functions failed me that night, but with faith, I was able to find my way back.
Miraculously, my night ended in the presence of a new friend — a kind, funny Californian who was staying at my hostel. Even in a country as foreign and faraway as the Netherlands, I had found someone who knew the grime of San Bernardino. Like so many back home, he loved anime and understood the unconquerable city of Los Angeles. He spoke that that is so particular to citizens of my home state. We were able to speak that common language of Californians -- the untranslatable language of numbers and highways particular to those living in my overcrowded home state. He provided me company and conversation while we walked throughout the Red Lamp District. My newfound friend would depart home the next morning, but there is something beautiful about allowing a small friendship to form over the course of a night. While traveling solo is wonderful and I would recommend it to anyone, there is still nothing like laughing with someone at the other end of a table -- even if it is only for a night.
My final day in Amsterdam came with blue skies. It really is a gorgeous city when you’re allowed some sunlight. That day, I saw some incredible things. I found the time to sit down and and simply admire my surroundings (an essential for any trip).
I visited the Rembrandt House Museum. I saw the legendary painter’s eccentric collection of ancient busts, preserved plants and coral, stuffed animals and hanging blowfish. I wondered about the unexplainable weirdness that typically accompanies genius. I stood in Rembrandt’s studio, which which just a simple room that witnessed the creation of paintings of brilliance and innovation, but also paintings of pain and solemnity.
A month prior to my weekend in Amsterdam, I met an old man in Scottish National Gallery in front of Self Portrait at Age Fifty-One, and this man stammered in his amazement of this simple portrait. “Marvellous. The greatest painter. He painted himself —- all the good sides and bad sides and the pain too. He looks at you. He looks at himself. He painted what it was like to be human. It takes bravery to to do that.”
I also had the opportunity to go to the Anne Frank House. I don’t know how to summarise that experience or to describe it in a way that does it justice. It is too tragic of a memory for me to list this experience like it was going to any typical museum of monument. It would not be right. So I will limit myself by saying this: it is humbling and inspiring to memorialise this young, wide-eyed, big-hearted teenage girl. It is important to remember that a diary and pen can change the world, and that it matters to write down your story even in a world that seemed permanently lost in hatred.(Also if you ever go to Amsterdam and go to the Anne Frank House, read the diary before you go. It'd be worth it)
My final evening in Amsterdam was spent on a nighttime canal cruise around the city. It was the most romantic evening of my life —one spent alone but I spent it rapturously falling in love with my life again. I sailed through waters that caught the reflection of twinkling lights, listening to music that seemed like it was written for nights like this. The interior of that glass boat made me feel so warm — I was so comfortable and happy that I began to laugh to myself. It seemed so funny how radically how my experience can change within twelve or so hours.
Amsterdam was my longest weekend away, which worked out in the end. I find that if you are patient enough, if you stay in this place where you are struggling, things will eventually turn around. This is by no means a new or original idea, but I was just viscerally reminded of it. If you keep trying, you’ll find that friends will come in unexpected places when you need friends, and that the long trek from point A to point B will become familiar to you. What once tired you will now be a joyful memory.
There’s this extremely cliched quote that woke study abroad students love using. I see flying around often: “I fall in love with cities the way you fall in love with people.” Maybe I could say the same thing about surviving cities. Maybe forgiveness can be given to a city like to a friend who wronged you but made up for it later. Maybe reconciliation can be made between a city and a young traveler who demands too much.
Anyways, Amsterdam. I’ll be back someday and hopefully I’ll get things right.