This weekend, I went on my very first solo trip abroad. That’s right folks, I went to Amsterdam all by myself. Most of my friends and family were pretty sure I wouldn’t come back alive, but here I am! Still alive and kicking!
I got in early Thursday morning (let me tell you, ensuring I would only have class Monday-Wednesday has worked out gloriously for me) and spent over an hour walking aimlessly around the general area I was told my hostel was in. I literally had to stop and ask for directions FIVE times before I found it. Anyways, I dropped my things and immediately headed out into the city.
Being the history nerd that I am, my first stop was the Anne Frank House. I read The Diary of Anne Frank nearly ten years ago, but I still remember her story well. Being in the house that I had tried to imagine while reading her diary was heavier than I can explain. I learned even more about how complex she became after being forced into hiding. It was certainly a somber way to begin my trip to the Netherlands, but I am glad I went. It is important to study history, so that we learned from mistakes made.
By the time I left the Anne Frank House it was late afternoon and other museums and sites were closing, so I began to wander. Where did I so happen to wander into? The Red Light District. I was simply walking alongside a canal and all of a sudden there are women in their underwear in store front windows. So strange, but it’s so famous that I convinced myself to continue through anyways. From the sex shops to museums to ladies staring you down from the windows, the Red Light District leaves little to the imagination. I’m assuming you, my lovely reader, have probably heard about this neighborhood, and to be quite honest, everything you have heard is most likely true. Packs of men, both young and old, couples pointing and staring in shock, groups of women uncomfortably laughing as they stroll through and, of course, hoards of Asian tourists were all present and accounted for as I meandered the area. Eventually, I had had enough awkwardness of avoiding eye contact with the ladies in the windows, so I continued on my way, found a nice café for dinner and went back to my hostel for the night.
I woke up the next morning ready for Amsterdam, round two. The weather has not been cooperating with me this weekend. Lots and lots of rain. Luckily, I thoroughly enjoy museums and Amsterdam has plenty. The Rembrandt House was my first stop this rainy Friday morning. Rembrandt van Rijn was a Dutch painter and etcher. He is generally considered to be the most important painters and printmakers in Dutch history. The museum is the house where he lived from 1639-1658. The purchase price? Thirteen thousand guilders, which at the time was a huge sum considering the average person was making 300 guilders a year. Rembrandt didn’t have the entire sum up front, so he was allowed to pay it off in installments. Although he had a lot of success as painter and was earning a lot of money, he was unable (or unwilling?) to pay off the mortgage on the house. This was eventually led to his financial downfall. Between 1652-1656, Rembrandt was frantically trying to get the money to pay off his debt, but he was unsuccessful and was forced into bankruptcy. In 1656, Rembrandt’s property was inventoried for the benefit of his creditors, and everything in his house was sold. The house was auctioned in 1658 and sold for two thousand guilders less than he bought it. Rembrandt then moved to a small rented house, where he lived until his death in 1669. Sorry, that was a long history lesson, but I didn’t know any of this until I went to Rembrandt’s house, so I figured I would share. I traveled through the rooms of the house trying to imagine what it must have been like to live in 17th century Amsterdam, watching demonstrations on how artists made their paints and admiring all of the art (both Rembrandt’s and others). It was not uncommon for artists at that time to be both an artist and an art dealer.
After visiting Rembrandt’s, the rain continued and so I moved on to my next indoor activity: the Heineken Factory. With zero brewing experience, Gerard Adriaan Heineken bought a brewery 1864. His son, Henry Heineken took over in 1917. However, it wasn’t until the founder’s grandson, Alfred (or “Freddy”) Heineken took over in 1940 that Heineken gained the global presence it has today. He focused on marketing his product giving Heineken it’s familiar green bottle, “smiling” e’s, and red star. Now this is the second brewery I’ve visited in the past few weeks. Guinness was my first. The Guinness factory was more focused on the art of the lager. Heineken did a lot more with it’s brand and marketing. There was actually a huge room with enormous screens 360 degrees playing commercials like this one and this one.
Of course, the best part about the Heineken Factory was the free beer they give you after the tour. Just prior to this, I met four Americans on study abroad in Madrid who were also visiting Amsterdam for the weekend. I ended up spending the rest of the day with them, drinking way too much (especially considering how early in the day it was) and spending a lot of time searching for Dutch pancakes (which we eventually found, and the search was totally worth it). One of the great things to come from traveling alone is the confidence it gives me to just approach a complete stranger and strike up a conversation. I had a great time with my new friends and I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t have the guts to approach them (plus, they thought it was pretty badass that I traveled to Amsterdam by myself).
My last full day in Amsterdam was beautiful. It was the first time the sun decided to make an appearance all weekend. I decided it was about time I saw the “I amsterdam” sign near the Rijksmuseum. I made my way there to find an ENORMOUS crowd of people outside the museum. I was confused and curious enough to ask someone, “What is going on?” The man replied, “The museum is opening.” Well, duh… “But, why are there all these people just standing here?” His response? “The queen is coming!” THE QUEEN? Shut the front door. Just as I thought this, the crowd erupted in cheers. There she was, Beatrix of the Netherlands. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this was to be her last major public appearance before she abdicates in favor of her son Willem-Alexander.
After my brush with royalty, I made my way to the I amsterdam sign. It was covered with tourists, so I quickly asked someone to take my picture, then I was on my way. I didn’t have much of an agenda, so I literally spent the whole day outside, wandering the streets and canals of Amsterdam, enjoying the sunshine. At some point in the late afternoon on Saturday, I sat down on a bench on a side street somewhere. The thing about traveling alone is I found myself getting lost in thought. You have a lot of time to just think while traveling alone. While I was sitting on this bench, an elderly man stepped out of the building behind me. I really wasn’t paying attention to him until he interrupted my thoughts and asked me, “Are you lost, dear?” I snapped back into reality and, realizing I genuinely had no idea where I was, I responded, “Huh, I suppose I am.” He then asked, “Do you need help getting somewhere?” Again, I thought for a moment and realized I didn’t really need to get anywhere, I didn’t have a destination in mind. So I told him, “No, that’s alright. I’m just wandering.” The old man looked at the ground, smiled, looked back at me and said, “And not all who wander are lost.” I smiled back at him, “Wise words.” To which he quickly said, “If only I could take credit for them.” Then he tipped his hat and went on his way.
I couldn’t help but smile. I was overwhelmed by how incandescently happy I am at this point in my life. I am traveling Europe, meeting new people, and creating irreplaceable memories. Especially after the tragic events in Boston the day before last, I am hyper-aware of the fact that I am incredibly lucky and I don’t want to take a moment for granted.
Now finishing my weekend in Amsterdam, my last day was spent at the Rijksmuseum. I just happened to be there the weekend it reopens after a decade-long closure and a nearly $500 million rebuilding project. Let me tell you, it was worth it. From Vermeer to Van Gogh, Rembrandt to Mondrian, the Dutch have a lot to be proud of. The vast building has been restored to the beauty and elegance that characterised it when it opened in 1885 but redesigned to showcase Holland’s artistic treasures. It was incredible.
The rest of my final day was spent enjoying the 70 degree weather in Amsterdam, sitting outside a café, sipping on a cappuccino, eating Dutch pancakes, and reading. I’ve decided I quite enjoy solo-traveling. It gave me a lot of time to think, reflect and explore the city at my own pace. If you feel confident enough to book that adventure you’ve been thinking of, but have no one to join you, DO IT. It’s an experience worth trying, and I plan to again.