Ian and I have just popped over to Holland from Malaysia to attend our son, Sam’s, graduation ceremony from University College Utrecht. Even as I write that sentence I realise how crazy it must seem to those who have never lived abroad. We ‘popped’ 7,000 miles for a few days for a two hour event. Indeed we did and crazier still was the fact that Ian bumped into another proud dad who was popping to the ‘do’ for his daughter’s graduation from UCU and who had flown further than us, all the way from Brunei.
Our British son, whose passport says he was born in the United Arab Emirates, has been at uni in the Netherlands and he doesn’t speak Dutch. It’s an English-medium college. The keynote speaker that day was Dutch but actually worked as a professor of primatology in Atlanta, Georgia. The graduand speech was given by an articulate Italian. This quirkiness has become our normal and during the three days Ian and I were able to spend with Sam quirk became the visit’s theme.
Finding ourselves in the Netherlands, the country where we’d lived for the decade prior to Malaysia, we decided to spend a few extra days in Amsterdam in an hotel rather than head back to the city we’d called home, The Hague. In all the years we’d lived here we’d never spent a night in an hotel in the capital city. You don’t, do you, not when it’s only 45 minutes or so away from home. We’d visited plenty of times though. Looking back it seems that every day trip had followed the same route: from Central station to take boatride on the canals, a walk along the waterside streets to the Annefrankhuis, into the quaint boutiquey shops of the Negenstraatjes (nine streets), breathing in the sweet scent of marijuana that drifted up from basement cafés and to the Leidsepleijn or the Rijksmuseum before a wander back through the red-light district to the station. It always felt that bit too busy, however pretty the canals, however delightful the baskets of petunias that decorated the bridges and however fascinating it was to see just how many different things could be carried on a bicycle. Each time it had been the same trek with a different set of visitors, a different selection of stag parties had taken place outside a different selection of bars, of course, but the same.
This time, we fancied staying in an hotel that was in a part of town we didn’t know and we’d always wanted to be able to breakfast beside a canal, having watched many people doing just that when we’d taken those canal trips. I picked the Wyndham Apollo on Apollolaan in the area they call the Oud-Zuid or old south. It was just 16 minutes by tram from Central station. 16 minutes to a different world. This time we could just soak up the atmosphere and wander about, doing things that don’t appear in Amsterdam’s top ten.
Sam, having been a student in the nearby city of Utrecht, knew the place well and made a few suggestions. And so after just the breakfast I’d imagined in a spot that overlooked a green willow-fringed convergence of five canals, we took that short tram ride back to Central station and then the free one-minute ferry to the Eye filmhouse. This white, bright, modern building is shaped like a seagull in flight and has several cinemas. It’s arty and light and has a fabulous sunny view back towards the tourist-crammed city. We indulged in an afternoon showing of Shirley, the new film based on the stories that might have been behind 13 Edward Hopper paintings before joining the throng on the steps outside the bar to gaze at the peaceful waterscape.
Later, we sliced a half derelict half bucolic landscape to eat in a converted bank. Sam chose this chef-selected five course dinner at kitsch eaterie Cafe Modern for his ‘graduation meal’ and despite feeling as though I was eating in a larger version of my granny’s kitchen, on a formica chair at a formica table in a room painted in that shiny pale green that epitomises the era.The venue is so new in its thinking that during the day it is run by one set of people and has a different name, but at 7 pm it turns into Cafe Modern. Visiting the loo here is a must – you can go and gaze at a wall of empty safes left open in the basement vault. It’s very cool indeed.
I could have spent all day just people-watching on that free ferry that runs back and forth between Amsterdam Noord, where old warehouses and labs become arty venues and rentable spaces for creatives, and the city centre we expect from the travel brochures. I wished I’d been a photographer, I could have held an entire exhibition on the quirky folk who took that ride. A skinny man with white hair, dressed all in much-washed black waited beside an ageless woman dressed in a vintage powder-blue two piece suit, complete with bike to match. Her fifties hair and amber wing spectacles completed the effect to perfection. Old and young, boho and chic, cretive and boozie, the world was on that ferry boat. At 10.30 pm, we docked back in realityland with a bump to the strains of a busking saxophonist and the sight of a paunchy, pale, shaven-headed ‘stag’ wearing a frilly white wedding dress. Our sunny and surreal afternoon that made me wish I’d spent more time in Amsterdam.
And today, more sunshine, more strolls, a wander to the Tuschinski cinema, where the art deco interior is still pristine and we felt as if we’d accidentally taken a midnight taxi back to the 20’s and were in a time warp.
In Holland, when the sun appears, cafés ooze onto the pavements and into the roads, filling every space with tables and chairs and people eating, drinking, laughing, relaxing. The canals too were packed with open-topped ‘rope boats’ where people lounged and smiled and drank beer straight from the bottles, toasting their faces in the warmth.
We found Sarphatipark beside a cool indie cinema, the Rialto, healthy café Sla and the quirky coffeebar, Scandinavian Embassy, apparently this year’s Esquire top coffee place, so determined to produce the perfect drink that our waiter took four attempts to ensure Ian’s cappuccino was sublime. Here, the candles on the tables were just like in Norway and it smelled so woody that we wondered if they backed onto a secret sawmill.
It’s nuts isn’t it that we had to leave and come back here in order to start to get beneath the skin of this wonderful city? Last night, we enjoyed a last sundowner beside the knot of canals that edge our hotel, and felt we had found peace at last in this wonderful city.
In an hour or so, it’s back to Schiphol airport. Ian heads one way to KL and I head the other, to London. Such is the quirkiness of our lives.