Wednesday, April 10, 2013


The ride out of Waterloo was serene, rolling green fields smattered with flowers flew by; old style windmills stood side by side with the new. The long, lean, lithe turbines stood as a distinct tribute to man’s evolving and growing scientific prowess. I find them beautiful and comforting in their promise for the future. We stopped off in Antwerp on our way to Amsterdam, a city little known to me with a mythical history I found fascinating.

Antwerp began around 970 as a border town of the German empire, today it is one of Belgium’s commercial centers. Located on the River Scheldt, which connects to the North Sea, Antwerp Port is one of the world’s largest, boasting busy cargo shipping and oil refineries. Diamond trading is one of the city’s most affluent businesses. Cruise ships make frequent stops in the city, which also offers a variety of sight seeing boat trips.

In the center of Grote Markt is the Brabo Statue made by sculptor Jef Lambeaux in 1877. A depiction of a naked well-built man, captured in the act of running, holding a large, severed hand in his, the work portrays the leading myth of the city’s name.

The most prevalent legend has it that a giant named Druoon Antigoon, who exacted severe tolls from passing ships, once controlled the River Scheldt. Silvius Brabo, a Roman soldier defeated the giant, cutting off his hand, and throwing it into the river, creating the name hantwerpen, or hand throwing.

A second myth contends that the giant, though indeed slain by Brabo, would demand severed hands for his toll, hence deriving the name hantwerpen. However American Historian John Lothrop Motley (1814-1877) contended that the name evolves from an’t werf, on the wharf, for the city’s location. Regardless of the origin, the hand is the official symbol of Antwerp and is found everywhere, in numerous forms, including chocolate.

Surrounding the sculpture that gives Antwerp its name are open-air cafes, City Hall and guildhouses. Most of the guildhouses where built in the late 1500s and are built in wood but use stone to imitate beams and pillars. This particular group of guildhouses is most notable for their variety; each fa├žade demonstrates a different height and rhythm and featuring glass and windows.

While in Antwerp, we paid a visit to the National Maritime Museum. The building itself was its most intriguing feature, looking like a castle out of a fairy tale.

The building is known as Het Steen, the Stone in Dutch, for it was one of the first buildings in the area to be built from stone. Construction took place around 1200 as fortification for the alluvial mound. During the reign of Charles V, during the early 1500s, the building expanded to include the chapel over the entrance. For almost three hundred years, mid 1500s to early 1800s, the building served as a prison. During the late 1800s more renovation took place, adding a neo-gothic style wing. Since 1952, Het Steen has been the home of the National Maritime Museum.

Het Steen is the only remaining structure of the city’s once vast fortifications. Located on the River Scheldt, the Bonaparte Dock, one of the oldest sections of the Antwerp port, is a ten-minute walk from the museum.

The material on display was…well…boring. Ship models, paintings of ships, navigation devices, lighthouses and all types of sailing paraphernalia filled floor after floor. Perhaps for people who did not live on the ocean surrounded by maritime history, which as Rhode Islanders we did, its presentations would spark more interest.

We spent too much time at this lackluster location, so it wasn’t all that surprising that a group of kids wandered off and could not be found when the leaders decided to gather earlier than advised. It was surprising to find that one of them was my son. My stomach painfully twisted into knots but it was not long before the group came into view. They had gone adventuring, impatient with the bland museum offerings and led by a young man, as white suburban as they come, who wanted to experience life on the edge.

Waiting for them was the line of teachers looking like security guards on a lock down, with the rest of the group lined up behind. My son’s expression turned sheepish as he approached, then turned down right chagrined as they received their stern talking to.

He came to me, an apology quick on his lips.

“You scared me,” I said, hugging him. I felt he had received all the chastising he deserved.

In the Grote Markt, we were set loose to shop and have lunch. The small square thrummed with activity; in the center pristine white tents cover fresh produce and flowers sellers, the fecund and vibrant aromas enticed the olfactory senses while the vivid colors captured the eye. Mom bought a couple of peaches that turned out to be juicy and flavorful (in this heat, on the road, if you couldn’t eat it quick, you couldn’t get it). In two different corners of the square, extravagantly costumed young people posed as living statues while our own young people tried taunting them into moving or speaking.

Back on the bus, we set off for Amsterdam, specifically the museum district. In one direction lay the Rijksmuseum, to the other, the Van Gogh Museum. Between them was a walking mall boasting a large fountain and pool as well as freestanding vendor stalls. Which museum to visit was an easy choice for me.

I first discovered Van Gogh shortly after college; I don’t remember how or where, it doesn’t really matter. The intense colors imprison me, the unfathomable depth drags me in and the indistinct shapes allow me to add my own perspective to the subject. I am empathetic with his tendency to the unconventional.

Like many, Van Gogh’s work is my favorite and his museum was a comprehensively pleasurable and satisfying experience. When I stood inches away from the Sunflowers, I could feel the tingle of a real thrill burst through me. His hands had created this, touched this. His work touched me as it always had, as I knew it would. In some pieces, I felt his madness and especially his despair in my heart and soul. In all I saw and felt his genius. How could they not recognize it in his own time?

From the museum district, we headed for our hotel, our final home for the last two nights of our trip. Once more the tension built palpably in the tight confines of the bus, but our expectations were kept undefined as we left the city area behind and made our way to the countryside. As meadows and farmland grew more and more and more prevalent, we had no idea what to expect.

The Hotel de Rijper Elanden is about a half hour's ride out of Amsterdam's city center. The rooms were spacious and well furnished. The hotel was large and sprawling. They had a massive dining room...reminiscent of the Great Rooms of historic eras...and offered buffet style dining, though by no means was it all you can eat and as a slow eater among teenagers, much was gone before I had had my fill.

Here we finally had some English television stations to choose from but again we had no air conditioning It wasn't an overly bug-ridden area so we kept the single, small window open. There wasn't much of a breeze but what there was brought in the pungent fecund odor of the farm animals that stood all around the hotel, animals sweltering in the continuing heat wave.

Our favorite part of these hotel accommodations was the shower. Unlike other showers encountered on this magnificent, maniacal journey, the problem wasn't with the configuration of the door; here there wasn't any. That's right, no door, no enclosure of any kind. The bathroom was large and completely tiled. In one corner was the sink and toilet, in the other the shower and a drain in the floor. The shower head was mobile and could be used as a hand-held which proved quite interesting if it was held at the wrong angle. I found it ironically amusing that a bath-mat was provided. Where in this all-in-one bathroom and shower would it belong?

Though the hotel could not boast a pool, it did have a splendid moat replete with fountains, one that encircled the hotel and offered paddle-boats. Watching a group of dear girls enjoy their time on such a boat, enjoy with unencumbered abandon, was one of those 'moments' I will always treasure.

There are times when receiving something greatly desired is almost like a tease, a footnote forever reminding one of what could have been, So it was with our guide for our last day.

Ms. L was a young American attending college in Amsterdam. She was bright, personable, witty, energetic, and attractive, everything one could dream about in a tour guide. We had her for one day. Oh, the irony abounds.

As we headed for our first destination of the day, L tried to tell us about the country we were in. Unfortunately this was our grump, suddenly garrulous bus driver's homeland. He obviously--well, in his mind anyway--knew more than L did and continually took the PA away from her to grunt out all of his knowledge. I give him a great deal of credit for speaking more than one language; it's certainly more than I am capable of, but we couldn't understand him. And, because of him, we did get to listen to L.

The day started early as there was a lot still to do and see. Our first stop proved to be another emotionally charged, forever to be remembered moment.

The Anne Frank house looks much like I had always pictured it, ore remembered the pictures from school. I don't remember how many times I had read her diary during my school years; it was a more than a few.

The house and many of its contents have been pristinely preserved and the presentation of information is easily accessed, education and poignant.

In her own words, Anne Frank wanted nothing more than to be a writer, to enlighten and entertain with her words. In this, I completely identify; how well I understand and recognize the need and desire. Yet, being among the startling reality described in the stark imagery of her words, I wondered if perhaps, in comparison, the events of her life make my own tribulations--as dark as they are--truly trivial.

It was a solemn place, one of reverence, much like Normandy, even the most giggly of girls was subdued by the ambiance of our surroundings. My mother, herself a young girl when Anne was living under these oppressive conditions, empathized especially. A siren, the distinctly European siren, went off and for a sliver of time, she felt a wave of panic, one not unlike what Anne herself must have felt at the raucous, threatening sound.

I would be remiss were I not to mention lunch that day. As been noted, I was drastically underwhelmed by the food throughout the trip. But not that day; not that meal. For lunch and free time we traveled to the village of Volendam. The pretty seaside area boasted a large marina where many an impressive yacht lay berthed to its pilings. Along the shore are gift shops and restaurants, fairly reminiscent of my own splendid Newport, Rhode Island. L had been given the chance to tell us about a local delicacy, krokets and Vlaamse frits and we were determined to try both.

Among the plethora of cafes and bistros lining the narrow, partially cobbled main thoroughfare, we found one with small tables outside under a brightly stripped awning that offered both dishes, together in fact, as well as a menu in English.

The food was a delight; the hard crunch of the breaded and deep fried outer portion of the kroket, which legend holds was a favorite of Louis XIV, coupled with the uniquely flavored meat ragout filling was a burst of magnificent flavors and textures in the mouth. The Vlaamse frits (yes, French fries to you and I) were like nothing I've ever tasted. Much of historical data indicates that these potatoes, by whatever name you may call them, originated in Belgium, where, some few hundred of years ago, some one decided to slice up potatoes and deep fry the slivers. But what makes the Amsterdam version so special (worthy of mention in Pulp Fiction) is the process that gives them their unique taste and texture. Deep friend at a low temperature they are then frozen. When ordered, they are once more deep friend and served with mayonnaise (do not scoff until you've tried it). The process gives them greater crunchiness and flavor throughout.

From there we were off to Zaanse Schans, a quaint tourist attraction in Holland. There we found a clog exhibit (including this giant one here holding my son and me), a cheese exhibit (my son found Nirvana), and a windmill farm stretching as far as the eye could see.

The ride to Amsterdam was equally as short. Our guide first brought us to an open market, one much like a flew market in the US except, of course, for the abundance of cannibus memorabilia and accessories. At first I questioned the logic of bringing a large group of high school students to such a place, but as we strolled about the normalcy of its presence becomes clear. To visit this country, one has to see it and accept it for what it is. But then again, one need never return either.

Just walking through Amsterdam is a bit of exercise. Winding throughout the city like the veins of a powerful heart, are the bicycle paths used by the majority of its inhabitants. On these paths the pedestrian crosses at their own peril for it is the bicycle that has the right of way. And though the driver may see you, may in fact be staring at you as they head straight for you, it is clear they won't be moving to avoid any collision. Your survival is your own. I wonder what the point system is.

As we walked from one section of the city to another (pictured here, on the 'nice' side of the city is the Theater Tuschinski, built in the 1920s, it is the location for most Dutch film premiers) the character of the historical metropolis was stark and glaring. It was dirty in both sense of the word: the filth, litter, and garbage--piles of it--are everywhere. And so is the sleeze. The sex, drugs, the seedier side of life is offered as readily as fruit from a farmer's market. The faces of those who come looking for it reflect their not so quiet desperation, their frantic search to find something, anything, to fill the holes in their souls. But there is nothing on these crowded, desolate streets, where the stench of despair hangs thick and heavy, save hollow, temporary satisfaction.

Going home, no matter how wonderful the journey, is always sweet; the familiar and the loved beckon no matter how strong the wanderlust may be.

The return trip was thankfully as free of glitches, for the most part, as the outbound and Lufthansa Airlines is firmly one of the most efficient and well-serving. You could see the fatigue and exhaustion, the longing for home as clearly on the young faces as on the old yet somehow their exuberant spirits could not be denied. Even during the long plane ride home, as we followed the sun west and our internal clocks belied the brightness of the sky around us, their youthful ebullience kept the air filled with laughter.

I have been changed, completely and utterly by all I have seen and experience, by all I endured, and most especially, by all I came to know. I am most grateful.


James A. Conrad said...

I confess I was not a regular reader of your blog, but I happened upon it during your recent trip posts and I have enjoyed reading about your adventures and misadventures across historical Europe. Thank you.

James A. Conrad
Filmmaker's Dictionary
The Model-Actor's Dictionary

Donna Russo Morin said...

Thank you, James. I'm so glad you've enjoyed it and I'm happy my journey has brought you to my door. Hope you'll visit some more.