Despite everything, I believe people are really good at heart. – Anne Frank
The neatly made bed is a consoling sight. Mmmm, I caress the cool, cotton covered woollen quilt – it’s a sweet sensation. It’s a double, it’s got an agreeable bounce. I yawn. I’ve traveled so far – almost 11,000 kilometres (No, that doesn’t sound far enough), more than fifteen hours of continuous flying. Hell, it’s not the longest flight in the world, but damn, it’s long – the Singapore – Paris route is Air France’s second longest nonstop route. That’s far, that’s like so, so far. It’s amazing how long I’ve gone without actually sleeping, and no one should go so long without resting. I think I’ve a headache: it must be my body going without sleep for so long. Imma – go – lie – down – I – will – start – afresh – to-mor – row.
I didn’t come all this way to sleep.
“It’s 3pm. If I rest now, I will continue living in Singapore time”, I reason with myself. I unzip my tote, pulling up my list of sights that I wanted to tick off – studying their locations, operating hours, thinking up possible routes. Meanwhile, my phone vibrates, and vibrates again, and again. The seizure continues for a while: I left my Grindr app open – I had a feeling that this Easter weekend was going to be a good one. Coat in arms, and ready, I make my way down and out, ready for Amsterdam; the ink still fresh over the pre-determined sight… “Anne Frank Huis”.
Pass the revolving doors, I walk onto the open verandah by the artificial canal and proceed to light up a cigarette. It’s cold. It’s the herald of the European spring, but temperatures are far from mellow – they were discordant, and quite honestly, freezing, literally. Perhaps Jack Frost felt weak and wimpy: the fabled white Christmas never came – winter was mild, good-natured and dandy. When Frost finally mustered up its courage to blizzard and snow, it was well into March. It was 1 deg C when I arrived earlier in the day. It was 0 deg C now, and the sun, cornered and concealed by clouds. It’s windy. Well, it’s the Netherlands – the wind’s never too far away. A breeze, of dust. The dust particles are by no means, small. No, it’s not dust. I blank out a little, before I realize what it is – snow. My first snowfall. Nothing heavy, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s my first.
En route to Amsterdam Centraal.
This is Amsterdam Centraal station.
Trams are pretty much the public transport node of choice, or walking. The Amsterdam Metro isn’t recommended.
The Netherlands is quite the enigma. In many ways, I love visiting countries that are for the most part, monolingual. It becomes a pathway – a bridge in which to create connections into a world you might otherwise never be allowed a peek into. The Dutch converse in English as well as they do in their own tongue, and in many ways, their knowledge of English lulls you into a false sense of security. You think you understand them because you speak the same language, but the reality is our common tongue divides and segregates us. It’s easy to take for granted the culture and identity of the Netherlands – it’s so alien, yet so alien that we make assumptions. As I make landfall on Amsterdam Centraal station, I can’t help but make associations with absolutely no knowledge about how Germanic-sounding the names of places in Amsterdam actually are.
My attempt to reconcile with the real Dutch identity begins in Westermarkt, in the Canal Ring. It’s defined by the towering Westerkerk (West Church) – identifiable by its carillon and its Westertoren (west tower) virtually visible everywhere in the district. The area’s known to the locals as Jordaan. Established in the early 17th century as a result of the expansion of Amsterdam, it became a bohemia of sorts, attracting political refugees, as well as writers, artists, photographers and painters like Rembrandt van Rijn. Make no mistake, the district might be a chic spot today – a pleasant, affluent neighborhood, distinctive with the gambrel-roofed houses that we’ve come to associate the Netherlands with today. But the reality was unflattering and raw – it was a poor district with small houses and slums. Each room one might find stuffed, literally stuffed with countless families. There wasn’t no running water, and the pristine canal – beautiful to look at today, doubled as the sewer, transport and water source.
I didn’t do a canal cruise because I quickly realized it was a tourist thing.
It’s in this neighborhood where we find the Franks – a family of German Jews who were seduced by the tolerance found in the Dutch capital. It was 1933, and the Germans, economically depressed by the Wall Street crash of 1929, and the extravagant-bordering-on-arrogant opulent lifestyles led by the foreign minority, skewed their allegiances to a conservative party called National Socialist German Worker’s Party led by a charming Austrian eager to restore Germanic pride after the economic humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles.
The quick thinking and foresight of paternal head, Otto Frank, set the scene for Anne Frank. The family moved into Otto’s office on Prisengracht in the summer of 1942, into the Achterhuis, a nondescript, three-storey space concealed behind the offices. Aided by six Dutch citizens, “employees” of Otto’s company, the Franks, joined by the van Pels, hid in the “Secret Annexe” to wait out the war. But it was to be in vain – less than a year before the end of World War 2, the house was stormed following a tip from an informer who was never identified. Despite not being selected for gassing, the deplorable conditions in Auschwitz, the female Franks eventually died of starvation, sickness and the obliteration of hope. The youngest of the family, Anne, became the face of the Holocaust after it was discovered that her diary, which she wrote everyday, captured the horrors of war and the loss of innocence in vivid detail.
I found myself unsympathetic to the story of Anne Frank. It’s like the explosions that rocked the Boston Marathon in 2013. On the very same day, a bomb went off in the Middle East, killing more people than the incident in the States, yet over social media, we see people going overly dramatic with messages such as “Pray for Boston”. A life is a life, no matter where it is. I was unsympathetic to the story of Anne Frank, but the cruel war crimes of the Nazis against the Germans – persecuting an entire race for their perceived wealth and perceived inferior looks is something that will never be justified. To annihilate the way the Nazis, and for that matter, the Japanese did, is unforgivable. Yet, to end discrimination, one must stoop to conquer. Hate breeds only more hate, and if we never able to forgive or accept, we must tolerate. And in time, we’ll forget, and perhaps, ignore and accept.
Being a victim of discrimination myself, I need to hold up with optimism that perhaps one day, I’ll be accepted for being who I am.
A little emotional, I walk down the Prisengracht, meaning to head towards an Amsterdam institution for dinner, but it’s closed. Instead, I head to the main commercial district, Leidseplein.