Category Archives: Amsterdam

The joy of womanhood and a Tante…of tulips and hofjes in Amsterdam

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IMG_2279Her name was Klara. She was a true Amsterdammer who rowed the Amstel and cruised the cobbled streets, stylish and carefree on the back of her paramour’s motorcycle.

That was many years ago, just after the second world war, long before she succumbed to old age and a mind stripped of precious memories.

I thought of her this past trip as I strolled from my hotel to the FIGT Conference in Amsterdam. I not only luxuriated in the cool air, but in the Anton Pieck perfection of doll-like houses along serene canals. I take my level of comfort here for granted, yet I owe much of that to Klara who shared it with me eagerly from my first visit.

Not long out of college, I fell head over heels for this city of Rembrandt and IMG_2219Golden Age architecture, of stout upright bikes and tulips in infinite bunches…of tall homes with gables of necks, steps and bells.

From her simple, postage-stamp sized home, Klara seldom joined me, but would send me forth with explicit directions to explore. Then on my return, would relish in every little detail.

To my delight, Klara’s book-shelf was stuffed with musty history books of Amsterdam that I would thumb through, then return exactly to where I had found them. In a small space, everything has its place and she liked things just so; we were quite similar it seems. Klara could be stubborn and delightfully opinionated (a little like all of the women in our family), but she grabbed life and dangled it enticingly before you.

IMG_2490I keenly felt tante (aunt) Klara’s absence one chilly day of exploring. I warmed in a simple cafe; one that serves mushy pea soup and burns long stemmed candles on scratched, worn tables. One where velvet curtains encircle the entrance to keep out the draft and the locals linger over a Heineken.

I longed to practice my Dutch with my great-aunt as I always had and explore with her this neighbourhood that I found myself in, the Jordaan. This had been a working class neighbourhood, where the tanneries once bustled, where masons and road builders had lived. Where stone carvings on building fronts tell stories even today…ah, there lived a cobbler, a builder, a mason, a cooper, or a seller of hot water and heated bricks so you could warm your feet when the fog and damp settled over the canals and froze you to the bone.

IMG_2494These chiseled cartouches implore us to slow down and conjure that time. I come across shops that aren’t fancy and offer ‘stuff’ spullen, places where one can browse endlessly. I see a vision of Klara’s home that once proudly displayed all the trinkets gifted to her…I wonder what happened to it all.IMG_2453

Yet as much as I miss Klara, I hear her Dutch accent echoed in other women that I have the pleasure to meet during my stay. I’m befriended by Patricia at the Van Loon Museum; her English has the same cadence and warmth.

“Are you enjoying the exhibit?” she asks as I’m intently perusing faded receipts from Parisian corset and lingerie shops. They’re arrayed beside an ‘evening wear diary’…so vital was it to not repeat frocks and evening gowns in the social whirl of a wealthy Dutch family at the turn of the century.

Patricia and I continue together and marvel at the exquisiteness of the Mode Exhibit. We appreciate collections of jewellery and fine beaded handbags, then transfix on lush fabric wall-covering that adorns this stately mansion. We admire the chandeliers, detailed family portraits and even modern-day tulips and perfumed roses. I brim over with the richness of, simply…beautiful things.

I sense Patricia is familiar with the giddy lifestyle of cocktail parties, soirees and lovely homes as she relates her ‘swinging’ Paris days. She’s a striking, refined lady of a ‘certain age’ which she reveals to me over a cup of strong Dutch coffee.

“I’ve had it all,”Patricia tells me, “now my life is art galleries, museums and concerts.” It seems this cultured life suits us both and as if to prove it, she implores…

IMG_2207“If you like this, you must see the Catwalk IMG_2192Exhibit at the Rijksmuseum.” Off we go on a sun drenched, yet brisk day, to soak up yet more exquisite fabrics and designs. Gathered from centuries past, as early as the Golden Age when Dutch culture was at its zenith, the creations rotate slowly on an long oblong stage, as if on a sumptuous sushi belt. Enthusiasts of all ages sit at this avant garde fashion show, coveting the delicate, aged designs.

IMG_2241 (1)“Oh how my Tante Klara would have loved this,” I proclaim to my fellow culture lover and relate how years ago Klara had given me a black lacy dress, sleeveless and hand-stitched. She had once worn it with panache; I was thrilled to have it as mine and wore it with infinite pleasure. Klara’s seamstress eye would have devoured this collection that was swirling slowly for appreciative fashion- lovers.

My new friend and I admire the ‘poster’ of the exhibition. Model Ymre Stickma’s image is super-imposed into a print of the voluptuous wedding dress, the elaborate ‘masterpiece’ of the collection. It’s captured by the renowned Dutch photographer, Erwin Olaf. He has her hair deliciously coiffed and her décolletage devilishly exposed; it was the ankles during that period that were seductive and kept hidden under heavy hems.

I take a photo of Olaf’s work, brilliant in its marrying of classic fashion with the vitality of a beautiful, empowered young woman. Prachtig, prachtig, I hear Tante Klara’s approval…superb, superb!

IMG_2214Through the following days I meet many empowered and interesting women. The Families in Global Transition Conference brings many together; they thrive in careers and raise children globally, they are entrepreneurs, authors, publishers, educators, life coaches and more. We network, learn from each other, dine, laugh and lament as one. We comment on how fortunate we are to come together, how marvellous it is to share stories of womanhood against the backdrop of a global life. We hug our farewells, restored and uplifted.

IMG_2506 (1)The company of these kindred spirits comforts me in this first return to Amsterdam; the first time that Klara is no longer here. The last few visits, dementia had stolen her spirit, her creative and inquisitive mind and just a few months ago, her life.

Late one afternoon a few of my friends and I are on our way to dinner. “Come with me,” I say,”there’s a special place I want to show you,” and I guide them off a busy street through a carved, stone archway that reads…Begijnhof. We emerge into a serene setting, the rattle of trams and the whirl of bicycles disappear. The courtyard is quaint with churches and houses that beg you to whisper and reflect.

This tucked-away sanctuary was similar to a monastery for women, the Beguines, a Christian religious order whose members lived in semi-monastic communities. First mentioned in 1346, the Begijnhof is the only medieval almshouse founded in Amsterdam. The last Beguine, Sister Antonia, died here in 1971 and still today, all the inhabitants are female.

IMG_2375Klara first introduced me to this serene oasis, and as I was then, my friends are charmed with its beauty and calm. The houses and churches that line the square are mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries; beautiful in their aged grace as is the elderly lady we encounter.

Shielded from the chilled March air in a camel-coloured fur, she has just placed her walker at a solid wooden door. When we ask if she’s fortunate enough to live in this lovely Begijnhof, she nods and points to the first floor. Books crowd her window sill along with one of those simple brass candle holders…all framed by delicate lace curtains.

We introduce ourselves,”My name sounds much prettier in Hebrew, “she says with an engaging smile and she lingers to speak to us. “Where are you from,” she wants to know and her eyes twinkle even brighter when she hears that we come from various continents and yet live in others. Susan is inquisitive and delighted to hear this and then earnestly tells us to enjoy our time together. It warms my heart to know that these hofjes were once scattered throughout the city, sanctuaries for women.

IMG_2444 (1)A few days later I spend the day with a dear family friend, we were both fortunate to have been the children that Klara never had. Hetty tells me of her final days and the peaceful end.

We had planned this gathering to reminisce. “These are for you,” Hetty says softly, motioning to an array of ‘stuff’ on her dining table…it’s heartwarming that it remains.

There are photos albums with dried flowers from my wedding and pressed heather from a trip to Scotland; moments in time. There’s a tea cup from a visit to Canada and tarnished silver spoons embellished with Delft blue and white.

“Choose some jewellery,” Hetty continues, “and I think you’ll like these.” A passel of thimbles lay close by and my finger-tips brush over the dimpled silver. I know that Klara used them often. She loved stitching and creating of all kinds; it’s what she ‘did.’

Just one woman’s pursuit that fulfilled and gave satisfaction. No, her creations weren’t as beautiful as the lovely things this trip has put before me, but that isn’t what’s important. Engaging in anything from stitching to poetry, from reading to golf, to quilting to hiking, …anything that we women pursue for pleasure, for the joy of womanhood is to be coveted and embraced.

IMG_2579The first thing I had done when I arrived in Amsterdam was to buy tulips, “I’ll need a vase for my bloomen, please Meneer,” I said to my host Pierre when I checked in at the charming Seven Bridges Hotel. As if by design, my room had thick velvet curtains, an armoire and an antique oval table for those tulips and at which to sit and enjoy an evening aperitif. I felt as if I was back at Klara and Alberts, my mothers beloved uncle.

Before departing from the city that I adore and returning to my new home in India, I posted a card to my mother in Canada.

As a ten year-old, she had waved farewell on the S.S. Waterman as her family sailed away for a new life, leaving not only their family but also country behind. She remembers doubting that she’d ever see them, or the Netherlands again. Happily, they have both been a special part of our lives through the years.

That card to my mother was decorated with tulips and I penned the details to her; of remembering Klara, the lovely mementos and time with Hetty, and that she had most certainly been there with me in spirit…it seems that Klara had been as well.

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A bicycle built for two and a Dutch fiets…exploring on two wheels

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Bikes and canals in Amsterdam

I’m the proud, new owner of a tandem bike, a bicycle built for two. It’s old, a classic Canadian made CCM and I can assure you that it’s rather cumbersome to ride. Yet somehow it evokes the romance of cycling experiences enjoyed around the world. Bikes have been our conveyance of choice in many places, affording glimpses into varied, everyday cultures that could not have been replicated by car, train, or even on foot.

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Options for transporting on a Dutch bike

We’re in Canada for a number of months awaiting our next overseas posting and I’m sure we’ll master the tandem. Yet in our mountain city of Kimberley, BC, most townspeople either own a mountain or road bike. Cycling is a way of life here and like most locals, I took to biking on the wooded trails this summer. I enjoyed it, yet admit that my active imagination was preoccupied with the thought of bears, moose or deer crossing my path. Admittedly, part of me is more at home cycling in urban settings. I love the vibe of a bustling city; even better if you can discover it on a bike.

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Artful in Denmark

On a recent trip to Amsterdam I wanted to get to the root of cycling; how does a society embrace it so completely as a mode of transportation? It’s common knowledge that bikes have evolved into the daily fabric of Dutch life. The Netherlands has one of the most efficient cycling infrastructures in the world. Many cities enjoy similar accommodations for cyclists; Copenhagen, Stockholm and Montreal for example, but the Dutch have truly mastered it. Almost 70 % of all journeys are made on a bike, or as we say in Dutch, a fiets.

I fondly remember taking to my fiets daily when we lived in Holland. Through the cobbled streets of Oudewater I cycled, my first-born strapped into a seat slung from my handle bars. A wicker basket attached at the back, ready to carry home the daily shopping. No helmet, even on my little guy, and yes the thought of it now alarms me. It seems I became complacent to the obvious perils or simply, I adopted the Dutch culture.

Bike stories from previous generations in Holland abound in my family. During war time, my grandparents improvised using garden hoses as tires when none were available. My mother and grandmother had a narrow escape when mercifully they hesitated to lean their bikes at a neighbour’s farmyard, then saw from a distance the building destroyed by a bomb a short time later. But there are also fond memories; three generations of us cycling across the border to Germany, evenings out in Amsterdam then cycling back to family along moon-lit canals, absorbed into the pulse of the city.

“Build paths and they’ll be used”

I visited the Amsterdam Museum and discovered that the bike culture is not simply happenstance. Of course the flat landscape has long been ideal for biking, but by the 1960’s new found wealth and progress came in the form of increased car ownership which marginalized cyclists. Quaint town squares were transformed into parking lots. Historic buildings were demolished to widen roads for the burgeoning car culture. Deaths from car accident deaths increased alarming; thousands in 1971 alone, tragically 400 of them were children. This along with the 1973 oil embargo prompted the ever-pragmatic Dutch to protest, ‘stop the slaughter of our children and end the car culture.’

The Government responded and promoted cycling as a mode of transportation; bike paths, junction lights and bike parks were built.

“Build paths,” said one official, “and they’ll be used.” As the Dutch rationalize, “Is biking not the fastest, cheapest, healthiest way to get around? Why would one not take to two wheels when given the opportunity?”

A 'child carrier' in Copenhagen

A type of child carrier in Christiania, Denmark

In fact today, there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam. About 800,000 of them, and as 84% of people have more than one bike, it’s fair to say the city is a ‘sea of bikes’. I still bemoan the loss of my beloved Dutch fiets that transported me along many charming streets. It had been stored in Amsterdam in my great-aunt’s shed but was eventually given away. How I wish it was in my garage today, at home with our seemingly endless array of bikes; if only for posterity.

On my fiets with a great-aunt in Amsterdam

On my fiets with my great-aunt in Amsterdam

Those solid Dutch bikes are ‘people-movers’ as they’re pedalled with one, two, three, even four children at a time. Riding in any Dutch city during rush hour is a sensory experience. It’s terrifically busy, a constant flow of solo commuters as well as parents transporting their youngsters as they chat about their day. Sitting on the bike or in a cargo box (a bakfiets) the weather is of little consequenceAfter all, there are rain/cold weather covers which help during inclement weather. Especially when the family dog, the daily groceries or a case of Heineken is stuffed along-side the kids!

Additions such as bakfiets are extremely functional but would have been unimaginable when two-wheeled machines first emerged in 1817. The invention is credited to Baron Karl von Drais from Germany. Drais invented the ‘running machine’, called a draisine. It was human-propelled and with no pedals, it was more walked than ridden. Hence it’s nickname of hobby-horse.

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A typical sight in Sweden

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A vintage penny-farthing

Eventually came the bone shaker, then the oddly shaped penny-farthing with a large front wheel and much smaller rear wheel. Rubber tires replaced steel-lined wood and in the 1890’s the safety bike evolved. It was the first machine to be called a bicycle; similar to the design we’re familiar with now.

Many variants of the bicycle have evolved; to road and touring, mountain bikes, unicycles, rickshaws and back to fixed-gear bikes. ‘Fixes’ are single speed and use back brakes, stripped back down to the basics. The zest for simplicity has created a new subculture of riding ‘fixies’ in urban settings.

I came across such a group in Montreal, long a city of cyclists. They posed willingly for my camera but it wasn’t until later that I discovered they were sporting ‘fixies’. Chatting with a young man at a cafe in Calgary, he told me that he was studying in Montreal. I mentioned my blog and showed him my photos. “Ah, they’ll be on ‘fixies’ for sure,” He explained the new subculture that these riders have created with this retro trend; the old will be made new again it seems.

'Fixies' in Montreal

‘Fixies’ in Montreal

For many of us who grew up in Canada, our bike experiences started with a trike, graduating to a set of rattly training-wheels, then onto a ‘banana seat’, and finally the thrill (in my day) of a 10-speed. We cycled endlessly. We got ourselves to school, around town and to our friend’s homes on our bikes. Whose front lawns didn’t have bikes splayed on them when friends came over?  We would also jump on our 10-speeds after dinner, eager to see what was ‘going on’. “Be home by dark,” our mothers would holler as we sped off.

Once you become a parent yourself, teaching your child to ride a bike is a rite of passage for you, every bit as it is for them. I recall the joy as my children balanced their bikes for the first time as I reluctantly let go. Running nervously behind them and anticipating the fall I’d exclaim, “You’ve done it! Don’t forget your brakes!”

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Our youngest, left, and friends out for a pedal

Even today when my grown ‘kids’ hop on a bike, I find it heart-warming. Perhaps it evokes memories of those carefree childhood years, yet I believe there’s more to it than that.

Riding a bike allows us an elemental, exhilarating connection with the world. No hard shell around us, no peering through a window, we are at one with our surroundings; and what surroundings we’ve been fortunate to have explored.

I leaf through my journal from our six month backpacking trip in ’89. I find enticing cycling entries.

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We cycled to the non-tourist view

Agra, India, February…We chose the non-tourist view of the Taj Mahal today. With rented bikes we cycled through a small village along a train track to the nearly dried Yamuna River. There we beheld the most wondrous sight, the Taj Mahal to the south, the Agra Fort to the west. We were transfixed, not able to pull ourselves away from the view. At twilight the moon rose creating an ethereal mistiness that mingled with the Taj; regal and impossibly beautiful. We finally had to pry ourselves away to return our bikes, pedalling home with the moon guiding our way.

 

Kathmandu, Nepal, April…We managed to find bikes to rent and cycled from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur. The Nepalese greeted us as we passed, children ran behind us with mischievous smiles and antics. The friendliness continued as we rolled into the medieval city of Bhaktapur and got swept up into the improbable spectacle of the ‘Biscuit Festival’. An immense, brightly painted wooden pagoda was hauled through the street with much excitement. But the side streets we later cycled were the highlight for me with stunning intricate carvings of Nepalese architecture.

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Offering a ride in Yangshuo, China

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The evening of the Tiananmen Square massacre

Beijing, China, June…Last week the experience of Bruce offering a ride to a rice farmer cut through culture and language. Against the emerald green rice paddies in Yangshuo, with water buffalos ploughing the fields, we cycled in bewilderment. It was as if we had been dropped into a National Geographic article.

Contrast to today, we tackled ‘bicycle kingdom’ as it’s called. There are 4 million bicycles in Beijing! We dodged and weaved. We passed locals going home from the market with upside down chickens tied to handle bars; their squawking adding to the cacophony of tinging bike bells and incomprehensible Cantonese. I can’t believe we found our bikes after we had stopped for lunch, for there must have been thousands of them alongside each other.

Our cycling experience in China would become far more dramatic as shortly after that diary entry, we were trapped in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Our bikes played an integral role in planning our escape; that however is a story for another time.

Cycling the Islands of Norway

Cycling the Islands of Norway

We gladly embarked on an overnight cycling trip while we lived in Norway, only bikes and ferries on that adventure. Along the shores and through the islands we meandered, only sheep impeding our progress. The Norwegian cycling infrastructure is also superb; paths routed along lush green fields and colourful fishing villages nestled tidily beside icy fjords.

But unlike the Dutch, appropriate gear and helmets are the norm, one does not casually jump on their bike without paying heed to their attire. And I’ll give the Norwegians credit, there isn’t such a thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing.

By the time we had left Norway, I had acquired the requisite rain pants, jackets, boots, reflectors, even a ‘rain cover’ for my backpack. It all makes good sense when your bike becomes your chosen mode of transport.

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World Bicycle Relief

As I wrote this blog, I was conscious of the millions of people that don’t have the privilege of owning a bike, despite the vast improvement it would bring to their life. I came across World Bicycle Relief. This organization believes that a bicycle in the hands of an African student can change many things, and it does.

Bicycles for Educational Empowerment Program provides bikes to students, teachers and healthcare workers in rural Africa. 70% of the students this program donates cycles to are girls.

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Students with a WBR bike

In places such as Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, to name a few, students using bikes mean covering greater distances, arriving safely at school on time, less fatigued and ready to learn. Grades and attendance improve for those students that have received bicycles.

I listened to the story of Ethel, a vibrant fifteen year-old. Before owning a bike, Ethel walked more than two hours each way across hilly terrain to attend school. Now on two wheels, she is able to dramatically reduce her commute time, allowing more time to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. Ethel also helps others in the community by offering rides when possible.

I’ve decided to donate to World Bicycle Relief, to give someone like Ethel the opportunity to improve their life. I think of it as paying homage; to all the cycling experiences that have enlivened, coloured and enriched my life. I wish the same for them.

Our tandem, bicycle for two

The tandem, a bicycle for two