Or, I Am So Not in Kansas Anymore
Thursday morning, I went straight to Anne Frankhuis. Is it inappropriate to admit that my desire to visit the Anne Frank House was less, for me, about Anne than it was about Neutral Milk Hotel? (If you don’t understand the reference, I’m not going to explain it here. Sorry.)
Confession: I’ve never read the Diary of Anne Frank in its entirety. I’ve started it several times—I have a chronic problem of starting books and neglecting to finish them…wanna ride bikes?— most recently last week, when I decided to try reading the French translation in anticipation of my trip.
I probably should have saved it for one of the grey icky days that was ahead of me. That would have been more appropriate, because the gorgeous weather Thursday morning was at odds with a Reflecting Upon the Holocaust sort of mood. I knew I didn’t want to take any chances of missing it, though, and so, Aeroplane Over the Sea in my headphones, I went.
Several people warned me about the crowds there, but it was nearly empty that morning. I suppose I should consider myself lucky, but honestly, I kind of wish it had been crowded. I’ll explain.
The annex is empty of furniture per Otto Frank’s wishes. The Nazis took everything after arresting the residents and Mr. Frank (the only one of the eight residents who survived the concentration camps) wished for it to remain empty when people visited. It’s a fitting symbol for how the Nazis took absolutely everything from their family, but because I was alone most of the time that I was in the Annex, I found its sheer emptiness not distressful, but distracting. I had trouble imagining how cramped it must have felt while Anne and seven others lived in hiding there.
In all honesty, I felt the opposite. It seemed really big to me. To me, “hiding” suggests little. In a closet, under the floorboards, that kind of thing—not a big chunk of a warehouse! I caught myself thinking, “Well no wonder you were caught…” which is not what one should be thinking when one visits the Anne Frank House!
This is a stupid detail to notice, but I was disappointed that they’ve had to renovate the floors. Instead of the creaky floorboards you might expect, there’s now a vinyl floor. I was distracted by the plastic sound of my own footsteps. As I said to Cassie later, “It didn’t sound like I would expect a secret hiding place to sound.” I felt like I might as well have been in a replica.
One thing that a replica would have lacked, though, are the original pictures that Anne hung on the walls of her bedroom. The renovation that replaced the floors spared the walls, so the pictures of movie stars that Anne hung are still there. You’d have to be made of stone—or at least lacking tear ducts—not to weep at some point in the Annex and adjacent museum, and this was the first of two places that I wept.
The pictures on the wall caused me, not for the first but certainly the most powerful time, to reflect upon how young Anne Frank was when she lived in hiding and died in a concentration camp. She is one of few women who have been given her due prominent place in history. Of all of the diaries that could have survived the Nazis, we’re lucky that hers is so wise—but she was also just a teenage girl. A teenage girl who put pictures of her favorite movie stars on the wall, just like I put pictures of Heath Ledger on my wall when I was her age.
I cried at the end, too, as I walked through the little museum dedicated to what happened after the Annex residents were arrested. To use yet another probably inappropriate description, I would say that the museum is just the right amount of sad. It’s very powerful to see the original ID cards of each of the eight people, typed up, signed, and stamped with swastikas. Needless to say, you’d have to be subhuman not to be stunned by the horror of concentration camps. But—speaking only for myself—if I thought about the concentration camps any longer, I wouldn’t be able to walk away feeling inspired by Anne’s optimism. If a Jewish girl who lived under Nazi rule can still believe that people are inherently good, then who am I to say otherwise? (Though I can’t help but wonder if she would have revised that line if she had lived to do so…)
I had planned on sitting by the canal with Aeroplane Over the Sea and my journal. It’s not healthy to sit around feeling sad, though, so I guess it’s good that I realized I was about to be late for my joyous reunion with Cassie!
Because neither of us had cell phones that would work in the Netherlands, we had made our potentially complicated plan ahead of time: I was in charge of finding Cassie’s hotel to leave a message at reception of where to find me. As I sat at the nearby bar I’d instructed her to find, I felt nearly as nervous as if I were waiting on an online date. For the first of several times that day, I asked myself, Is this real life?! I was taking a break from life in France to go to Amsterdam to wait in a bar for one of my best friends from college in Minnesota who had just been evacuated from Niger to come find me. That sentence is bizarre on at least a dozen levels, and yet somehow it is was indeed real life. (I think.)
Cassie had an entourage of four fellow ex-Peace Corps-ers. I can tell I met them at an odd time. On top of the existential trauma of wondering what the hell to do with their lives now that they’ve been evacuated from the place they expected to call home for two years, they had gone out the night before instead of getting any sleep before their early flight from Spain to ‘dam. If I didn’t feel like I was in real life, they definitely didn’t feel like they were.
If Peace Corps can do one thing for you, though, it is to make you a trooper. My new friends were not too defeated by fatigue to explore. We wandered in a big circle around central Amsterdam, from Leidseplein to Dam Square to the Red Light District, through Rembrantplein and back. The good thing about having been lost in most of those areas the night before was that I realized that I had, quite accidentally, already seen a big chunk of the city.
Whether or not I engaged is irrelevant to this observation: it is crazy weird to see marijuana for sale, legitimately, in shops. We passed by dozens of them. There’s a menu of varieties with descriptions of the intended effects. There are baked goods and candies. You can buy it with a credit card. Amsterdam looks like it’s really old, and yet in that way, it’s a glimpse of what the future holds when the U.S. finally realizes what a waste of resources it is to incarcerate people for marijuana, and that we could regulate it and tax it and then public schools could stop selling magazine subscriptions and wrapping paper.
If the head shops were weird, the Red Light District was where I knew I really, really wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I grew up in Atlanta and I studied abroad in Yaoundé, so I’m not shocked by the sight of sex workers anymore. Nonetheless, walking through the Red Light District where the prostitutes display themselves—legally!—behind their windows is crazy weird. (I have a lot more to say about the Red Light District. Stay tuned for Day 4.)
We didn’t hang around for much of that. Despite having slept the night before, I was as exhausted as my new friends were, so we went back to their hotel and fell asleep—them in beds, me in a secret sleeping bag by the radiator—by 9:00.