TFIOS Pilgrimage – Amsterdam Part 1

We arrived in Amsterdam and made our way to the Hotel de Filosoof.  Since it was too early to check-in we dropped off our bags and headed to Vondel Park with the goal of sorting ourselves out a bit and finding something to eat.  Our first meal in Amsterdam was at the Hard Rock Café, admittedly not our first choice.  This Hard Rock was really no different than any other that I’ve been to (New York, Orlando, Rome, etc.).   But something auspicious happened at the one in Amsterdam.  I had just gotten off the stool and was heading out when one of the women seated at the table next to us stopped me.  She noticed I was wearing my TFIOS “okay” shirt from Barnes and Noble.  It turns out that the two of them were on vacation and decided to stop in Amsterdam to visit some TFIOS spots.  Luisa had traveled from Brazil and even had her copy of the book with her.  I think it is only right to interpret this as a sign from the universe that we were destined to both to travel to Amsterdam and end up in the Hard Rock Café.

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Vondelpark was definitely a cool spot and was bigger than I had envisioned.  I hadn’t realized that it would be filled with so many people.  Friends hanging out, families enjoying a beautiful day, men playing soccer, people biking and roller blading, family dogs jumping in the water.  There were other less trodden areas with beautiful flowers. We stopped in the pop-up café in Vondelpark and I very much enjoyed the gelato there.  I feel like this has to also be the café referenced in TFIOS.

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I didn’t planned to look for Peter Van Houten’s house.  It wasn’t until listening to Kate Rudd on my I-pod that I thought his house might be a real location.  And found it we did.  I was happy and surprised that it really existed, because I figured like Oranjee it would be a fictional setting.  One quick thing I have to comment on are the windows in Amsterdam.  They basically go from floor to ceiling.  I think they are aesthetically and architecturally beautiful.  All I am saying is that if I move anywhere, I wouldn’t turn down windows like that.

Peter Van Houten's dwelling

Peter Van Houten’s dwelling

Emily and I knew the Anne Frank House was going to be a popular tourist attraction, but I think we underestimated how mobbed it would be.  The first afternoon we strolled by to scope out the situation.  The line was down the street, around the block, and then some.   With our limited time, Emily and I were definitely not going to wait in that line.  We even checked back again around 9:15 pm, because the travel guide said the crowd would be clear by then.  Perhaps, they too underestimated the draw of the Anne Frank House or at least summer tourism.  There were still people waiting to get inside!  We decided to come back early the next morning instead.

The next morning we arrived an hour early and soon other people arrived.  Clearly, we made a good call.  I am not sure that anything I write will do this experience justice.  The first room you walk in has a video.  But what was really cool about this space is that it has phones in the middle of the room so non-English speakers can listen to the content of the video in their native tongue.  It was surreal seeing all the primary sources throughout the House.  The fact that they were able to preserve any of their letters, documents, or other items is amazing.  One of the things that was surprising about the Anne Frank House is that canal buildings are actually deceptive in regards to their size.  I found the rooms much bigger than you would think based on how narrow the buildings are.  I learned that Otto Frank requested that the rooms remain unfurnished, which I found fitting.

I think one the most amazing parts of the House was walking through the original bookcase that concealed the annex.  You almost want to hold your breath, because it definitely feels like a sacred experience.  It was also overwhelming to see some things preserved like the tick marks on the wall where they tracked their height or the pictures Anne put on her wall.  Being in the Anne Frank House there were multiple layers going on.  It was Anne’s real story mixed with Hazel and Augustus.  Like when I saw the book listing the other Aron Franks that Hazel vows to remember.  Also, the video with Otto Frank concluding that no parent can ever really know their child.  Hearing it one time is ok.  But the video loops. I would say by the fourth time, it really started to weigh heavily on me. I also liked how the people who knew her as a child spoke about her.  Anne was not painted as a saint.  It made her seem more like a real person than a symbol of the Holocaust.

The most impressive part was seeing the diary itself.  There it was.  Resting on a pillow encased in glass.  Reading her writing from a paperback is nothing compared with seeing her pages and imagining her hunched at a desk pressing the ink onto those very pages.  One of the most disturbing parts for me was a picture that had been blown up from the Montessori school Anne Frank had attended.  Each child was labeled and their fate was also indicated.  It was odd and uncomfortable to look at tiny faces and then read what became of them.  I don’t have any photos, because they request that you don’t take any.  I did buy lots of postcards from their gift shop.

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I wanted to visit the American Book Center, located in Nine Little Streets.  I was not there to browse; I was there to locate The Fault in Our Stars in Amsterdam.  And that I did.  They had the paperback edition, which is not available in the United States.  So of course I bought it. Can one have too many copies of this story? . . . . Wait don’t answer that! Nine Little Streets was a little too crowded for me.  I didn’t really love the stores and it shut down pretty early.  But I am sure for others it is an ideal place to do some retail damage with their credit cards.

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A little about the Hotel de Filosoof. I think it is obvious that we elected to stay here, because it is where the characters stay and also where John Green stayed during his time in Amsterdam.  The knowledge that European living standards are smaller than what Americans are accustomed to, led us to inquire about the different rooms available at the hotel.  We requested the Spinoza room, because I think we might have read online that it would accommodate our needs. We had flown thousands of miles across the Atlantic. We had spent the entire morning walking in 80-degree weather.  We had lugged our luggage up and down and up and down very narrow and steep Amsterdam stairs.  What this Jersey girl needed was air conditioning!  And a shower.  “It is a very old hotel,” the girl said.  “We will look and see if we have a fan, she continued.  Maybe she heard the desperation in my voice.  Girlfriend came through though.  Hours later we were given a fan and I had never been so happy.  I have been to Europe before, but never have I stayed in a hotel with a smaller bathroom than in this hotel.  I think it was my biggest gripe with staying here (even more so than the lack of ac).

Now that I have complained a bit, I liked to explain the merits of the Hotel de Filosoof.  The staff was great.  They were friendly and accommodating.  They were even nice enough to make sure my postcards got mailed.  The hotel itself does have a certain charm.  It has a garden out back from their main building.  Our room was across the street.  Our room had a very high ceiling and some nice pieces of furniture.  I think my favorite element of the room was the veranda.  We left the windows open and our first morning I got woken up before 5 am by lots of birds.  My initial response was to be annoyed.  But then I thought what better way is there to wake up?  And it reminded me of a Robert Frost poem called “A Minor Bird”: “The fault must partly have been in me. / The bird was not to blame for his key. / And of course there must be something wrong / in wanting to silence any song.”  I appreciated the birds even more when I returned home and got woken up by a feral cat skirmish in my backyard.  If I ever go back to Amsterdam, I think I would stay in a more modern hotel, I am glad to have had the opportunity to stay here for the TFIOS pilgrimage.

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Our final night in Amsterdam was reserved for our “Drinking the Stars” dinner.  We took the tram to Jordaan and started wandering around looking for a restaurant with canal seating.  It got off to a rough start, because one of my new sandals broke and then gave me a blister.  We also had some difficulty actually locating a restaurant with canal seating.  However, I was determined to have this meal.  We found a place we saw during our canal ride, but all the canal seating was occupied.  I would guess we wandered around for more than 40 minutes, until finally stumbling on a little place that didn’t exactly have canal seating, but was close enough.  We ate in what I would describe as canal view seating.

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I am so happy to have had this experience.  I never would have planned a trip to Amsterdam if it weren’t for reading The Fault in Our Stars.  I hope this isn’t the last time I am so moved by a story that I am willing to travel thousands of miles.

To my students: you never know what will happen when you open the pages of a book.  Keep reading!


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