May – how serious was I about play?

The word ‘serious’ doesn’t even begin to go there – in terms of personal development whilst ‘playing’, the month of May 2015 has by default been among the most deliberated, earnest, momentous and pensive months of my life. And you thought ‘play’ was all about ‘fun’! Somehow events conspired towards the month’s aim, starting with a friend sending me a link to the Lonely Planet / World Nomad travel journalism scholarship. I enjoy writing; I love travel; I attempt photography. Taking all three together surely I have a winning combination? By the end of the month of June I will know if I have won! In fact I am so convinced that this is inevitable that I am planning my summer holidays around the dates I need to be available to travel to the USA – the 10th to 24th August.

One of the criteria for entry is that you have to be an experienced solo traveller – and I suspect catching the train to Taunton all by myself every now and again possibly doesn’t count. Although ‘back in the day’ I did fly to Edinburgh for an OU Summer School, I suspect that something a little more substantial is required. Which is why when my friend pulled out of our girlie trip to the land of clogs, I eventually resigned myself to going there all by myself (reaching this decision was far from fun – the amount of time and energy exhausted by exploring all other options was just a touch stressful). Anyway, this was how the most ‘serious’ part of my happiness project for the month of May came about and how I found myself alone in Amsterdam.

One of my favourite quiet canals.

One of my favourite quiet canals.

I realise this is stating the obvious, but Holland is flat. Very. There is also rather a lot of water. Flying from the Birmingham to Schipnol is the only time I have ever really listened to the stewardess’ advice about life jackets because I could see that if the plane did come down, there was just a slight chance that following the correct procedure might actually save my life – for the last 20 minutes we skimmed low over the sea with land always in sight, approaching the runway with dykes and canals hemming shades of green patchwork.

Another obvious fact. The Dutch love their bikes! This was immediately evident from how whole families were out for the day seemingly just to watch the planes land, attempting to pedal alongside as we approached or having casually dropped their cycles to the ground as they peered at us through binoculars whilst stretched out on picnic rugs.

Following a very straightforward train trip from the airport to Centraal Station (the locomotives run every 10 minutes – look out for the intercity direct as this is the quickest), I had a very close encounter with more than one bicycle (not to mention a couple of trams) as I excitedly stepped from the concourse into the warm spring sunshine, enthralled by the pianist serenading the new arrivals and entranced by my first sight of the bustling city itself. Lesson learnt! Even if you have spotted your hotel on the opposite side of the street, pause, take stock and approach the crossing with care – as a solo traveller the biggest danger lurks in the streets where being hit by a high speed Dutchman is a very real risk. This is a city where everyone cycles – and no one wears a helmet. Whilst I love a bike ride myself, I would be very anxious and cautious about cycling in Amsterdam and it is certainly not something I would advise other singletons to do – you need to be with a partner or in a group should the worst happen and your tyre get stuck in the criss-crossing tram rails, or your balance dislodged by cobblestones.

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This is a city that I feel is best explored on foot – and I certainly tramped the streets. That very day was apparently the first truly sunny and warm Sunday of the year and the place was heaving. It was also Pentecost in what is now a predominantly Protestant city. As soon as I had unpacked at the Hotel Barbizon Palace I set forth, heading down the edge of the nearest canal which was very much part of the tourist centre – complete with several ‘Over 18’ coffee shops and an unusually perfumed waft of smoke in the air that has its own story to tell. The many boats and rafts, long, short, home-made or extravagant, cruised the tightly packed waters, with all ages out in force ready to party. And this is certainly the place to party! Hen and stag groups were in abundance, the drinking already in full swing, with the youngsters finding just about everything a source of hilarious laughter (did I really look that funny taking a selfie including the wedge of cheese I’d just bought for lunch? OK, don’t answer that).

During the course of my three night trip this abundance of large groups made me reluctant to go out alone at night, though I did take an evening cruise around the canals and captured a few photos as the lights came on in the tall, narrow, 17th and 18th century gabled houses that flanked the myriad waterways. But during the daytime I felt totally safe and loved exploring the tourist sites as well as the quieter backwaters of the ‘real’ Amsterdam. Pre-booked tickets to Anne Frank Huis and the Van Gogh Museum were worth their weight in gold – oh the satisfaction in respect of the former as I strolled past the two hour queue and stepped up to a side door, pressed the button and was admitted by a welcoming young man who waved me in with a flourish! The respectful, poignant atmosphere of the hidden annexe was worth the visit to Amsterdam alone – it has been a life-long ambition to explore the setting for Anne Frank’s diary, one of the most memorable and thought provoking books I have ever read. At more than one point of this particular tour I had tears in my eyes. The pencil marks recording the heights of Anne and her sister Margot, still visible on the faded wallpaper; Anne’s ‘art’ collection of magazine cuttings pasted to the wall of her tiny, narrow bedroom; father Otto’s photo portrait taken in 1960 as he stood in the attic, his eyes etched with sorrow as he remembered the family he had lost.

In contrast, the Van Gogh Museum was a riot of colour and it was awe inspiring to stand literally three feet away from the Sunflowers and other masterpieces – no print can ever do them justice as much of the talent of this tormented genius was his ability to slather on layers of paint creating a shiny texture that is never captured in two dimension. Almost as amazing was the display of Vincent’s letters, mainly to his brother Theo but also to friends and other family members. I hadn’t realised that he was such a talented and prolific letter writer and that within his beautifully, skilled words he also ‘tried out’ ideas for paintings by creating evocative little sketches for the reader to enjoy. Somehow a blog is a tawdry tool by comparison! In fact, so strongly did I feel this that I unearthed my little black Moleskin notebook and recorded some of my private thoughts about the trip in there instead.

On my first evening I sat at a pavement café, and was delighted to be joined by another lady on her own – Marygale from Chicago, who is living and working in Amsterdam. This is one of the advantages of being by yourself – conversations becomes focused and precious when they happen, and you share an hour or so with someone extremely interesting whom you would never have spoken to if travelling as a couple or group. As well as sharing stories about our travels and the lives of our worldwide children, Marygale gave me lots of tips about the city and recommended visiting the free of charge Begijnhof, whose heavily carved door was set close to our table. Through this entrance (beware, it closes at 5pm) is a city centre oasis for single women – Beguines were Catholics who chose not to take their vows and enter a convent, but who still wanted to do ‘good works’. Nowadays Beguines do not exist as they did, but the tall thin dwellings remain around the inner courtyard and the historical buildings are rented out to single ladies. A day or two after my chat with Marygale I walked through that door into this silent enclave which also incorporates a beautiful chapel where I lit a candle, as I always do, for the loved ones I have lost.

The central courtyard of The Begijnhof

As with any short intense trip, there was a lot to take in and enjoy – many, many museums; familiar stores in the city centre, quirky independent traders in the side streets; the canal side flower markets where cannabis plants and seeds are sold alongside tulip bulbs; cheese stores focused on tourists, better value delis for the locals; swing bridges spanning the canals; colourful houseboats broad and low for the rare occasions when they leave their moorings and have to squeeze through squat arches; crazy cyclists who appear out of nowhere; an abundance of creative industries – artists, musicians, film and media; the rich history of a city that was once the most successful trading capital in Europe; ‘working’ ladies in the Red Light district (plus the one I accidentally stumbled upon off a side canal, who glared up at me from the ambient glow of her basement chamber where her middle aged, freckled, ample cleavage was set out like goods on a shelf); blue trams ringing their bells at cyclist and pedestrian alike; a whole range of places to choose from to eat; tourist traps to avoid (how I regretted that combined bus and canal ticket – queueing for almost two hours to ‘hop on’ a bus is not quite what I signed up for) and eclectic local living to embrace.

16. Brickie duck

Crazy Cow shop

So what is my favourite memory? Picture this, a popular ‘English Tea Room and Restaurant’ set alongside the banks of one of the quieter canals in Keizersgracht. Greenwoods. When I finally got a table in this tiny place (which I have since discovered is rated number 10 in the whole of Amsterdam by Trip Advisor) I was sat by the square panelled window, with a perfect view of the water outside enhanced by the delightful décor inside – a sage green dresser with a bright red ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ teapot; multi coloured umbrellas casually stood in a brightly shaded antique pot; lime green and lemon checked cushions piled generously on wooden pews and a steaming hot ‘full English’ set on the pine table –alongside a tear sheet of an article by David Nicholls (famous for ‘One Day’ and ‘Us’) spread out before me. As I read his words about researching settings for creative writing I felt a strong connection – particularly when he recounted a section from ‘Us’ inspired by an unfortunate encounter with ancient leather clad bikers in Amsterdam. I had met them too! And it was only by keeping my eyes firmly averted right that I had also avoided an unfortunate encounter outside the Station Hotel!

And my worst memory? That has to be at the Flybe check in desk on the return trip when I was apologetically informed that I had to lose 5kg of luggage or pay a £50 fine. Having dressed for the return trip quite smartly as I had heard that you can get a manicure whilst waiting for your flight, I ended up looking like a bag lady as I had to condense two bags into one, change my smart strollers for trainers, layer on cardigans and top with a packamac, shoving whatever I could into its voluminous pockets – breaking three finger nails in the process.

But at least I had a lovely chat with a Saudi oil mogul on the flight home.

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