Tag Archives: Amsterdam

Anne Frank’s House, Amsterdam

056As I showed you the other day, the streets of Amsterdam are quite a site to behold as they wind along the canals. Every street has its sense of peace and quite, there is no real hustle and bustle on theses roads, maybe a little on the ones that interconnect them perhaps. As you walk down Prinsengracht, which I often did as my hotel was on it, I would take in the houses as I headed towards the centre of the town, beautiful town houses with their own sense of history yet ultimately unassuming. Houses including this one here ——-> only this one does stand out a little the nearer you get as along side it’s next door neighbour, then through the square, then around the church nearby is a huge throng of people (apparently starting at before opening ours until the last possible moment every single day) all waiting for the unassuming house you see is the home of Anne Frank’s, or was when she and her family were taken into hiding from the Nazi’s.

I read Anne Frank’s Diary for the first time not too long ago. My impressions were a little mixed. It was a book that initially I was a little worried I wouldn’t get on with as I wasn’t sure about Anne herself. Now some people might be up in arms about this but actually there’s a fascinating exhibition on Anne once you’ve been through the house that showed all the sides of Anne, a brave but brilliant thing to do. I found when I got a rounder picture of her the more horrific what befell a normal young girl who happened to be born in the era she did. Yet actually I think this just added to the experience of visiting the house which was, for me, a deeply moving and disturbing one.

The experience of being in her home is a shocking one from the start, so shocking a fellow visitor was actually physically ill as we entered the first room which showed videos from the concentration camps. A silence befell all of us that then walked on throughout the warehouse cum house and the more we learned of the history of the family and their escape there. Yet it isn’t until you come to the famous ‘secret bookshelf door’ that it really hits you that these were scared people hiding for their lives. Anne’s diaries inform us of this and yet looking back I realised how brave and upbeat she was considering and a wave of emotion hit me I wasn’t prepared for.

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As you climb the steep staircase onwards it hits you even further, a family, and additional couple and a male friend all in these confined spaces. How must Anne’s parents, and indeed Anne, really felt about her sharing such a small space with a strange man. How could they have coped in such a confined space?

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Obviously having read her diaries I had known they had all had their moments. Yet nothing prepares you for how small it all really is. How cramped, and claustrophobic. The room above May look all jolly but it’s a replica of what the room was like with light, when you’re there the lights are off as they would have been, curtains drawn during the day, in order to remain so hidden. The more we went on the harder it was to believe Anne and her family coped with it all, but what choice did they have?

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I had always felt a bit funny about the idea of visiting Anne Frank’s house, a bit like hearing people visiting concentration camps, I was concerned it might be inappropriate/car crash tourism. Having now been myself, seen where Anne Frank lived in those conditions and the exhibition about what happened to her, the family and many of her friends I have changed my mind. It isn’t for the faint hearted, some of the videos and accounts you see and hear are incredibly disturbing (on more than one occasion I was reduced to tears) yet we must never forget these people and what happened and try and stop it happening in our world now. The fact so many people are going to see Anne Frank’s house and reading her diaries for me is a sign of hope for future generations. May they always read and remember.

The Anne Frank House is situated in the centre of Amsterdam at Prinsengracht 263-267. A huge thanks to Holland.com who sent me to Amsterdam for work and then managed to get me an advance track ticket into the Anne Frank House, a place that, along with all it holds, will stay with me forever. Also note only the top picture is mine, pictures cannot be taken throughout so I have borrowed these from many sources.

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The American Book Center, Amsterdam

No matter what city I find myself in, anywhere in the world, the moment I have some Wi-Fi (in the unlikely case that I haven’t researched this thoroughly before getting there) the first thing I try and locate are the nearest bookshops. I don’t care if they have English titles or not, if there is a bookshop in the vicinity and I can find it then that is where I am headed. I was told, by my lovely friend Adem who I met up with for an afternoon of wandering and cake hunting, that in Amsterdam THE best bookshop in the whole of the city was also in the heart of it and that was The American Book Center, and so off we toddled.

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It is not often that the moment I walk into a bookshop I am left completely speechless and yet with a treasure trove like The American Book Center I found myself very much dumbfounded – the books literally go on forever as soon as you walk in…

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Amazingly though, even though the bookshop is choc-a-block it manages to be light and airy throughout. I also loved the way that, with some wonderfully places tree bark/trunks the bookshop both feels it has the outside inside and pays homage to what books are after all made of.

I love a bookshop that is literally brimming with books and, like all the best bookshops, The American Book Center is one of such bookshop without it ever feeling cluttered or two much, even as you walk up the first flight of stairs there are books to admire and peruse as you make your way up…

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And, to maximise on space, and look stunning, the books go from the very floor of the bookshop to the ceiling three stories up…

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Once up the stairs the shop gets even better as books are EVERYWHERE yet whilst the bookshop does become something of a maze (in a good way) it never feels claustrophobic and because of the gaps between the shelves light gets through and it feels very open all at once.

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And the shop just goes on and on, it is like a labyrinth of literature and one that I would love to get lost in all day – which I nearly did…

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What was also really lovely about the place was the staff! Initially Adem and I simply couldn’t find the English language section of the book shop at first (not that I minded because I do love looking at foreign editions of books and their covers, don’t you?) and so we had to ask and the staff couldn’t have been better. We had a good chat as we meandered to the right place, talking about which books were big in Amsterdam and the Netherlands and also which books were big in the UK. We even had a chat about reviewing vs blogging and about why on earth the UK is so slow at translating books. Amazing.

So if you are ever in Amsterdam then make sure you head to The American Book Center, and that you leave yourself a good amount of time to have a wander around.

The American Book Centre is located at Spuistraat 12, 1012 XA Amsterdam (nearest tram stop is Spui) you can visit their website here.

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Ambling Around Amsterdam…

So, as I mentioned yesterday, I thought this week on the blog we could go Dutch both in the books that feature this week and the non-review posts too. All of this is in honour of a lovely trip I took to Amsterdam a few months ago for work and so today I thought we could have a little amble around the city before taking in two very special bookish places later in the week. It is hard to try an encapsulate any city, but particularly Amsterdam, so I thought we could start with a picture that sums up the city over all as well as being my first and lasting impression of it…

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It is so beautiful! I think over the course of one walk from the train station to my hotel I fell in love with (and mentally moved into) about fifty or sixty different houses. Isn’t it bizarre, if you think about it (not for too long or it hurts your head) how every city, particularly in Europe, has its own style? You can often see a picture and instantly know what that city is, you certainly can with this one. I completely enjoyed getting completely lost in the city and just enjoying seeing what every single street had in store, eventually I found my hotel (the Hotel Andaz which is a converted library and managed by a lovely woman called Daphne, could it be more perfect) and my amazing and amazingly bonkers bedroom.

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A fish spoon!?! What is going on there? The whole hotel has this slightly kitsch meets incredibly expensive classy vibe to it that I just loved the whole place. I do have a hotel rule of thumb though, I always judge them by their breakfasts and after having an early night that night after the adventure of getting lost in the city and seeing some bookshops (more on those later this week) I was soon able to judge this hotel by that system.

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Amazing again. Now that is my sort of never ending breakfast, oh and you could have cooked food too – I am not at liberty to say how many times I made the visits I made to the buffet, or how many of the cooked breakfasts I tried. So let us move on… It was time for some culture and so I headed to the heart of it. Amsterdam’s very own Museum Plein, or ‘museum square’, which is  a park just a ten minute walk from the city centre surrounded by museums.

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You could easily loose a day as whatever your taste in art there is a museum which will draw you in (see what I did there). Highlights for me were the Van Gogh museum, where to see some of the world most famous paintings is quite a heady experience. I have always liked Van Gogh, and indeed the Beard is very good at making copies of them in a non-illegal way, so I happily got lost in there for a good few hours and discovered this gorgeous picture that I had never seen of his before.

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It is one of those incredible pictures which seems to tell the start of a story, the more you look at it the more you get and also (though this could just be because of my mind) the darker the picture actually seems. Hidden depths in that one. I am a BIG fan of modern art. Ok, let’s rephrase that, I am a big fan of good modern art. I particularly love Picasso and so if I know somewhere has some, even just one, I have to go and have a gander and so I headed for the Stedelijk Museum of modern art. I saw some lovely Picasso’s and many more and also this old chestnut which I do actually think is art, especially on a massive scale…

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This however I do not…

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Hmmmm. It’s not even a good display in a double glazing showroom that! Before my head could pop with any more pop art, do you see what I did there, I stopped and had a coffee on the square before heading over to the Rijksmuseum and had to take a shameless ‘selfie’ (so down with the kids) with the I Amsterdam sign, well when in Amsterdam…

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The incredible Rijksmuseum (which has recently had a multimillion euro makeover) probably needs a full day or two to explore and is where you can see some of Rembrant’s best known works amongst many others. I had a gander at those but I find art from around that period a little austere and so headed for some of the wackier stuff. I think, after two hours looking, this was the most mind boggling thing that I found, which surprise, surprise happened to be a book.

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This is actually the notebook of a psychopath which was part of an experiment in the 1950’s to see whether if you let lots of psychopaths keep journals some similarities might show in the text. I found this idea fascinating and am amazed there isn’t a book about these books somewhere. I wanted to break it our if its case, instead for fear of being arrested I headed by out into the city to find my evenings dinner. In doing so I got completely delightfully lost and ended up in the heart of the Red Light District which was NOTHING like I expected it to be…

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And once dinner was over it was time to head for my hotel, and bed (and breakfast the next morning)to get some rest before my next port of call which was Anne Frank’s house, a place I didn’t expect to have such a reaction as I did. More on that later in the week though. Hope you have enjoyed our little jaunt around the city? We are in for a Dutch ‘detour’ of sorts again tomorrow…

(A big thanks to Holland.com who sent me away on a work trip and kindly got me into all the museums, and put me up in such a literary hotel, mentioned above!)

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The Light of Amsterdam – David Park

I have decided that this week we are going Dutch. Either the authors will be Dutch or the books will set in Dutch places. What is the inspiration behind this? Well, since you asked so nicely and weren’t forced into this way of thinking by me at all, I had the joy of going to Amsterdam back in July for work and whilst I was there I did my usual trick of reading a few books set there or by authors who lived there. The first of these was ‘The Light of Amsterdam’ by David Park which seemed perfect choice because of its plot (more shortly) and also because it was also one of the Fiction Uncovered 2012 selection, and I haven’t read one of their choices that I haven’t liked yet.

Bloomsbury Books, trade paperback, 2012, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘The Light of Amsterdam’ is a novel that weaves the stories of three pairs of tourists coming to the city for a long weekend (at one point as they were flying to Amsterdam in the book as I was doing the same thing at the actual time) and how their lives change over that weekend. As I typed that I, for the first time, suddenly saw how clichéd that sounds, but honestly ditch that opinion because David Parks does do something quite marvellous with that plot device.

Alan, whose career as an art lecturer seems to be going down the pan as fast as his marriage recently did, decides to take his teenage son Jack on a father son bonding weekend whilst making a pilgrimage of his youth. Jack takes his wife Marion, who thinks Jack is desperate to have an affair no longer seeing her as a sexual being, for a birthday treat and to get them away from their garden centre before the pre-Christmas madness. Karen, the cleaner in both an office and old people’s home, is there on a hen weekend which would be her ideal of hell anyway but is made worse by the fact that the bride to be is her own daughter. We then follow all three pairs as they pass each other in the street, or randomly bump into each other, as the weekend unfolds.

At first I have to admit that I didn’t think I was going to enjoy ‘The Light of Amsterdam’ at all. As the book opens we are in Alan’s head as he watches the final journey of George Best after his funeral and I was slightly worried we were about to endure the narrative of some middle aged football fan. As Alan went on to discuss his affair, the end of his marriage, how bored he was in his job, how difficult his teenage son was, etc and I was thinking ‘bugger, have I got to unpack my luggage in public to find another book’ yet there was something in the writing and the characterisation Parks had that kept me going and I am really, really glad I did because his characters are superb.

Call it the ‘nosey parker’ in me but I love books about people, regular ordinary people. People who you could pass in the street, fictional people you have met the characteristics of in people you have spent time with. They aren’t remarkable, they just get on and David Park has these characters spot on and develops them fully before the plane has left the runway and we get their back stories. Alan is simply a disappointed middle aged man, who feels like (partly through his own actions which is always worse) that his life has taken a wrong turn. Karen is a woman who got pregnant very young but has built a life for her daughter and herself no matter how tough it has been or how much she has had to sacrifice nor how menial the jobs she has to do in order to make ends meet. Marion is a woman who has a successful marriage, business and yet somewhere inside her feels all this is too good to be true, something has to give and will it be her husband, tipped over the edge when he buys her membership to a gym. It was Marion who I have to say I found the most intriguing, especially when you discover what she has planned on their weekend away.

“When the girls had finished their coffee he told them he’d drive them home. She was glad that he didn’t offer them any more wine and that he hadn’t drunk any more. When he went off to fetch the smoke alarms and his toolbox she looked at the bottle and was momentarily tempted to finish it off after everyone had gone but tried to strengthen her resolution to dedicate herself, if not to abstinence, then at least moderation. The girls left by the kitchen door to go and fetch their coats. She heard them chatting in Polish as they walked out into the floodlit corridor. Standing at the glass she looked at how harsh the light bleached Anka’s hair almost white. For some reason she thought they looked like prisoners making their way back to their cells for the night. She felt sorry for them in their struggle to make a better life. She didn’t think she could be as brave, told herself that she had never been brave, so this thing that she was planning to do seemed like it belonged to someone else and she wondered if she could find the strength to see it through.”

Even though I found Marion the most intriguing, I loved all of the characters the more I got to know them and as the stories developed. When I alternated between them as I read on I didn’t find myself mourning the last narrator or rushing onto the next one. I also admired Park for his sense of giving them some personal mini drama’s once in Amsterdam without every pushing the story lines too far and turning it into some farce or melodrama. The characters have issues, they address the issues, some overcome the issues, some don’t, the world goes on as it does in real life and I really liked that quality with the book. My only slight niggle was that I felt it ended a teeny bit too neatly overall, yet because I liked the characters so much I was almost glad of it and to be fair Park doesn’t make the most obvious thing that could happen end up happening. You will know what I mean if you have read the book or once you do, which I recommend.

‘The Light of Amsterdam’ is one of those great novels about the stories real people tell, the ones that you overhear snippets of on the bus/train/cafe and want to know more. It is three tales of people who you could quite easily pass in the street, and it celebrates the little understated drama’s that we have ourselves every so often. Those life events that aren’t huge and all encompassing, but that change us slightly or make us see our lives differently. If the characters are doing that you can’t help but do that yourself a little bit, whilst also looking around you and thinking ‘I wonder what that person sat over there’s life is like?’

Who else has read ‘The Light of Amsterdam’ and what did you make of it? Have any of you read any of David Park’s other novels? I have heard this one was something a bit different for him so I am pondering if I would like his previous books or not so would love your thoughts, as always. Tomorrow we are off for a little wander round Amsterdam…

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Books To Take On My Travels #1

I have a little routine with my reading habits whenever I go away be it a work trip or a holiday. I really like to try and learn about the places I am going through books be they nonfiction, travel guides or fiction itself (new, old, any genre). Well as I am off again in the next few weeks for a long weekend I thought I should ask in advance for some of your recommendations on what books I should be hunting out. It would help if I told you where I was going really wouldn’t it?

Yes I am off to Amsterdam for work, a travel feature, in a few weeks and so I could really do with some recommendations of books that I should take with me. I am already doing some of my ‘lead up reading’ as I grabbed as many guidebooks from the library as I could find the other day, however what I really want is some books that I can read once I am there.

Amsterdam Guides

I have already had a think and, of course, Amsterdam’s most famous book is ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and one of the things that is firmly written down in mine (and The Beard’s, as managed to get him a place on the trip) itinerary is to make sure we visit the Anne Frank house. I only read that infamous book last year so it might be a little early for a re-read, and also I read Etty Hillesums diaries and letters this year, so with going and the pre-reading I think I need something different to be reading whilst I am there. The only other book I could think of was Ian McEwan’s ‘Amsterdam’ but that was only for the title and indeed I have read that one already too.

So, what books written about Amsterdam, set there or indeed by someone from Amsterdam should I be tracking down before I go away to pack in my luggage?

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