I could sense the glare of the receptionist, the bell-boy and the bystanders in the lobby. Perhaps, it’s the Indian outfit like always, I thought brushing away the hint of self-consciousness.
“So, where are you coming from? They still must wear masks there,” Rolf, the manager, remarked casually as we waited for the lift. My eyes dashed around the room to realize that there I was the only one standing with an N-95 wrapped around my face. My hands made an uncomfortable journey to face to hesitatingly remove the mask. “From Paris,” I said meekly.
“Here, in Amsterdam, we don’t wear masks anymore. Enjoy your stay and the freedom,” Rolf said both joking and reassuringly.
I was on a work trip to Amsterdam, which was to play home to me for the next 8 days. Not my first trip, I was not the keen tourist. My plan was simple: to enjoy the change of pace from work back in Paris and take in the vibe of Amsterdam. But over the next few days, I discovered how my experience this time around was different from the one in 2018 – now as a resident of Europe my sensibilities had evolved…
The first thing that struck me was the number of cycles and cyclists everywhere in Amsterdam. I remember being awestruck even the last time around, but this time I found myself comparing the infrastructure with that of Paris. Maybe this is what Paris would be like in the years to come, if the current policy of promoting cycling and making it a 15-minute city come to fruition. There is something about the buzzing streets (not to mention the beauty of boat-lined canals) that are home to more cycles, pedestrians and occasional trams than cars that transports you to a different world. One that I found futuristic and aspirational the last time, but more plausible and desirable this time. I was immediately reminded of my daily cycling to language school in 2020 and 2021 and how despite an earmarked path for most stretches, I found myself tête-à-tête with cars. Racks and racks of cycles parked along the streets, though at times seemingly crowding, are like an oasis of hope.
And speaking of oasis, at this time of the year, you cannot miss the famous Tulip Gardens – Kukenhof. So, despite a busy day, we decided to make a quick trip to these gardens, about 40 minutes from Amsterdam. “They are the famous gardens captured in the film Silsila,” the driver boasted proudly on the way in an effort to educate us of its fame and grandeur. There ought to be more films that have been shot there, I thought. Surprisingly, the only one I could think of was Queen – one that was shot both in Amsterdam and Paris…but no mention of the famous Tulip Gardens. Just as my mind was racing to think of some film and my hand was about to reach the phone to google, we turned a corner and the sheer crowds streaming in and out of a massive gate ground my chain of thought and the car to a halt.
Having been to Giverny (near Paris), the residence and artistic paradise of Claude Monet, I had somewhere imagined the beauty of Kukenhof on similar lines; with manicured lawns, stylized water bodies and a colorful montage. But Kukenhof is to be seen to be believed. Sprawling on a massive 70 acres campus, it is the ultimate sanctuary of color – with every imaginable shade from the color palette. I wondered what Monet would’ve painted had he seen these flowers (I later googled and found that he too had fell in love with the Tulips and captured them in 1871 in his painting ‘Tulips of Holland’). Each tulip is different in terms of its form, shape and characteristic that goes beyond the multitude of hues. It is truly a sight to behold – one that leaves you with a sense of eternal joy.
Then one evening, I found myself at a cheese museum-cum-store. Bruno, an animated guide and manager, explained to me the different types of Gouda (and the correct pronunciation, of course). “We, the Dutch, don’t have much of a cuisine to boast of, but we do know our cheese!” he remarked. Cheese producers in The Netherlands are trying to enter the Indian market as “vegetarian cheese” today. On another evening, I walked into the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum. In a one-room museum toured with an audio guide (offered in 6 languages), one traced the history of cannabis, its modern day use in medicine and its global trade – all with a clear message of advantage of legalization. At a windmill, 25 minutes from Amsterdam, I saw the anguish of a mill owner at the death of their industry at the altar of modern technology. “It was like a specialized machine back in the day, like you have tools in your kitchen, to create a product designed to specific needs.” Explaining with pride how The Netherlands had been a leader in windmill technology and then was left with “cheese and farms” because of Napoleon’s rule, he showed us how his timber sawing mill today makes furniture to order. With these experiences, I realized that the Dutch are humble, pragmatic, business-oriented, tourist-friendly and eager to help. And most importantly, not even for a second since my arrival had a faced a ‘language barrier’. While I speak French, I thought how thrilled my husband would be to be in Amsterdam for he would not have to turn to me for translation for everything.
Amsterdam for the world may be about canals, artists like Van Gogh, Vermeer and Rembrandt and then of course, freedom (or Sin City) in the modern sense of the word, but for me, the week in Amsterdam turned out to be one of hope, joy and discovery that came from the less expected, but perhaps very characteristic aspects of the city.