It’s 3am on a cold, wet spring morning in Amsterdam. And I’m walking around the Binnenstad trying to find Anne Frank’s house. In the pitch dark. And the pouring rain.
Naturally, this isn’t where I’d intended to find myself the night before I left Europe. What I had intended was to get from Schiphol to my hotel without any hiccups – another ill-fated mission – then head into town for a beer or two, and perhaps a bit of exploring.
Things started to go somewhat downhill when I took a train in the complete opposite direction to my accommodation. No connectivity on my cell phone meant trying to follow the little blue dot as it tracked along the map and hoping that it was accurate. It wasn’t. And I’m sure the ears of the gentleman who sold me my ‘EU’ SIM card at the beginning of the trip were burning at that stage. Then the weather put a literal damper on things.
Rain be damned, I thought. I was determined to see at least a little more of Amsterdam. There were only a couple of hours in which to enjoy Venice of the North, and one has plenty of time to sleep. I checked into my hotel and asked the receptionists at the front desk for some advice about where to go for a casual drink. They gave me some top tips, which I swiftly forgot, and I headed off to the metro and onto the 52 train towards Centraal Station.
Although I’ve already blamed my lack of GPS for ending up walking around in the rain, I should come clean and tell you that there may have been more to it than that. Like the fact that, arriving at the train station, I decided that I had a decent grasp on the layout of the city from my previous 12-hour daytime visit. Things are different in the dark. And 12 hours are certainly not enough to know your way around any city, let alone one with a semi-circular layout.
Nevertheless, I settled into my false sense of confidence like an old rain jacket – which, ironically, was the one piece of clothing I hadn’t thought to bring along – and walked off the platform, over a canal and on into the darkness.
I’ve always found it quite pleasant to walk in the rain. (Granted, I’ve grown up on the African continent where rain is seldom paired with freezing cold. And where 16 degrees Celsius constitutes ‘freezing’.) So the first couple of hundred meters were quite enlivening. A soft pitter patter on my face, a brisk pace to keep the blood flowing and my body warm, and plenty of interesting shop fronts to admire.
But Amsterdam had other plans for me. The sky opened up and what was a drizzle one minute turned into a stage 6 hurricane the next. The clouds burst. The wind picked up. And the soft pitter patter was now an icy shower.
Having absolutely no clue where I was, I started walking headed down the nearest alley where I saw lights on. And because it’s Amsterdam, I ended up in a coffee shop. “When in Rome,” I thought. Plus, they had WiFi, so could I figure out exactly where I was and plan my trip back.
Warm and comfortable inside, I settled into an armchair and unlocked my phone. Google Maps: ‘Hotel name’. Select route: ‘Public transport’. Time: 27 minutes. Google: ‘Amsterdam metro timetable’. Result: ‘Trains depart from Centraal Station every five minutes’. Perfect.
What I failed to check was the time trains stopped operating. Or how long it would take to get to the nearest station. So off I headed, thinking I was the master of travel, to find a train station. Which I did (more self-congratulation). At 12:43 a.m. Just under twenty minutes after the final train for the night had departed. (Now self-flagellation.)
“Well,” I thought to myself, “There’s not much to do but see the sights you would have done had it not been the middle of the night and pouring with rain.”
Fortunately, I had paid enough attention on my way to the metro station that I could find my way back to the warmth of the coffee shop. Unfortunately, they had closed in the interim. By a stroke of luck, their WiFi was still on and they had an awning (an unusual feature for shops in Amsterdam), and I could get out of the rain for a second to plan a mini sightseeing tour.
Then it was off again. Into the rain.
I snaked my way across the city, down streets, up streets, over canals, and back again. The rain an ever constant companion, gnawing at my patience. To my surprise, I stumbled upon the Anne Frank House (I thought I was somewhere near the Rembrandt museum. I took a step back to take in the exterior of this unassuming building and shivers ran down my spine. It might have been the cold, but I’m sure it wasn’t.
Perhaps it was being stuck out the rain with no reasonable prospect of getting home that gave me a deeper understanding of what it feels like to find yourself in a precarious situation. Perhaps it was the fact that this house looks just like the others in the row; ordinary in its extraordinariness. Perhaps it’s the horror of the story that the walls could tell.
Not once over the weeks I’d been exploring the European continent had this feeling washed over me. Not in the grand palaces of Vienna or among the bastions in Budapest. Nowhere else did the sense of gravity weigh so heavily on me as it did in this moment in front of this perfectly ordinary canal house.
There’s no telling what it was that moves us when we stare at whatever we find in the wake of human history. All that we can settle on is that the places that house these memories – museums, fortresses, monuments, and holy spaces – need feeling. Opulence and grandeur of marble and gold may be splendid to look at, but they lack the warmth we need to feel, to relate, and to learn.