I had never been to Amsterdam when in 2012, I went to visit my daughter Sofía who was studying there. While she was at class, I rented a bicycle and explored the city on my own. The first thing that surprised me was the hundreds of thousands of bicycles ridden by Amsterdamians who will plough you down before you can say “Gouda cheese”.
Amsterdam is certainly a feast for the senses. First, it is a visual fantasy. The typical houses, the canals, the parks are beautiful and a pleasure to contemplate. It is also provocative in a civilized way. You smile at the smell of marijuana wafting from the coffee shops. You savour the exotic Indonesian food. You try not to stare at the prostitutes. It’s a shock to see the women in the windows of the redlight district. They are real. They are there. They give your moral bearings and your twenty-first century feminism a bit of a shake. Yet, not far away, the Widows’ garden. A community of women who choose to live independently, without men or children, respected by all.
The flag of Amsterdam is a black banner with three large white “exes” : no flood, no plague, no hunger. A safe place. The medieval flag is a declaration of principle of one of the freest and most tolerant societies in the world. Look carefully. There are no curtains in the windows of a true Dutch house. Nothing to hide. Amsterdam is unique. There is no place like it that I know of.
And It was the last home of Anne Frank. I owe Anne a favor.
I was staying at the beautiful Pulitzer Hotel on the Prinsengracht canal. When I arrived, I was accompanied by the bell boy up an elevator, down a corridor, up some stairs, up another elevator and then again up more stairs, over a narrow roofed promenade to a very solitary small room under the eaves. No sign of the canal. The room looked out over the rooftops at the rear of the house. It was cold and the bellboy quickly turned up the heat and put out his hand for a tip for walking me all that way. Perfectly understandable. That’s what you get when you reserve a free room on one of those hotel airline fidelity programs! But I was happy. I loved it.
It was probably a maid’s room in the old days. So in that little place, I made my temporary Amsterdamian home. In the days that followed, I trekked down to the lobby for breakfast (and back) and hung around the Jordaan district before meeting Sofía for a stroll and dinner. Very nice, chic, central, historical, interesting. And ten houses down from my hotel, on the same side of the street was Anne Frank House.
Of course, I visited the house. I knew it would be emotional. As a little girl, I had read the diary and had convinced myself that there was a chance Anne might still be alive. My junior edition of the fifties did not mention anything as traumatizing as death camps and there was no mention as to what had become of Anne when the hiding place had been discovered. I learned the horror of the Holocaust later. My father, to soften the blow, had told me she had probably died of tuberculosis. This was something I could understand. As a Canadian child born in the fifties, I had had my TB shot.
In Anne Frank Haus, there is no furniture anymore but there is a mirror nailed to the wall in the small area they used as a bathroom. I had a vision of the young teenager staring at her reflection, wondering if she was pretty, unhappy at the spot on her chin, yearning for her life to go back to where it was in her beloved Amsterdam. Yearning to be an ordinary girl again. I remembered, or thought I remembered, that sometimes at night, she would be so desperate for the outside that she would sneak down the six flights of stairs to look out at the street through a tiny slit in the curtains. I paid attention as I walked up the steps and listened to see if they squeaked. They did. Very loudly. A mother now, I thought: “No, Anne! What have you done? You made too much noise!”
When I went back to my room under the eaves, I saw the black house from my terrace. I realized that Anne Frank had looked out at those same rooftops. Maybe she could have seen me, the young maid at the rich man’s house ten houses away, yearning for the same things.
Anne was condemned to death not because of anything she did, not because of any illness she suffered or even just plain bad luck. She died because of what she was. She died because she was a Jew. Her identity, her religion had condemned her. It was hideous, and obscene. The ultimate consequence of an identity that is unacceptable to others.
At that time, my novel was just beginning to surface in my head. All I knew was that I wanted to write a story about the place I come from and the language I treasure, about my roots and my heritage. I had a hard time falling asleep that night, thinking about Anne Frank who had lain there on her cot only 200 yards away, thinking about my own history, and my daughter’s history which is not at all the same as mine. Trying to tie us all together. The peculiar city of Amsterdam had touched a nerve. I finally did get to sleep.
The next morning, I had breakfast in the hotel dining room. I chose a small table facing the window looking out on a pretty street with quaint shops. It was a sunny day. Men and women of Amsterdam on their way to work rode past on their bicycles. I was sipping my coffee and enjoying the early morning urban activity. I grew up in a small town but in my heart, I am a big city girl. My mind wandered. Wouldn’t it be funny if I saw an old friend ride by, I thought to myself. One thought led to another. I liked where I was going. I felt excited. I pulled the thread. My story came to me. The story of Michel, of Adrienne, of Xavier. My “True Identity”.
Thank you Amsterdam. Thank you Anne.