So, what's it like spending time in one of the world's poorest countries to then spend a weekend in one of the world's most developed nations? It's overwhelming. It's shocking. Here I was, in a city with just half the population of Lilongwe and with just so much more. Unfathomably much more. I flew in at 5:30am, and I could easily jump on a train and get to the city in 20 minutes. After spending a few days in a city where you just don't get on the road after dark to travel somewhere, here I was, in a city where anybody could move basically wherever the felt like at any time of day or night. I simply cannot explain how the abysmal difference between these two cities felt. As if no amount of development cooperation could help Lilongwe and Malawi to catch up. Though these feelings eased somewhat after my first day there, I never fully stopped seeing the city through a broader, global lens that placed it in an incredibly privileged spot in a sea of poverty, under-development and inequality.
OK, that was dark, eh? So, back to my layover? My first day had the weather I expected – cold, rainy. So glad I brought gloves and a scarf with me! And so lucky Toronto's winters and springs toughened my up enough so my gloves, scarf and light jacket could prove enough! After a short nap in my hotel, I went for my first day of exploring, which consisted of simply wandering around in the general direction of the Jewish quarter, past all the de-rigueur views – the canals, the old rows of narrow houses, the winding streets, the boats...
By the time I made it to the Jewish quarter, it was so cold the rain had turned to an alternating mix of sleet and snow! Fortunately, I didn't have to spend that long outside, as I had reached my first destination, the Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Museum).
This was an interesting experience. On the top floor there was en exhibition with plenty of modern era paraphernalia, including numerous short documentaries and filmed interviews. Which struck me as odd from some of these was that, unlike the fluidity I had felt in Canada, where people could be partially Jewish, or where they seemed to be able to have no conflict between being both Jewish and Canadian, the questions asked and the answers given at some of the interviews I watched revealed (in my humble and non expert opinion) a more complex navigation of identity, some rigidity, even potential exclusion between different categories.
Like, for example, they asked a group of people if they saw themselves as Dutch Jews or as Jewish Dutch. First of all, the question seemed to me – from my Canadian perspective – rather aggressive, divisive and even non sensical. But the interviewees didn't seem surprised, reflected a bit, and most of them even claimed they were Dutch Jews, making it clear that they were first Jews and secondly Dutch! In a different clip, Dutch Jews were asked if they felt different, or if they felt like "normal Dutch", as if there was a binary system Jew-vs-"normal"? What about Dutch from non-European ancestry? or Muslim Dutch? That question sounded absolutely weird to me. Also, on a different interview, some interviewees said that they would move to Israel because they wanted all their descendants to be Jewish, because otherwise their Jewishness would be "diluted". That, plus the knowledge that the families of many of the interviewees were actually betrayed by non-Jewish Dutch during WWII, led me to the realization that being a Jew in the Netherlands (or probably, for that matter, in most of Europe) was a way more complicated affair than in Canada.
The rest of the museum was fine, especially since it used to be a synagogue and part of it was preserved as such, with plenty of explaining in writing, in sound and in video for each and every item and area. This would be a very nice place to give complete neophytes an introduction to Jewish customs and rituals.
And guess what, there was an Amy Winehouse temporary exhibition! I was no fan of hers, to be honest. Sure, I liked some of her songs, but I wasn't following what she did not was particularly affected when she died. But this exhibition takes you on a more personal level, through quotes from her, her books, her clothes, her family... I ended up liking this woman! A bit too late, I know. But I'm listening to some of her music now. I like it when an exhibition changes your mind about something or someone, eh?
I finished my visit with... fish cakes (viskoekjes)! Apparently some Dutch Jewish traditional treat. They were OK, but the mustard they gave me for them was superb! (later I'd realize Dutch mustard was the best thing on the planet)
Now, the ticket to the museum was in fact a triple-entry ticket. It gave you access to the museum, but also to the Portuguese Synagogue and to the National Holocaust Memorial. So, with the snow/sleet still going on, I headed to the 17th century Portuguese Synagogue, one of Europe's most important synagogues. It's also known as the Esnoga, which is the Ladino word for synagogue.
I must say, at first, comparing it with the historic synagogue I've visited in Mexico City's centre, this one seemed rather dour and somber. But, to begin with, it's one amazing place to explore! They give you some radio-like thingies that hang from your neck. When you approach something with a recorder explanation, you'll see a small plaque with an icon. You put your thingy near the plaque, press play, and you automatically hear the explanation! With options to hear additional information, including stories! Really really cool. For the first time in my life, I saw a room for mourning, and a mikvah (room for ritual baths). I explored every corner of the synagogue. And when I heard the explanation about how the synagogue has no heating or electricity, how it's still in use, and how it's lit only with candles which takes the person in charge about 2 hours to light, the image of this old place, full with people, with no light but candle-light, made it feel warm, and special. I really really liked it.
After that, I still visited what was called the winter synagogue, which also worked as a school, and which was used in those winter days when it would be just way too cold to use the big one.
From there I headed to the third place my ticket gave me access to - the National Holocaust Memorial, or Hollandsche Schouwburg. Essentially, a former theatre which the Nazis turned into a Jewish-only theatre (that is, a theatre for only Jewish plays and only Jewish audiences), and which later became the place where rounded-up Jews would be held prisoner until it was time to send them to a labour camp or to a concentration camp. Basically, the place you stayed at before being sentenced to death.
The place now has a commemoration column in the shape of a star of David. The grey, wet, snowy weather set the tone for my visit.
I have to say, the place is small, but very well put. I watched a docu there. No matter how many times you read about it or see it, how can you not get angry? Dutch citizens who happened to be Jewish being betrayed, sold for 7 gulders each to the Nazis, by their own fellow Dutch citizens who happened to not be Jewish? Sure, many Dutch citizens helped save Jews too, but plenty more were complicit in their dispossessing and murder. How terrible could it be for you to find out that your fellow citizens had become your enemies? To be a child and one day be dragged from your home with your family to a theatre designed to hold a few hundred people yet packed with up to two thousand souls at a time, with little food and sanitation? The histories from survivors were harrowing. As they should be.
Besides the docu, there were diaries from people (who didn't make it). Photographs, many of them of children. Edicts threatening Jews with deportation to Mauthausen Concentration Camp. That horrid "Jew" yellow star... What a disturbing, sad past.
The rest of the day it didn't snow any more, though there was still some very cold drizzle. The walk back to my hotel (to have a rest, since I had been on a night flight from Nairobi and had arrived at 5:30 am which, for me, on Malawi time, was more like 4:30am) was very pleasant, as any walk around Amsterdam's gorgeous streets should be...
And, of course, I passed by one of the red light districts (rosse buurt). I wasn't actually explicitly planning to cross it (or them, since there are actually three), but they are located in the centre, so it's hard not to walk by! Anyhow, sorry, I thought taking pictures of the women by the windows was too rude, so here's a picture of Red Light Radio, a radio station that transmits from right there, and a picture of one of the canals with not only windows and sex workers, but with plenty of sex clubs.
There was more that night, but this was plenty of photos and writing for a single post!