4. Learning to Live (with help from Amsterdam)

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This week has been a good week. During the last few months there has been a gradual move towards feeling able to live again. We (my mum and I) have slowly ventured out of the comfort of our home at more and more frequent intervals. Going to the shops seems less threatening than it did a few months ago. Meeting friends for short periods is perfectly conceivable, and I can even laugh with real enjoyment at jokes or silly stories. The deep sadness is always there but it’s not always at the very surface of my emotions. It lies underneath everything and in quiet moments it breaks through, sometimes with tears and longing, sometimes it is darker and threatens to pull me under more completely. But at the moment the good and beautiful things in life can be felt just as vividly as the horrific and that’s what we all need to survive these things. That’s what ultimately keeps you going.

So this week I have been enjoying some of the good and beautiful things in life. My mum and I took a short trip to Amsterdam, a place she visited 20 odd years ago but somewhere I have never been. It’s also somewhere Greg went a few times with friends. Although we are quite aware that he would have had a very different kind of holiday (less cultured and more blurred by various legal substances perhaps), it was nice to think of Greg wandering around the same streets as us, having a laugh with his mates.

It was also really special to spend some time with my mum. We’ve been together for the last 6 months, of course, but there’s something about going on holiday together which signifies that your time is completely devoted to each other. It was a great way of the world emphasising to me that I have other hugely important and valuable relationships in my life; relationships that make me happy and give me a lot of joy and comfort. I’ve lost one of the most important relationships in my life, and the pain of that cannot be diminished, but I have other relationships which support and nourish me.

Amsterdam

I would thoroughly recommend Amsterdam to anyone looking for a short trip away. We were there for 2 whole days and 2 half days, and that was plenty. The central canal areas are beautiful. Most of the shops and restaurants seem to be independent which makes window shopping a very enjoyable and interesting experience. All the houses have pots of bright flowers clustered around their entrances so simply strolling down residential canals is itself an experience. We were there in the week, so things might be different at the weekend, but the place wasn’t overrun with tourists and the general atmosphere was relaxed and casual.

Some observations of this wonderful city:

Everyone cycles! Not in the ‘let me just slip into my fluorescent Lycra shorts, carefully choose from one of my 5 bicycles, then speed along country lanes with 10 other similarly attired men’ way people over here prefer. The Amsterdam-ers are very relaxed about their cycling. They sit up on their bikes, and lazily saunter along. Most of them are on their phones whilst they’re cycling, or holding umbrellas, or drinking coffee, or smoking. Nobody wears a helmet. And the bikes themselves are treated as mere practical machines – a plastic crate is the most popular choice of basket, they seem to be left outside in the rain day and night, and each one is pretty indistinguishable from the next.

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It is impossible to determine what exactly the zebra crossings are for; scooters rarely stop, cars mostly do, but bikes definitely don’t. It seems to be more a matter of individual preference than clear rules. What with all this and the trams it’s a pretty treacherous city to get around. You need to have your wits about you. Seeing as many people visit Amsterdam specifically to smoke their wits away I’m surprised I didn’t see more accidents!

The famous “brown cafes”, as my guide book refers to them, were more dingy than my mum remembered, but less so than I imagined. They weren’t threatening but they weren’t cosy either, and they gave off much more the feel of a run-down bar than a place you would take your mum for a nice cup of tea and afternoon cake. We didn’t venture inside so I can’t say any more. The red light district was bizarre, and worth seeing I guess, but it all felt a bit sad really. The girls sat in their windows half dressed, looking bored, playing on their phones, waiting for someone to decide to have sex with them. I don’t know what I think of it exactly – the whole debate is too much for this mere blog. Within the red light district, though, the old church is quite spectacular and (possibly?) a less controversial tourist spot. Other recommended touristy activities – the Van Gogh museum, the flower market, the Rijksmuseum, a canal tour.

 

The Cooking (or, this week, eating) – Amsterdam Food

So with all this enjoying of life I haven’t had time to do any cooking (the challenge of the blog failing at only week 4). Instead, I will offer some photos of the cuisine of Amsterdam:

Pastries – Every morning we picked up an exciting pastry from a little bakery and took it to a canal side bench to enjoy. The waffles are very Dutch, and this particular one, covered in hardened chocolate, was delicious. Better than the usual chocolate sauce I think. The other pastries were great but I’m not sure how Dutch they are!

 

Bitterballen – little fried balls with a creamy filling, either shellfish or beef. Apparently a traditional Dutch snack, and very nice with a big glass of wine.

Amsterdam’s restaurant scene appears to be mostly international, but there was a nice little place recommended on TripAdvisor that does Dutch cuisine. It’s hearty, simple food done very well.

Herring – I associate pickled herring with this vague area of Europe. This starter was pickled herring, beetroot and onion, and was a very fresh start to the meal. It was very fishy, which I enjoyed, but I don’t think it would be to everyone’s taste.

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Mains – the main dishes seem to be made up mostly of meat, potatoes and veg. Mum had ‘stamppot’, which is a mixture of mashed potato and vegetables, with a huge meatball and gravy, and I had pork mince meat wrapped in bacon, making two smaller meatball type things, with red cabbage and boiled potatoes. Both dishes were exceptionally tasty.

If you ever get the chance to go to Amsterdam go!

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