I walked onto the train platform at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, and the agent in a yellow coat urged me quicken my pace. There was no time for question or clarification, she insisted. “Go. Go now, or you will miss your train!” And I hurried into one of the nearest, neatly packed cars, to begin my journey.
In fact, I shared her urgency, because my flight had departed very late from Detroit, landing over 2 hours late in Amsterdam. When your schedule dictates only 31 hours on the ground (not accounting for things like airport security and passport control), a 2 hour delay is substantial. Also consider that those 2 hours are especially precious when they fall during the scant 10 hours of daylight available in this part of world this time of year.
Happily, however, I made it from Schiphol to Haarlem as efficiently as I could, grinning madly the entire time. Being in a place where I’m surrounded by friendly conversations in other languages somehow animates my soul and rejuvenates me. I guess I can understand why some people might feel anxiety at this, but for me it is exhilarating.
I pulled my puffy jacket tight against the chill air and stepped out of the train station into the late Dutch morning, where I was greeted by an adorable little town. Around me, the square was lined by buildings marked with classic Dutch gables, and pedestrians and bicyclists moved in all directions across the brick pavers. Above, the sky was veiled in a monotonous layer of white clouds, through which the sunlight filtered with a directionless luminescence. The weather was fortuitous, because a friend had advised me to expect it to be cold, cloudy, and rainy. I was relieved to find that he had missed on the worst of those predictions.
The street outside the train station guides pedestrians directly to the old center of town. Along the way, I crossed one canal, and numerous roads. Notably, my passage was marked by more bicyclists than automobiles. I don’t know if this is because it was a Saturday morning or because this is Haarlem, and that’s what they do.
As I drew closer to the center of town, St. Bavo Church came into view, with her stunning steeple.
This meant I was close to Grote Square, where Grote Markt is held on Saturdays. I love open-air markets, and this was no exception. The breads were stunning, and the cheeses drew my attention, but I had a pressing goal to address. Instead of pausing here, I passed through the market and around the church on a personal quest.
I wanted food. No, really, I needed food. And I was in the Netherlands, so I wanted French fries. It was not far from Grote Square that I found them. Golden, crispy, salty, and delicious. After 3 hours delay, a 7 hour flight, a trip through passport control, and a train ride, this is what I needed. The locals take theirs with mayonnaise (and numerous other toppings, including onions, it seems!), and I’m used to ketchup, so I compromised. And my stomach smiled at me.
Sated for the time being, I sought out the Corrie Ten Boom house. I had never heard of Corrie Ten Boom until this trip, but Corrie and her family provided temporary shelter for Jews in need of help during the Second World War. This was accomplished via a hidden wall and tiny sliver of a room constructed in the back of Corrie’s bedroom. They offer few tours a day, so I rushed over to make the next one.
In all honesty the story is more fulfilling than the tour. The very small refuge is impressive in its design, and really is a startlingly small space for 6 people to hide in, in the end staying there for days. Because, ultimately, after helping to rescue 800 Jews, the Ten Boom family was found out. Corrie’s father died in Nazi custody, refusing reveal where the 6 people under their protection at the time were hiding. She and her sister ultimately went to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where her sister also died.
The museum has removed a part of the wall so that we can see better, and hopefully get a sense of what the terrified Jews went through, but in reality we can’t. There was something else that gnawed at my brain here, however. Maybe I was tired, but I found the tour to be discomfiting, because there’s something inherently wrong about people standing, grinning, and posing for photos in such a sacred space. I was happy to leave.
It was finally well past 2 pm, so I was permitted to check into the hotel, where I deposited my backpack before heading back out into the city. There was still much to see, and I had little time allotted to this visit.
Walking through the door into St. Bavo I was greeted by deep ponderous tones, dancing with flighty, gravity defying notes from the pipe organ.
It was time, at last, to visit the grand medieval church. She built when this was still a Roman Catholic country, but inside she lacks the opulence of a Catholic church, even if the elegance still remains. Although I didn’t see any documentation of this, I would assume that, like the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, she was stripped of her trappings during the reformation.
I hurried through the church, the sparsity of decoration helping me to expedite my stay. I felt less like I was missing something here.
And in a flash I was back in the streets of Haarlem, where promptly returned to the Grote Markt on a mission to make a small purchase and to peruse the other available options. Herring sandwiches were available, but I really didn’t want to try one. On the other hand, the fresh-made hot, gooey stroopwafels were not to be resisted. I impulsively bought one and dripped hot caramel everywhere. It was perfect.
Beyond the market I found myself heading south, to the Frans Hals Museum, buried on a nondescript street with quaint gabled houses. There, promptly upon entering, my phone signaled that it was time to check in for tomorrow’s flight.
And I stopped, finally, to sit at the museum cafe and enjoy a cappuccino, my face plastered with yet another stupid grin, my breath slowing, and the time sliding painlessly by.