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Haarlem: the second “a” is for “awful lot of white people in this Harlem”

November 9, 2010

So it seemed somehow inappropriate to come all this way and see only one city in the Netherlands, what with the ease of travel around the country and all.  I can’t tell you why I wasn’t up for a trip to Rotterdam or Maastricht or the Hague, any of which I would have loved to have seen, but I wasn’t.  And you know what?  It’s my vacation, and I don’t have to make the most of it if I don’t want to.  I also haven’t had a Heineken or smoked hash or visited a prostitute while in Amsterdam, but at least I’ve strayed from the most touristy areas a few times, and love the city all the more for it.

Even the train station is pretty in Haarlem.

But still, it seemed like I should see at least one other town in Holland before I ship off for Belgium tomorrow, so I compromised with Haarlem, which is more or less a suburb of Amsterdam (at least in terms of proximity).  I’m glad I did.  Haarlem is a graceful little city with its own charming collection of broad canals and winding narrow streets flanked by a contiguous chain of ancient but well-kept brick houses.  And patisseries.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t own up to eating a sandwich or two while wandering the cobbled alleyways.

I also discovered, quite by accident, what I suppose must have been Haarlem’s red-light district.  Or at any rate, I wandered into a very tidy little area where several buildings did literally have red lights lit, with sheepish-looking middle-aged men furtively ducking in and out of doors marked

After your nooner, you can go next door and confess.

“18+”.  At noon.  On a Tuesday.  Next door to a church.

I managed to stumble upon a tiny historical museum, for which the attendant practically apologized for my visit.  Much of the literature was in Dutch, which I suppose might have limited my appreciation for the place if I liked historical museums, but as it stands, looking at some old stuff without explanation or comprehension is pretty much how I roll when faced with a historical museum in any language.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate some history, but it really needs context and a touch of human interest for me to pay attention.  This is why I was so excited to see the first sign for the Corrie Ten Boomhuis, and why I was so disappointed over an hour later when my aching feet (damn you, charming cobblestones!) still hadn’t managed to triangulate it’s location in the brick maze.  While everyone else was reading the Diary of Anne Frank in 7th grade, I was reading Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place (for no more dramatic reason than that my mom had a copy and I was bored one day and picked it up).  Honestly, if I’d known this house existed and was open to the public, I would have looked it up in advance to find it.  The Ten Booms were a Dutch family that hid a number of Jews from the Nazis in a tiny space behind a false wall in their home.  The Jews escaped a Nazi raid after 47 hours in a space the size of a decent closet, but the Ten Booms were arrested and all but Corrie died in concentration camps.  In her old age, including in the photo on the jacket of the copy of the book my mother had, she was a spitting image of my step-grandmother, of whom I was quite fond in my youth.  So I suppose that silly incidental detail is probably a large part of why I was so drawn to this story, and why I was so upset not to find the house.

It’s probably for the best, though, after the Anne Frankhuis spectacle.  Okay, “spectacle” is melodramatic.  I kept my crying silent as I toured that particular hiding place yesterday, but make no mistake – there were a fair number of tears and choked-back would-be sobs.  I’m overly-emotional on pretty much any level, but especially when it comes to vicarious suffering.  For a person who routinely cries during movies, TV shows, while reading books, at the occasional advertisement, you would think I’d know that this would be beyond my limits, and in fact I kind of suspected it going in.  But I was there, and there was no line, and it seemed callous NOT to go in.

Any display of human suffering can make me go weepy, as can a tale of great human decency in the face of adversity.  Juxtapose the two, and I’m fucked.  I wasn’t overly moved by the size of the Annex in which the Franks lived for so long.  It’s small, and there were a lot of people there, but honestly in this day and age many Manhattanites pay top dollar for similarly-sized apartments.  No, the thing that killed me was that all of a sudden, history was in context.  (They really put the museum together very nicely).  And the context was this: one group of people was being wantonly brutal to everyone in their paths and they were getting away with it.  Millions of people were suffering for no valid reason, and millions more were scared.  That alone could get me lachrymose on my best day.  But then add the other layer on there: in the face of unspeakable cruelty, some people defied authority to help the persecuted.  They put themselves in extreme danger to do what was right.  How was I supposed to handle that?

Now that I’ve cited some valid reasons to be disturbed by this experience, let’s add the melodrama on there: my mother’s family is largely German, 19th century immigrants to the American midwest who retained their heritage to the extent that my great-aunt’s birth certificate is in German.  She was born in Wisconsin.  My grandfather fought in the war, albeit in Japan, but if my great-grandparents had not come to America, he still would have fought in the war.  The Nazis would almost certainly have drafted him.  And that my family fell on the right side of history somewhat by accident is an idea I’m having a very hard time grappling with.  How far is any one of us from being swept up an a nationalistic fervor?

It’s something for us in the States, generally oblivious to the world around us, to maybe think about.

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