By Bridget Fahey Hodder
The most notable thing I found about Amsterdam was not the red light district, although that certainly did get my attention, or even the vast amount of bicycles. Most notable was the public art displayed everywhere. Some sprayed on by the likes of Banksy or Space Invader, some displayed in residents’ windows (I saw a mannequin dressed as Superman staring out of a window, watching the passers-by), and some commissioned by the government.
As my partner, Graham, and I would board the train to get into the city, the train carriages had many different designs printed inside. One carriage was a bizarre collage of grey photos that had a sad aura of WWII. Another had illustrations of different coloured mineral rocks. Even the bicycles were works of art, which as an English ex-patriot explained, was a great way to spot your bike if it got stolen, which happened far too often.
It wasn’t just the inner city where you’d find Amsterdam’s unique blend of surreal imagery and love of colour, but in the suburbs too. Graham and I were staying in a caravan park called Lucky Lake, which was 40 minutes out of the city. When we arrived at the front desk, placed inside a small wooden hut, the first thing that we noticed was a striped, scaled to actual size, paper mâché hippopotamus guarding the front door. When we walked inside, the polite, tattooed Irish man who served us complimented our accents and showed where we could get food, toiletries and bicycles.
He then proceeded to show us to the caravan where we would be sleeping for the next five days. There was an outside kitchen with a small bar fridge, oven, barbecue and speakers set up, and next to that, a large caravan had been painted in rainbows that Graham could only describe as “unicorn vomit”. It also had a bust of Batman painted on it, telling tourists that the caravan was the park’s cinema. All the residential caravans were painted pale shades of blue, pink or green and had two wooden clogs nailed besides the door with a number on it. Our caravan was baby blue.
After we unpacked, we explored the grounds and found more paper mâché animals including a purple zebra and a polka-dot gorilla. We then hired a few bikes and rode towards the lake from which the park had taken its name. While admiring someone’s back yard, which housed a pair of pet goats, I almost ran into a dinosaur. I gazed up at the figure and found it to be a statue of a velociraptor. The raptor’s head was raised mid-roar and it was posed as though it was chasing after prey. I wondered if the owners had got this statue from Jurassic Park. Out of its open mouth dangled a single star, probably a forgotten Christmas ornament.
After our bike ride we took the train to town and visited Anne Frank’s haus (as it’s spelt in Dutch). The line went around the block, but 20 minutes later we were inside. We entered through a pair of electric sliding doors into a modern front office to buy our tickets. Then, we walked through a long cement hallway that led into what appeared to be the living room of the house.
The room was old, wooden and physically sad. It was as if what had happened to the family had seeped into the fabric of the place. I was impatient for the history; I went straight for the famous bookcase that concealed the other parts of the house. Graham liked to savour what he saw so he let me rush ahead. As I climbed the staircases, a small pang of fear grabbed me – the stairs were very steep and loud. Whatever paint had been used to colour the stairs had flaked off from years of tourism. However, there were occasional specks of red on the railing.
I entered the top room; it was decorated with yellowed wallpaper, patterned with little black flowers. Parts of Anne’s diary, a collection of school books, were placed about the rooms, open in display boxes. Most of the top rooms had the same wallpaper, but the room which Anne stayed in had a collage of illustrations and photos pasted to the wall. The collage consisted mainly of the faces of smiling women, or playful kittens. Graham joined me as we wandered the rooms, tears occasionally threatening to make an appearance.
An interview with Otto Frank was playing on a TV screen in the corner of the attic. Sadness was etched upon his face. A few steps towards the attic hung a famous photograph of Otto Frank standing in the very same attic. It was dated 1960 and claimed that he hadn’t come back to the house since the Nazis took his family away. As we exited through the gift shop, I noticed a graphic novelisation of Anne’s diary, and it was the first time I found art inappropriate.