The view from here
"As we walked the canals and cobbled streets for the first time, we had a strong sense of nostalgia. A familiarity with this new place that made it feel like an old friend and not a stranger."
We arrived by train. It was just turning to dusk as we walked the bridge from the station to our hotel. Amsterdam holds a special place for us, yet this was the first time we’d set foot there.
As we crossed the tram lines and busy roads, the crowds bustled around us. We were in the heart of the city, surrounded by a vibrant mix of tourists and locals.
We stopped at a pedestrian light, and I was suddenly taken aback. An elderly lady beside me was talking, and for a moment I could have sworn my own Oma was right there with me. The voice was so familiar that it tricked my mind into thinking she was there, too.
I’ve never heard another lady speaking with the same accent as my grandmother, but here, on the streets of Amsterdam, I was suddenly in my Oma’s living room again.
As I caught snippets of conversations from passing strangers, I heard familiar accents that sounded like home. Accents I usually only heard at family gatherings.
I felt at home in a place I’d never been.
As we continued through the streets, I was stunned at how many men looked like my uncles. I’d never really thought of them as looking “Dutch”, but it turns out they do. On more than one occasion, I took a second glance at a stranger, shocked at how much they looked like relatives.
Amsterdam had found a place in our hearts long before we arrived.
My husband also has family roots in The Netherlands. We’ve both heard three generations of Amsterdam stories from our grandparents, parents and siblings. As the last to visit, we had the most ‘borrowed memories’ already ingrained in our minds. As we walked the canals and cobbled streets for the first time, we had a strong sense of nostalgia. A familiarity with this new place that made it feel like an old friend and not a stranger.
Luke's mum had prepared us an Amazing Race-style challenge to recreate photos of his Oma and Opa taken in Amsterdam. Like Indiana Jones, we followed the clues across the city to uncover the past. We stopped at the Hague and recreated his grandparents' engagement photo. We found his Opa’s childhood home and the exact view he painted decades ago.
For our final stop, we found the home his Oma lived in during World War Two. This was a place he’d heard of many times. A story that can’t easily be forgotten.
Growing up in New Zealand, you are largely sheltered from the realities of war. On our travels through Europe, we met Serbians who lived through bombings in Belgrade, Croatians who fled to Sweden during the Yugoslavian war, and others who escaped a concentration camp in Germany. Our understanding of war had changed significantly. But when you hear the truth of those horrors through a loved one, it hits you even harder.
In 1944, the final year of WWII, Holland was struck by the harshest winter for decades. The extreme cold froze canals and prevented barges from transporting food to Western Holland, and the Nazis had blocked rail transportation. This combination created a famine known as Hongerwinter ("Hunger winter” in Dutch). It is estimated that up to 22,000 people died of starvation that year.
In Luke’s family, his Oma’s stories from this time are well-known. Desperate for food, she broke curfew to pick grains of rice off the street that had fallen from food delivery trucks. She took this risk despite the Nazi machine gun post on the end of her road. And despite seeing someone get shot for doing the same thing. She experienced hunger and fear like nothing we can even imagine.
As we stood in front of her house, we were thankful for her courage. Without which neither of us would be standing there.
I don’t consider myself sentimental, but it was impossible to ignore the deja vu we felt in Amsterdam. Whether it was the Febo windows which my sister had raved about or a more poignant location from decades before, we felt we’d been there before. I was experiencing a new city through three generations of memories.
As we formed our own new memories, melding the past and present, I wondered when I’d be back. And hoped it would be with my family next time.
Author - Nicole Williams
Nicole Williams is a New Zealander currently travelling the world for five months with her husband, Luke. Nicole quit the real-world to get travel "out of her system" but found it's had the opposite effect. You can see more from her at https://medium.com/@envycollect