Everyone wants to visit Anne when they come to Amsterdam. I’m not sure why; she’s never home. That doesn’t seem to bother the friends and couchsurfers who arrive intent on trekking to the tilting four-story merchant’s house on the Prinsengracht that was slated for destruction 50 years ago. It’s a straight shot up Rozengracht (literally Rose Canal, although the 17th century canal has been damped since 1890) from my apartment on the western edge of the Jordaan to the canal-side home. On this bleak February afternoon, I’m stepping out of winter hibernation to walk there.
As the elevator descends five floors, I pull my woolen hat over my ears and yank my puffy jacket down low over my hips. Stepping into the lobby, my second-hand Relay boots—purchased at the vintage shop on Elansgracht, seemingly owned by a gaggle of Dutch dogs—clack over the black tiles. Past the stairwell, I heave open the stainless steel entry door bearing a notice, in Dutch AND English (the latter mostly for my benefit, since most of the other building residents speak Nederlands) about pulling it shut when leaving. Posted after the Boxing Day robbery in my building, it reminds me my adopted city is an edgy place.
I suck in the frosty air that bites my cheeks and cools my lungs like nothing I inhaled over a half-century spent in Southern California. Remnants of recent snows have melted, but I still mince over the cobblestones on Groenmarktkade like a penguin intent on maintaining balance. It’s lunchtime at kitschy Moeders restaurant next door, where a handful of diners savor stamppot and rijstafel (the latter prepared Dutch-style, substituting potatoes for rice), against a background of photos depicting guests’ moms. In the window, antique lamps, vintage scales and eclectic kitchenware exude nostalgia. Rounding the corner onto Rozengracht, the sticky-sweet scent of spare ribs assaults me with savory goodness.
Past Moeders, Asian girls in tank tops and shorts slouch on the sofa at Salon Mei, laptops perched on their bare knees. Friends have bets on what actually happens in the dimly lit establishment proffering full body or feet massages for €20. A sign framed by ceramic buddhas invites customers to “Revive, Refresh, Relax.” But on this frosty afternoon, the girls are alone. A frantic cat paces in the window of adjacent Ben Cohen Shawarma Grillroom, eager for attention.
On Rozengracht, dozens of bikes lean against the centuries-old brick buildings. Cyclists swathed in hats, scarves, coats, mittens, boots and a few stilettos peddle against the winter chill, some riding side-saddle in the way only Dutchies do. A tiny red car sits on the pavement like a squashed tomato, tempting fate. I wait for the light at Marnixstraat, wondering if anyone ever wanders into Lucky Jack Casino on the corner.
Across the street, the pace picks up as I head closer to Centrum. Sleeping buddhas lounge in the window of Waries Thai Food, gesloten as usual. Past the odd artifacts at Raw Materials, I resist the urge to dive into Sabina’s to buy more colorful knickknacks from the Far East. The Flower Power coffeeshop is barren of customers, as are most of the establishments on the street. Beyond the odd urn winkel with its designer caskets, I notice a poorly choreographed ballet taking place in the middle of busy Rozengracht—a cyclist dodging cars and trams, aiming to get to the other side. Happens every day, leaving the cyclists victorious. .
I turn left on Prinsengracht and walk along the canal. It’s not long before I spot the line to Anne’s house—a long queue of pilgrims waiting patiently to embrace the legacy of the courageous pre-teen who hid with her family in the 17th-century canal house, hoping to outwit the Nazis. But it was not to be. With her parents, sister and four other occupants of Prinsengracht 263, Anne was arrested on 4 August 1944. As was their custom, Nazis stripped and confiscated the contents of the Secret Annex behind the moveable bookcase once its Jewish inhabitants had been arrested and deported. Of all the contents in the Annex, only Anne’s diary was saved.