20 Years After Honeymoon, a Return Trip to Amsterdam


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The Munttorren tower at the Muntplein square in Amsterdam.

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Jasper Juinen for The New York Times

Twenty years ago, I traveled with my husband, Wendell, on our honeymoon to Amsterdam, where we walked hand in hand along 17th-century canals, visited museums, ate an obscene amount of cheese, and then blew a big black hole into the middle of our trip by eating hash-laced space cakes.

We spent an entire 24 hours — or maybe more, I was too stoned to tell — wandering, lost amid those same beautiful canals, saddened by the prostitutes in the windows of the Red Light District, not being able to find our way back to our hotel and finally sitting in the middle of the sidewalk to get our bearings. We wound up on a bench, staring at a tour boat passing under a bridge, wondering aloud to each other if it was the boat that was moving or the bridge.

Two decades later, we decided to return, this time with our offspring in tow. What would it be like to return to our honeymoon destination with our children? Probably a bit less romantic. Certainly less trippy. We knew there would be no space cakes this time around.

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We headed out in April with 11-year-old Paulina and 15-year-old Dean, just as the flowers and trees were starting to bloom in the Netherlands. But before we even boarded our plane at Kennedy International Airport, the trouble started.

Paulina was stopped at security when T.S.A. officers found a pair of scissors in her carry-on backpack. When the officer held them up, I clapped my hands over my eyes and groaned, “Why did you bring scissors?” Paulina was embarrassed and looked as if she might cry. “They’re for crafts!” she explained. I comforted her and admitted I should have supervised her packing. She was only 11, after all, and didn’t think of crafting scissors — for art projects on the long, boring plane ride — as a potentially mortal weapon. Surprisingly, the officer gave the scissors back. They were apparently one centimeter shorter than the length considered lethal. And we were off.

Once in Amsterdam, the real fun began. I’d forgotten how truly lovely the brightly painted, narrow canal houses were, and the children were just as enchanted as I had been 20 years earlier, seeing them for the first time. After a couple of hours of wandering the cobblestone streets, we set out on our first quest. Paulina, like most girls her age, had recently devoured the book “The Fault in Our Stars,” and subsequently cried her eyes out during repeated viewings of the film.

She was determined to find the famous bench that the actors Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort had sat on during a crucial scene. Within an hour, we spotted the bench on Leidsegracht Street, where two canals met and a lovely bridge stretched, just past Spui Square. The tip-off that this was the right bench was the small group of tourists gathered around it, taking photos with their long selfie sticks.

We waited patiently for our turn to take our own photos, sans selfie stick. Twenty years ago, selfie sticks had not been invented, of course. We didn’t even have cameras on our phones, I told the kids. They looked at me as if I’d said we had once churned butter on this very spot.

As we sat there on the bench, a man in a tiny painted boat decorated with fake flowers pulled up beside us on the canal and, while spinning in circles, began playing the trumpet and barrel organ. A larger crowd gathered as he played song after song, nudging the boat’s rudder with his elbow. Most clapped, though one man with a basket on his head started barking, then began to sing opera.

Soon he was joined by another man, who arrived in another boat, also singing opera. The trumpet player used a fishing pole with a wooden shoe on the end to collect his donations.

“I don’t really understand what’s happening,” Paulina said, smiling but confused.

“Just enjoy it,” Dean said. After a beat, he added, “This is like Paris on drugs.” I nodded and laughed.

It was only a matter of time before Dean noticed the “smart shops,” with their signs advertising mushrooms and marijuana. “Is everything legal here?” he asked, his eyes wide behind his hipster glasses.

“I’m not really sure,” I shrugged and quickly changed the subject.

That night we visited the Pathé Tuschinski, the movie palace built in 1921 and known for its mix of Art Deco, Amsterdam School and Art Nouveau styles of architecture. My husband and I had stepped inside its striking lobby 20 years ago, but because “Schindler’s List” was playing — we’d already seen it back in New York and felt it might be too heavy for our honeymoon — we decided not to watch the film.

This time, “Suite Francaise” was on the bill, starring Michelle Williams. We weren’t even aware they had made a film out of the book, which Wendell had read and enjoyed, so we decided, with sore feet, to take it in. Paulina and Dean clapped when it was over. Afterward, we wandered the theater, admiring the architecture and antique lighting and furniture.

The next day, we returned to another favorite spot: the Café Americain, inside the American Hotel, with its stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings circa 1900. No tables were available, only seats at the bar. We turned to leave, figuring the kids wouldn’t be welcome there, but the maître d’ insisted they sit at the bar with us.

Dean was served a towering lemonade in an elegant flute and Paulina drank a Shirley Temple with three skewered cherries, served in a martini glass. My husband and I happily downed our elderflower cocktails. Paulina knocked her round lip balm behind the bar, sending it like a pinball ricocheting off the glasses, but Dean reached in and rescued it before the bartender even noticed.

That night we decided to walk to the restaurant Bern, where we had enjoyed our first fondue ever as a married couple. (Fondue has since become a New Year’s tradition in our home.) We had made a reservation earlier in the day and walked across town to Nieuwmarkt square, past the brightly lit, castle-like de Waag building, and down the street Wendell vividly remembered, only to find the restaurant wasn’t there.

At my urging, he grudgingly searched for it on Google (another convenient invention since our honeymoon days) and found it on a street nearby, a temporary location while the original was being renovated.

Paulina was famished by this point and asked every few minutes when the fondue and entrecôte steak would arrive. But when the food finally did come, she proclaimed it “the best meal I think I’ve ever had.”

The next afternoon, after a big dose of Vermeer and late Rembrandt at the overcrowded Rijksmuseum, we headed to Vondelpark, the Central Park of Amsterdam. It was the warmest, sunniest day yet. In a cafe inside the park, we ordered cappuccino — Paulina’s first ever. She practically licked the cup clean and declared her newfound love: coffee.

She bounced and danced back to the hotel, but an hour later was alarmed when her hands began to shake and her stomach started aching. She crawled into bed with me and announced that would be her last cup of coffee. I agreed.

Dean complained every morning that we were waking him too early (9:30 a.m., just in time for the tail end of our hotel breakfast). He also complained of the church outside our window waking him up with its quarter-hour bells in the middle of the night. We let him have a half-cup of coffee at breakfast so he would stop complaining, even though Paulina told him it was mistake. Shaking and stomach pains did not ensue.

The next day, we visited the Anne Frank House, which I hadn’t realized was right around the corner from our hotel. Before “The Fault in Our Stars,” Paulina’s favorite book had been “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.” The museum has a cameo in “The Fault in Our Stars,” so her two favorite books were linked. She was excited to visit. Dean, a history buff, was also looking forward to seeing the house where Anne and her family hid during the Nazi occupation.

When we visited 20 years ago, the effects of the space cakes hadn’t quite worn off yet, and I found myself sobbing quietly as I read the displays and gazed at Anne’s red-checked diary. I hoped to approach the museum with a clear head this time.

The house, like the rest of Amsterdam, was much more crowded now with tourists. And since our last visit, the house had undergone a major renovation, making it look more like a modern museum than a typical canal house. But as soon as I saw enlarged black-and-white snapshots of young Anne, the tears welled up again. The fact that Anne was so close in age to my children set me off.

When we climbed to the top of the steep stairs and peered out the back window Anne had looked out of, we could see the same church steeple she had gazed upon, the Westerkerk, and hear the same bells that had been waking Dean each night. It was the same steeple we could see from our hotel balcony. The coincidence gave me chills, and I suddenly realized just how lucky we were to be here together under such radically different circumstances, on a carefree family vacation, free to complain to each other and tease each other and eat together whatever meals we chose, free to aimlessly wander the beautiful streets of Amsterdam.

On our last night in town, we booked a table at the restaurant d’Vijff Vlieghen (Five Flies), a hodgepodge of five small structures built in 1627, with etchings by our old pal Rembrandt, antiques and original blue Delft tiles lining the walls.

Ours were the only children in the upscale, romantic spot, otherwise filled by English and French couples. But our children made us proud. The conversation zipped along, as it had the entire trip, far more animated than at our dinner table in Brooklyn following a long day of work and school.

The waiter, impressed by their behavior, even gave Dean a glass of Champagne to toast our trip. A different trip, indeed. At the meal’s end, Paulina decided to forgo the coffee and later, when packing, left her crafting scissors on the bedside table.



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