Friday, February 19, 2016

Amsterdam, Netherland

We started our Europe trip with 2 nights in Amsterdam, to settle into the new time zone. We stayed at the convenient WestCord City Central Hotel. Then we spent the next nearly 3 weeks travelling around Europe before returning for our final week in Amsterdam. We stayed in an Airbnb flat in the core of De Wallen, which was much closer to the Red Light District than I anticipated (3 windows were a few feet from our door).

Some come to Amsterdam for the legalized pot and prostitution, but I was all about the cat museum, adorably called Katten Cabinet. The museum is in a tall row house, with cat related art exhibits and small museum store on the first 2 floors, then vacation rentals above and finally the owner's suite on the top floor. The exhibits are very diverse with the common theme of portraying a variety of cats. There are posters, sculptures, paintings - including a Rembrandt, etchings - including a Picasso, textiles, signs, advertising pieces, household items emblazoned with cats, ornaments, photos and a few real life cats wandering around. I loved the experience and saw many, mostly women, also enthralled, (some with bored looking husbands/boyfriends in tow).  The backyard contains several cat related tin signs and a few chickens running around, and the staff person said the owner calls them his two-legged cats.

Some of my readers may not know this but I started collecting cat related items when I was a young child. It all started when my maternal grandmother gave me a small china ornament of a cat sitting on a boot. From there I amassed many cat related items in my childhood. A highlight was shopping at The Bay and finding a cat comforter with matching cat sheets, which complimented my cat wallpaper, and the little cat foot prints I insisted my mom paint on my dresser. I slowed down on my cat collecting in my tweens and focussed in on the vintage Shafford  black cat collection from 1950's Japan. The first one I bought was a mug in a small antique store in Red Deer, Alberta, which was later joined by a teapot from a BC flea market. As an adult I've added more pieces to this collection. In 1986 I also desperately wanted the Franklin Mint "Cats of the World" Collection and they were simply too expensive. Last year, at an estate sale, nostalgia won out and I bought 15 of them for a bargain (which joined a few my sweet husband had previously purchased for me). Surprisingly our house is not overrun with cat kitsch, most of it is regulated to an old steamer trunk, and I promise we only (currently) have one real life cat; Milli.

Ok enough about cats... Amsterdam offered many other sights and things to do. The city is very picturesque with all the water filled canals and we often spent time just observing the street life. The streets are quite boisterous in the evenings but we did not have any negative experiences. Pro Tip; the 'coffee shops' don't actually sell coffee which is evident by the plumes of pot smoke spilling onto the streets; to find coffee you need to look for a cafe. We don't tend to do a lot of shopping but we did visit the Tesla store and picked up some shirts. We also visited the Sea Shepherd store where I added a towel to my collection.

We used the trams to get to the further out lying areas. We visited two excellent museums; Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museum. The Van Gogh was a truly immense collection of Van Gogh works and information on his life. Stedelijk is dedicated to contemporary and modern art and design. I particular enjoyed the design portion with art in everyday objects such as, well designed kitchenware and furniture. On a different note, we also visited the Red Light Secrets - Museum of Prostitution, which gave a informative overview of the issues and history. One particularly powerful exhibit was set up like a Red Light window, with the museum visitor on the side of the woman working, and a life sized screen on the other side playing a video of the many types of people who pass by, including the curious, the friendly, the embarrassed, the rude, and the abusive.

Amsterdam is also home to Anne Frank's house, the young jewish girl who wrote a diary of her time in hiding from Nazis during the second world war. The exhibit is extremely informative, and is well set up items that belonged to the Frank family, Anne's diary, photographs and educational video. It is is an important and popular place to visit, so we opted to purchase booked tickets online, which allowed us to go at a specific time and avoid the line up. The canal house contained a business owned by Anne Frank's father Otto, while the hiding place is in a annex out back and above, the entrance hidden by a movable bookshelf. Anne Frank's family hid there with four other Jewish people (Hermann and Auguste Van Pels and their son Peter, and Fritz Pfeffer). Four of Otto's employees risked their lives to hide everyone and provide all their provisions over the more than two years they hid in the annex, before they are discovered by Nazis in 1944 and sent to concentration camps. Otto was the only one to survive the camps. It was an emotional experience to walk up the narrow staircase and stand in the rooms seeing the same walls that surrounded these eight people.

Anne Frank's life would have been much different had she and her family not been denied entry to the USA as refugees. Canada also turned away Jews fleeing persecution and death in Nazi Germany. "It was 1939 and 907 Jewish refugees aboard the German transatlantic liner St. Louis were seeking sanctuary from Nazi Germany. Canada refused to take them in and the ship sailed back to Europe, where 254 would later die in concentration camps." (source: The Chronicle Herald) As a global community we need to learn from history and respond to the worlds' suffering, injustice, poverty, war and those fleeing, in a compassionate manner.

“I think the purpose of life is to be useful, responsible, honourable  compassionate. It is, above all, to matter: to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.” - Leo Rosten

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

We arrived in Vienna via train from Budapest, Hungary. For some reason in Vienna we had a difficult time finding information on public transportation schedules, so we opted for a taxi from the station to our airbnb rental in the Neubaugasse neighbourhood. The flat was magnificent, in an old building with an ancient but working elevator. The ceilings were high, with light filled windows. Vienna was snowier than our previous stops, and we were thankful for the extra layers in the damp cold. It was interesting to see flowers point through a light dusting of snow.

The view from our flat;

Vienna was our shortest stop, five nights, and we spent it immersed in wandering the streets and checking out the museums. We also did not anticipate the national religious holiday on January 6 called Epiphany which saw most shops and restaurants closed for the day. We tend to skew towards contemporary art exhibits but we enjoyed exploring the history in Hofburg Imperial Palace, which is a very historically accurate glimpse into the Habsburg empire. It includes furnished Imperial apartments, Sisi museum, silver collection and a large collection of Imperial utilitarian objects. We also learned a lot about the rather tragic life of Empress Elizabeth who was married into imperial life at sixteen years old, lost her son to suicide,  suffered deep melancholy, and was ultimately murdered. The exhibit did a good job engaging with visitors via the stories, authentically decorated rooms and artifacts.

Mumok Modern Art Museum was a fantastic experience with great exhibits in an interesting building. I particularly enjoyed the tapestries by Ulrike Muller. A local recommended the free exhibit at the Kunsthalle Wien which had an interesting mixed media show called Political Populism, exploring current and historical social issues. We also enjoyed the artistic, and often political, graffiti displayed around the city.

Vienna was also fabulous for vegan food, but that's another blog post!

For my photos on Vienna see: