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Amsterdam travel notes

13-year-olds AmsterdamAmsterdam, 11-13

Photos on Facebook page Global Youth SpeakOut


Flew out of Chico at 6 am, nice talk with another yoga student. She’s off to Mexico. I’ve been needing more Russian youth input into my book, agreeable universe put a Ukrainian who works with Russian teens in Portugal next to me, good talk on the way to Chicago. Her family moved to Fresno after she finished high school (11th grade finishes there) and entered her senior year in a Fresno high school. A total shock because she was used to being with the same group of 30 students since 4th grade. They have a mentor teacher who stays with them their whole school experience, encouraging and watching out for them. She thinks that most of the group went on to university because of their mentor’s encouragement. Nothing like that here. She wanted to come to the US because when she was 17 it cost around $2,000 to bribe university admission officials, although that’s changed now that everything is online. I had three hours in Chicago airport, spent most of the time walking up and down under the light show of changing neo rainbow lights. Then seven hours to Amsterdam. Luckily the seat next to me so I could do some pretzel-like curling up to sleep a bit.

I’m staying in a hostel but my own room—wish they’d told me no soap, towels or glasses. The Dutch are exceptionally helpful and friendly. I saw a UPS driver stop for a cyclist and smile at him. They describe themselves as “curt,” but they seem more relaxed than Americans, even in Chico.  The bike lanes are full of people of all ages cycling.  An Alaskan girl who has lived here for nine years did a “free” tour of the historic city, you tip what ever you want. She is not a fan of Dutch men because she’s found them unwilling to work through issues.

She views the Dutch as historically very tolerant because their priority was making money not ideologies. They were one of their first to legalize gay marriage. Why? In the 16th century everyone had to work together to sandbag the city to keep it dry. Now about half of the people who live here aren’t Dutch. I’ve seen Muslim women in headscarfs, people of African ancestry, etc. We saw lots of canals dug by peasants in the 1600s with over 1,000 bridges, an old commercial building that Rembrandt painted. Many of the old building are tipped to one side because they’re built on sand and wood pillions, so close to sea level here, was a marsh. We walked by the prostitutes in their windows, wearing bikinis. They looked like normal pretty girls, shocking to think of what they feel they have to do for money. I looked at them in the eyes and smiled to let them know I recognized them as sisters. We saw the exterior of the Anne Frank house (we share the same birthdate) and other historic buildings, walked down a street where “coffee houses” sell pot. It’s not legal but the authorities look the other way because of the tourist dollars. I walked along the canals for more hours, looked at the flea market where luckily I didn’t find anything to buy as my suitcase is full of rain gear for the bike trip on Friday. Luckily today was sunny although cold.

Thurs. was rainy so I just went to the zoo. The most fun was seeing the beavers chewing on logs because I’ve seen their dens but never them in action. Amsterdam does a good job of creating green spaces, lots of parks. The older row houses are four narrow stories built around an inner courtyard. One woman told me it’s mostly for looking out your windows. Where she lives, there are five floors and five families. They do have an elevator. Nothing here is natural in the sense that the large park and the forest on the outskirts were all human built after they reclaimed the marshes. The big park has been sinking, so they’re engineering drains. I was told the Dutch engineers are experts, go to places like Hong Kong to create new land.

Friday was a perfect sunny crisp day for a three-hour bike ride to the countryside. Our leader was a well-informed young Brit who has lived here for 12 years. It’s easy to ride through the city because bike paths are on every street (also lots of trolleys and buses, not too many cars, some very small as seen in the photo of the red car). An Australian couple, a guy from San Jose who works for the State Dept in Tanzania, and an Oregon nurse on her way to Rwanda made up our group. Riding over the canals, we soon were on a country road along the river with large houses on one side. We stopped to see one of the few working windmills. It’s also the home to the man who was born there although its been moved to this new location. (see photo) Next we stopped at an 800-year-old farmhouse where the farm family makes gouda-style cheese from their 29 cows. He still had wax on his hands from one round of dipping them. They keep them indoors in the winter, along with the bull who has sired 100 calves this season. The farmer also makes wooden shoes with colorful painted design. We rode through the green podder lowlands, maintained by dikes. If they weren’t maintained, half of the Netherlands would be under water. Lots of waterfowl take advantage of the green fields protected by water, a swan paddled past us, very idyllic. The guide gave me 5 minutes to run into a middle school to find a teacher to give the book questions to students. I found one teacher and asked her to give the questions to an English teacher. And then back to the city and the conference started that eve.

Such a treat to be with people around the world and lucky English is the universal language. Sat. I soaked in info, taking copious notes, for 12 hours non-stop, eating left over breakfast food from the hostel. They provide cold cuts, organic whole wheat bread, yogurt and granola, apples and oranges every morning. Sunday, today, the conference ended earlier. I got email contacts from young activists from Greece, turkey, Spain, Brazil, Childe and Palestine to help with the youth activism book, yeah!!  I celebrated with a cream puff and watched ice skaters in an outdoor rink in a square with lots of people sitting in outdoor cafes. Today was a big celebration for the town. Santa Claus parades around the town, supposedly arriving from Spain. He’s accompanied by lots of blackface helpers who take gifts from Santa down the chimney. A small protest was underway to ask that blackface be discontinued, I think mostly from the conference participants.  Kids wore special hats with feathers and capes and waved flags to welcome Santa.

As to what I’ve learned, themes were anti-neoliberal austerity programs, anti-capitalism, anti-state. I pressed in the question period for solutions. One Egyptian said it’s too early. Some talk about forming co-ops, workers running their own factories, and other alternatives but not a lot of clarity about future society. Some speakers labeled themselves as anarchists, meaning anti-state. The three years of global uprisings were considered failures in that not much has changed, i.e. Egypt still has military rule, Greeks are suffering greatly, etc. But, they’re successes in that people are empowered, knowing they can make change. A lot of the videos showed police violence, including shooting with real bullets in Egypt, but the point was also made that media coverage of police brutality brought the masses to the streets, as in Greece. Some discussion of violence as necessary when confronted with police violence, cool to burn police cars, or a bright Palestinian blind young woman said it’s OK for youth to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers who occupy their land.

The most moving talk was by an Egyptian feminist who was in tears describing the “circle of hell” that often occurs where a large crowd of men surrounds a woman and grope or rape her, several were raped with a knife. She and others have formed protection groups to go in and rescue such women. You can’t really go to the police for help because the government’s position is that women should stay home. You’d have to be very courageous to report rape, as some women have done. Another theme is they believe horizontal direct action organizing works, very anti-hierarchy. Mostly a 20s and 30s crowd, but the plenary speakers were older academics, authors, mostly male American and British. The panels were most interesting because they were the young people on the streets from all the countries where uprisings occurred except the Tunisians couldn’t get visas. The organizers, a Canadian man and Dutch globalization professor (maybe a couple?) have made films about the uprisings so they have a network.

Monday I continued my interest in the narrow Dutch houses by visiting Rembrandt’s home from the 17th century, five stories high (see photos). He wasn’t a good Calvinist. After his wife died at 30, giving birth to four children—only one survived, he hired a widow to take care of his son and ended up in what the museum film called a romantic relationship. She sued him to marry her after I think 8 years of living together. He was obliged to give her monthly payments but sent her to a workhouse for women. Then he got involved with his next domestic worker, age 23. The museum had hands-on workshops, including etching. I didn’t realize it’s so difficult because everything prints in reverse. Then off to find a new place with minimal directions to hear anarchists from Spain and Chile, translated by an American guy who lives in Barcelona. O overall a godsend for contacts for the youth activism book. The most fun was the bike ride to the countryside. I wanted to take a bus to nearby port cities today but it was rainy and cold, thought I better guard my health for the 18 hour ride home. Stopped in Frankfort so I got to buy some German cookies. Lovely to be home now!

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