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Traveling abroad: plan, plan, plan and savor surprises

It rained almost everyday we were in Europe, but without the rain we would not have been treated to this beautiful rainbow over Sint-Nicolaasbasiliek in the Central District of Amsterdam. (Photo courtesy of Terry Larson)1 / 9
A rainbow over the blue waters of Lake Superior is a sight to behold. (Photo courtesy of Paul Scinocca)2 / 9
Theater Amsterdam opened in the spring of 2014. It is located on the waterfront in a light industrial district. It is large enough for massive sets like that of “Anne,” which recreated the Anne Frank Huis (House). (Photo by Terry Larson)3 / 9
Photo by Naomi Yaeger4 / 9
Every day fresh flowers are put on the pink granite triangles of the the Homomonument. Unveiled in 1987, it is located on the bank of Prinsengracht near the Westerkerk and the Anne Frank Huis. It commemorates all gay men and lesbians who have been subjected to persecution. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)5 / 9
The Amsterdam Hard Rock Cafe is proud of its handwritten notes of music sets by Duluth native Bob Dylan. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger.)6 / 9
From Holland.com, the nation’s official website: “The Dutch and their bikes are inseparable. It’s not a form of transportation, it’s a way of living. The 780,000 people who live in Amsterdam own an estimated 881,000 bicycles.” (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)7 / 9
In Amsterdam, a signs warn pedestrians not to slip into a canal. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)8 / 9
Woo hoo! I did something not-touristy – swimming with the Dutch at the Zuiderbad, a public pool which, coincidentally is next door to the Rijksmuseum. With its Art Deco theme, it was lovely inside. Built in 1912, it was considered very modern at the time, with electric lights and central heat. (Photo courtesy of Terry Larson)9 / 9

I'm the type of person who prefers folk tunes and campfire music to a highbrow symphony. But for the past week Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances" has been running through my head. That's because the European Youth Orchestra flashmobbed me at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam last week.

And though I know my name will be mud for admitting this, I'm not much of a theater person, which is why I usually have Budgeteer reporter Teri Cadeau or a freelancer write about Duluth's fine local productions.

But now one of my favorite memories is of attending the Anne Frank play at the Theater Amsterdam, a brand-new facility with glass walls built in the industrial warehouse district so that the stage is large enough to house the life-size set of the annex, the house that Anne Frank and her family and four others hid in from the Nazis during WWII. The play is in Dutch, but we were provided closed caption and translation with iPad minis and earbuds.

Funny that I had to go halfway around the world to learn how to enjoy what my friends and neighbors enjoy every week right here in Duluth.

My husband had a professional conference at the RAI in Amsterdam last month. So we extended our time around his conference to make it into a 12-day vacation, with a side trip to Germany. The RAI is a convention center about 10 times the size of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. It's nestled in the modern, sleek Zuidas commercial district.

On our first day, I feel like a racehorse. I'm ready to run, I want to see everything, but my husband wants to rest. Our plane arrived before 6 a.m. and it's still early in the morning. I thought this was a bustling city. "What is this?" I wonder as we wander around an empty Rembrandtplein. It doesn't fit my notions of the Dutch.

Paper and bottles litter the brick and cobblestone area. It's soon bustling, but before the crowds emerge, we see mini-garbage trucks drive down the streets and gather up bags of trash put out by shop owners. Men jump off the truck, hose down the street with water and sweep it with brooms. But still, to me, it remains relatively quiet. In Duluth, when the garbage trucks lumber along you can hear them three blocks away, and when they lift the dumpsters up it sounds like cars are crashing into each other.

The main modes of transportation are the bicycles and trams, which are almost silent. Once in a while the quiet is punctuated by a bicycle bell warning pedestrians to move. I learn that bicycles have the right away and if there is an accident, the bicyclist is never wrong. In the United States, when a there is a bicycle/automobile accident, many people question what the bike was doing on the road in the first place.

Walking on the cobblestoned streets of the Central District, we see canals and structures built in the 1600s. Some appear to be leaning. Most are narrow and about four or five stories high, with a hook at the pinnacle of the roof. We walk back to our hotel and come upon a Rembrandtplein with a statue of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, the great painter during the golden age of the 17th century, when the Dutch were very prosperous and led European trade, science and art.

We continue to walk to Muntplein, which has a large clock on top of a tower. Later I learn that it is one of three medieval gates to the city. I see a flower market and start to cross the street, but my husband calls me back to wait for the pedestrian light to turn green. He's worried I'll get run over by a bike or tram. When the light does turn green there's a steady percussion sound that we dub "the drummer boy." This sound indicates the time you have to cross the street before the trams and bicycles take over.

Our friend Bruce, who is also from Duluth, attends the same conference as us and he calls all the bustling action insane. But to me, it isn't insane and even though my husband worries about me getting run over, I think it is more insane in the U.S., where cars whip by at 30 mph and rush through an intersection during a yellow light. I don't hear much honking, and I enjoy the silent transportation. Even the people on the trams are quiet. If someone is talking loudly, you can bet it is an American or an Australian.

I am proud of my packing job. We each took one carry-on suitcase and one other bag only. I am super-prepared, bringing electrical adapters, medicines and supplements, toiletries, an umbrella and poncho, like I'm going to a Third World country. But the Netherlands is very much a First World country, as they once had great shipping fleets and colonies around the globe. What is acknowledged, but mostly glossed over by the museums and tours, is that much of their wealth was gained through slave trade in the 1600s and 1700s.

The Dutch are also known as liberal. Their coffee shops sell marijuana and in the red light district, naked women stand in windows selling sex.

We meet people from New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Germany. Those are just the people with whom we had actual conversations. All around us on the trams and in the restaurants we hear languages from around the world.

My best memories are of the surprises: accidentally walking into the Red Light District. Seeing a group of well-dressed rowdy young men sing and sail down a canal while another man jumps into the canal to join them on their party-boat. Getting flashmobbed by the European Youth Orchestra at the Rijksmuseum, making it impossible to meet my tour group at the appointed time and place.

The water there isn't as blue as ours. At one point while touring a palace my back hurt, and while I recognized that the furniture and tapestries were excellent and beautiful, I thought I'd rather be on a trail overlooking the shore of Lake Superior.

While I enjoyed experiencing new things in the Netherlands, I am glad to be home in Duluth. The sight of my house was beautiful and I appreciate my home now more than when I left. Usually when our basset hound barks we find it irritating, but now the sound of his greeting us is music to my ears. I'm glad we went, but I really appreciate what we have here in Duluth.

And now when I look down the hill to Lake Superior I hum Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances."

If you would like to see the flashmob event at the Rijksmuseum got to www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ycw4_xHQXM or enter the key words "Flashmob by EUYO at the Rijksmuseum." To view photos go to www.maartenbrante.com/detail/european-union-youth-orchestra-rijksmuseum.

Yaeger is the editor of the Duluth Budgeteer News.

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at www.DuluthDailyPhoto.com.

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