Return to story
The writer and her best friend (top) tiptoed through the tulips in Holland and made new friends--some a little woollier than others.
The scenery includes centuries-old gabled architecture, gorgeous blooms and amazing Dutch fare at Moeders Restaurant, where photos of beloved mothers fill the walls.
BY EDIE GROSS
AMSTERDAM--We'd been in Amsterdam three days when my best friend glanced down at her chirping BlackBerry, then looked up with a grin usually reserved for those who've just won the lottery.
"Oh my God, Newsha's in town," she said. "Our trip just changed dramatically."
Our weeklong trip in April was a mix of business and pleasure. Stephanie Sinclair, my best friend since college, was in town to do some work for Human Rights Watch and to pick up the 2012 World Press Photo award for best contemporary issues story for her National Geographic piece on child brides.
Since her husband was neck-deep in law school exams, I went along as the proud family member, figuring I'd do touristy things between official events.
I'd never met Newsha Tavakolian, but she and Steph got to know each other years ago while covering the war in Iraq. Born and raised in Iran, Newsha, a photographer, lives in Tehran with her husband, Thomas Erdbrink, a Dutch journalist and chief of The New York Times bureau there.
It was a fluke that she was passing through Amsterdam while we were there and an incredible stroke of luck for Steph and me.
There are many things to love about Amsterdam: world-class museums, charming houseboats, canal-front architecture, bicycle-friendly streets, live-and-let-live attitude. But the most wonderful element--and I suppose you could say this about most places--is the people, a facet that's often inaccessible to tourists during short visits.
Thanks to Newsha, a gregarious soul with an infectious smile, we went from tourists to welcome guests in about 10 seconds.
I'd brought along a colorful travel guide and had set a conservative goal for myself: Before leaving the Netherlands, I wanted to visit Anne Frank's hiding spot, cruise Amsterdam's canals and see tulips.
As you can imagine, the Frank family's attic annex, where they hid from the Nazis for two years, was incredibly moving. Hundreds of us waited in the rain outside the building at 263 Prinsengracht for a chance to see the spot, concealed behind a swinging bookcase, where Anne Frank penned her famous diary before she, her parents, sister and four others were deported to concentration camps.
A relaxing canal cruise takes one to the other end of the emotional spectrum. There's simply no better way to see Amsterdam's centuries-old gabled homes. It's also a great way to get the lay of the land without being run over by cyclists.
We'd just finished a 90-minute cruise when Newsha called and invited us to meet her at De Balie, a lively cafe near a busy square called Leidseplein.
Newsha began working as a professional photographer at 16, shooting for a number of reformist publications that have all since been banned by the Iranian government. Today, her work, which has an international following, straddles the worlds of documentary photography and art.
Many of her projects focus on women's issues, including a recent one titled "Listen," an homage to Iranian professional women singers who are forbidden by Islamic law from singing solo, performing in public or producing albums.
The work is haunting and beautiful and expresses an important sentiment: It's possible to love your country and its people without necessarily agreeing with its politics. It's a sentiment many Iranians and Americans likely share.
Newsha, herself, is hysterically funny. We laughed for hours at her stories, including one about the perils of trying to maintain her beauty regimen while her salon was being raided by religious police.
We were soon joined by a friend of hers, Sander Goudswaard, former online coordinator for World Press Photo and a native of Rotterdam.
He chatted with us a bit about his latest project, ADay.org. Sponsored by a Swedish nonprofit called Expressions of Humankind, the project urged people all over the world to photograph their home or workplace on May 15 and upload the pictures to a single site.
Later this month, the images will be available for everyone to see. Some will end up in a book in the fall. Overall, it's a neat way to gain a perspective on daily life elsewhere through photography.
MOTHER OF ALL MEALS
After several hours of laughing and talking, Newsha had to run to an appointment. Stephanie and I were hungry, and we wanted to try authentic Dutch fare.
So Sander, on his way to meet a friend, took us under his wing and walked us several blocks to a hole-in-the-wall called Moeders, or Mothers. We never would have found this place on our own, but it was the best restaurant meal of our trip.
The walls of the restaurant are covered with photographs of mothers, and the menu is mouth-watering.
We settled on a Dutch
We stuffed ourselves, took a 10-minute break, then stuffed ourselves again. Still, there was so much food left by the end of the meal that it looked like we hadn't eaten anything.
I topped it all off with a glass of mint tea, a Dutch specialty that isn't actually tea at all. It's fresh mint leaves covered with boiling water and sweetened with honey. So simple and so delicious.
Though we lacked bicycles, we rolled ourselves home.
THE FAMILY TREATMENT
I couldn't visit Holland without seeing tulips, so the next morning, we headed south to Leiden. Our half-hour train ride took us past fields so colorful they look as if they're wrapped with red, yellow and purple ribbons.
Another 20 minutes by bus and we were strolling through Keukenhof, an 80-acre public garden filled with tulips, hyacinths and other exotic flowers that look like they've been beamed from alien planets.
Some of the blooms were the size of a fist, and the fragrance of the park was indescribably beautiful. Marijuana may be legal in Holland, but the best place to inhale is most definitely Keukenhof.
That evening, back in Amsterdam, we received a call from Newsha. Her friends Wassily Khudyakov and Ella de Rijke were having a dinner party. Did we want to join them?
A home-cooked meal was entirely unexpected--and something we were not going to pass up.
Wassily is a third-generation painter from Russia who specializes in restoration and conservation of artwork. He met Ella when he was 22 and she was 12 and her neighbors were hosting a showing of his paintings.
They ran into each other again 10 years later during a bike ride--I guess that's the Dutch way--and married soon after.
They welcomed us like old friends and served plate after plate of delicious food: beef stew, rice, salad and a casserole of zucchini, mozzarella and artichoke.
We were joined by Newsha's husband, Thomas, and his best friend, Jan-Dirk van der Burg, a photographer whose latest book is my new favorite.
It's called "Olifanten Paadjes," or "Desire Lines" in English, and it's a collection of images shot throughout Holland of shortcuts--those barren footpaths we carve into the grass when we repeatedly avoid the "official" sidewalk or staircase because our path is quicker.
You've seen them everywhere, but it's unlikely you've seen a collection unless you already own van der Burg's book. My favorite part is that, with each image, he includes the meters saved by using that shortcut.
Stuffed to the gills again, I leaned back and listened to the conversations swirling around the table, alternating from Russian to Dutch to English to Farsi.
Being a tourist in Amsterdam is wonderful. But nothing beats being treated like family.
Edie Gross: 540/374-5428
Most of the new friends I made in Amsterdam are artists or photographers. To see their work, check out:WorldPressPhoto.org features work by some of the world's most incredible photographers. Winners of this year's awards were recognized at a ceremony in Amsterdam in April. StephanieSinclair.com is photographer Stephanie Sinclair's website. You can also view her award-winning project on child brides at National Geographic.com.
Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian displays her work at NewshaTavakolian.com.
Sander Goudswaard's latest project, bringing the world together through photography, can be viewed at ADay.org.
Russian-born painter and art restorer Wassily Khudyakov hosts a site at Conservart.nl.JanDirk.com features work by Dutch photographer Jan-Dirk van der Burg, whose book "Olifanten Paadjes" is my new favorite. TOURIST TIPS Moeders.com: For an amazing meal in Amsterdam, do not miss Moeders Restaurant. A reservation is recommended. Ambassade-hotel.nl: Ten 17th-century canal-front homes were linked to form this beautiful hotel in the heart of the canal district. Charming rooms, friendly staff. Keukenhof.nl: A short train ride from Amsterdam, this 80-acre public garden is a treat for the senses. Lovers.nl: Several companies offer canal cruises in Amsterdam, but we enjoyed an afternoon trip with this company. Transportation: You can reach every major city in Holland by train from Schiphol Airport. The trip to Centraal Station in Amsterdam takes about 20 minutes. Once in Amsterdam, we found the tram system very easy to use, especially if you pick up a week's pass at an office conveniently located just outside the train station. Visitors can also rent bicycles, Amsterdam's main form of transportation. Importing flowers: You can bring Dutch bulbs back with you, but be sure the bags you buy carry a special stamp indicating they've been preapproved for import to the United States or they'll be confiscated. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the bulbs must have "a certificate bearing a serial number, the scientific name of the bulb, the country of its origin and a date on which the special certificate expires," which is usually six weeks from the date of issue.