In the final days of August, I discovered Amsterdam with a profound experience that would bring new depth to my sense of freedom, movement, and womanhood. I owe this to one of the most powerful symbols embodying Dutch culture and lifestyle — the bicycle. In the city of red lights, tulips, and fallen bells, I wielded this symbol and discovered an inner strength that had abandoned me in America. It became one of the most indelible parts of my summer, one that would build me up with courage to continue my artistic, nomadic journey.
I was cycling one day from the east side of the city to the center; my partner was blasting Bob Marley from her speakers, the sun was ablaze with her afternoon rays, and we were on our way to the Anne Frank museum. The canals were lined with boat houses, designed in charm with their open decks and cascading green gardens. People drifted by merrily along the water, drinking and eating their way into the sweet sunset hours. It was idyllic, the romance of it all (almost) too much to bear.
My feet pedaled and propelled me forward with stable ease; it was the kind of cruising rhythm that immediately works its way into soothing your mind and spirit. I was relieved to be away from Berlin, where we had spent a week encumbered by the dense energy of the city; there was a subtle hostility there that I couldn’t quite shake off. The people wore black, carried beer everywhere, did heroin on the steps of the subway. My body couldn’t soften into its own beauty there; it didn’t feel safe enough to relax.
I became acutely aware of the energy flowing through a city, its people, its culture. I believe that each place in the world holds a distinct behavioral pulse; an artery of subtle atmospheric pressure that presses against your own personal embodiment. It speaks to your instinctual self; tells you how to move in a crowd, how you are expected to dress, where you can and cannot be. These are messages that we, as women, fine-tune and internalize our whole existence. We are experts at navigating through space — our lives depend on it. In a way, I feel as if we were mere witnesses at our own births, signing away social contracts with the initials of our gendered chromosomes, “XX.” From a tender age, our reality in the midst of society always seems to be bracketed by fixed rules regarding our bodies, our emotions, our natural inclinations. We learn to live with the expectations that we should embody, a shrewd sense of femininity so limited in its scope that it stifles personal agency. This happens around the world, and morphs into diverse guises and traditions. I know many women who spend their whole lives unbinding themselves from these agreements. I am in the midst of doing so myself.
In Amsterdam, people flowed in the way of water. A map of the city will reveal its particular urban structure that vaguely resembles aquatic concentric circles; the northern ocean drifts into the canals, weaving a natural tapestry between the city pavements and the environment of the lowlands. It is this blend of elemental and man-made architecture that softly holds the continuous momentum of the streets. We were riding on pulsing cobblestone and curvaceous bridges, surrounded by foundations of beauty. I was learning to overcome my ambivalence by the rush of excitement I felt every time I crossed crowded busy streets and intersections. I zig-zagged in between pedestrians, cars, and tramways. The winds and the wheels conspired in unified motion for the length of our journey.
That morning on our way to breakfast, I had noticed a statement sweater while window-shopping. It was woven with primary-colored wool tassels dangling all across it. I tried it on and couldn’t stop laughing; I splayed out my winged arms, swayed my hips, and my whole upper body shook with whimsical color. Hip-hop blasted in the store, the kind of beat that you can just follow with lightness; I felt giddy like a child who happens upon treasure. The knitted piece was pulling my internal self outwards and into the world; it made riding my bicycle that much more of a joy-ride.
At this moment in time, I was midway through my summer travels that would take me across America, Europe, and Africa. I was on the heels of leaving my corporate job in Midtown, where my office had no windows, and where my individual expression was strangled. I had structured my life around blinding monotony; the days hazed into one another with dullness and fatigue. I would go to work in business clothes, only to come home and change into one of my handmade dresses from Mexico — something loose, something crafted by a woman, something that felt like aesthetic love. I had no handbook for how to live a life of creativity; my painting and writing remained like bookends, filling up my evenings and weekends, but never quite thriving with the passion of dedication and time. Many people dream of hustling in the concrete jungle; all it did was stifle my energy. My exuberance and distinct interpretation of life had no place in this workplace culture of uniformity; New York was killing me with a slow, creeping depression.
But I live a blessed life, one where I could afford the choice to leave. With the support of my loved ones, I collected my courage, and dedicated myself to the uncharted rivers of my visions. One of the last things my mother said to me before I left was, “It’s a privilege to be an artist.” I absorbed these words with a humble heart. I wanted to launch myself into the winds of the world, to be present with the unique imprint of my soul, to learn living with no expectations.
I followed the current through California, Iceland, and Berlin before arriving in Amsterdam. Traveling across such great distances shocked my body each time I landed in a new environment; all of these meditative thoughts sailed through my mind as I rode my bike. I was learning a facet of freedom from the lifestyle in Amsterdam. The city was showing me, through experiential embodiment, that I could be as easy-going as I wanted to be. The kinetic energy I felt coursing through my feet, my legs, all the way to my fingertips, activated parts of me that had been dormant. The land tantalized me with her fresh air and big, open sky. As a New Yorker who is accustomed to packed subway cars and aggressive sidewalks, this was a turning point for me: to be able to cruise amidst a swarm of cyclists, and be empowered by it. I dared to match their stride and speed. The undercurrent of these moments was best expressed by my partner, “don’t hesitate!” I felt lead by the everyday example of Dutch women, some of them confidently carrying the weight of two, three, four children on the black frames of their bikes.
Once I began to trust my stability in rhythm, I was surprised at myself, at how taken aback I was by this feeling. The cyclists commanded the flow of traffic, and by becoming a part of them, I began to dominate fears within myself. I was coursing through the veins of the city, with serenity, with power. Why hadn’t this embodiment been more familiar to me in New York? I realized, with bittersweet illumination, that it was rare for me to feel this good in my body. I felt electrified, my senses sharpened. All this time, the wilderness within had sought release, to become like water, to know gentleness. I had been a woman conditioned for far too long, and I was beginning to naturalize liberty in my flesh.
Walking through the Frank family’s secret annex was a stark, contrasting experience. We immersed ourselves in the history contained by its walls, the feeling of claustrophobia and fear. With each climb of the stairs the rooms got narrower, the mass of the air thicker. I could see a vision of Anne in her room, trying to write away her worries, to find some hopeful channel through which she could convey what everyone around her was going through. I felt incredibly ill in the smallest chamber of the annex, near the roof. Here is where Anne would go each morning, to catch a sight of expansiveness in the trees, in the sky. My stomach turned. The reality of her life crossed the decades and clutched me; this had been a real prison. I had only experienced an infinitesimal and brief amount of the terror which was her life, and the life of the Jewish people. The tenacity of her pen became a testament to the light of faith, breaking through at all points in the darkness.
Outside the museum, I cried as I unlocked my bike. The thickness of the past was all around us, yet I had to find my way to wade through it. All of us women, we find our ways to move through it; with a pen, with a bike...with our spirit. In the simple act of being, we become courageous. I put my feet on the pedals and we drifted back home, freedom on the soles of our feet.
Words: Ella Hilaire
Photos: Ella Hilaire