My mom got in and closed the car door. “Next stop, Amsterdam,” she announced.
The speaker is the mother of the main character, Hazel, in The Fault in Our Stars, John Green’s megaselling book. It’s aimed at a mature teen audience, but I think that mature adults will like it just as much. It’s not perfect. John Green often goes for profound observations and sometimes succeeds in making them. Fault is culturally significant and hard to put down.
About half way through, Hazel, her mom, and the main male character, Augustus, get to go, rather unexpectedly, to Amsterdam. I won’t go into detail to avoid spoiler alerts. I will say, however, that Hazel and Augustus, who are clearly falling in love, will be taken to the Anne Frank house after an important meeting. While there, they share their first romantic kiss.
Amsterdam shouldn’t exist. Its name explains. English translation: a dam on the Amstel River. Beginning as a humble fishing village in the 12 century, Amsterdam grew to become a city of a million and a half as several settlements fused together. By the 17th century, when Rembrandt lived there, it was threaded by canals and growing even though most of it was 7 feet below sea level on land reclaimed from the sea. By the 17th century, Amsterdam’s Golden Age, it was the wealthiest and probably most cultured city in the world. One of my most impressive travel memories is going throughout the history area of the Rijksmuseum and learning about Holland’s 17th century Empire. The Rijk, by the way, has completed its ten-year restoration, Rembrandt’s Night Watch is back where it belongs, and over 2 million see it annually. Hazel’s mom is the only character to make it to the Rijk.
On their way to their hotel in Amsterdam, a cab driver tells Mom, Hazel, and Augustus that “Amsterdam is like the rings of a tree: It gets older as you get closer to the center.” It’s one of the world’s best walking cities, but you have to be constantly on the alert for bicycles. They approach from all sides and vastly outnumber pedestrians and cars. The cab driver also tells them that many tourists consider Amsterdam a city of sin and only want to see the Red Light District. This is so sad. The RLD is depressing, easily avoided, and, ironically, ringing an ancient church, the Oude Kirk. Hazel and Augustus only see the Red Light District from the distance as a halo of light.
The Anne Frank house, which they do see, is a worthwhile attraction. I found it moving but something of a duty, like visiting a Holocaust Museum. Instead of it, I wish the young lovers had gone to the Van Gogh Museum. After my first visit to it I wrote, “I had almost seen the entire collection when I noticed something. I was behind a young couple, and they were holding hands and standing very close together, not like lovers but more like teens making a simple human connection. I wondered if this was a coincidence, so I circled the entire floor again, not to view the glorious Van Gogh paintings but to look at the people looking at them. The young couple was typical. Silently except for shared whispers, families of several generations slowly moved from canvas to canvas. I saw many young couples doing exactly what the first one had done. There was something about Van Gogh’s art that touched each soul.”