gap year in israel

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Day 1

Despite some rain today, the group had a great time on their first day in Holland. After an uneventful flight, they arrived at the apartment and everyone was impressed! It’s in a very nice neighborhood, very near to public transportation and cool sites, and it is really comfortable. The owner was there to greet them and they had a nice time settling in to authentic Dutch life.

Once everyone was ready, the group headed out to begin exploring. Their first stop was lunch and it was well time to avoid being out in the rain. After sampling the local cuisine, they arrived at the Albert Cuyp Market. Despite the weather, they enjoyed walking through the market and getting a sense of what’s available in this market which was first established in 1904 and includes over 300 stalls.

Next up was a two hour bike tour of the city. Just as they arrived for the tour it started raining again. And then it stopped minutes before they headed out.

They had geared up with ponchos and were determined to take advantage of the experience whether or not the clouds cooperated but in the end the rain held off for them. Their guide was very fun and really knowledgeable. He gave them a lot of information that included history and culture, as well as great tips, like where to find the best apply pie in town. Everyone had a great time seeing the various neighborhoods of the city, as well as many notable sites. And, since bicycles are an extremely common mode of transportation for the Dutch, our students fit right into the city (well, almost…)

As you know, one of the most famous areas of Amsterdam is the Red Light District and the group rode through that area as well. They learned briefly about the profession in Holland and were surprised to hear that only 5% of the prostitutes working in the city today are actually Dutch. Although the majority of the Dutch population considers the prostitution socially acceptable, they themselves are no longer the ones working in the field primarily. There is also growing concern that some of the women working in the District are in some way being forced into the trade, but each woman runs her own business and there are regulations and safety precautions in place to protect them as well.

Moving on (quickly I hope!) from the Red Light District, the students really enjoyed seeing the town, riding over the bridges and seeing the canals. The city is beautiful – even in the rain!

After the bike tour, they all headed back towards the apartment and stopped off at a local grocery store to shop for the week’s breakfasts and snacks. While this may sound mundane, they had fun exploring the local store and seeing what is available and they appreciated being able to pick out exactly what they wanted to stock the kitchen for the week.

The evening was a nice highlight of the day – they went out to dinner with Sam and Dana at a steakhouse at the Central Station on the water. Dana grew up in Holland and was a participant on Aardvark last year. Sam also is Dutch and will be participating in Aardvark next year. All the students had a great time getting to know each other. Sam is a very outgoing and everyone enjoyed hearing about his experiences growing up in Holland. Dana is very sweet and it was fun to hear her reflect on her experience on Aardvark, which she credits with helping her decision to study English education in university. After dinner, all the students went out together with Sam and Dana introducing our Aardvark International travelers to their favorite spots in town.


Day 2

Thursday, the group had a long and wonderful day with clear skies. They started their day visiting Anne Frank House, the building in which Anne Frank and her family lived hiding in the annex for nearly two years. The experience was inspiring for the students. They especially appreciated seeing recorded interviews of people who knew Anne and the others in the house personally. Also, they were interested in the things preserved on the walls of the building such as artwork and a height chart. Nearly a million visitors each year visit Anne Frank House and have the chance to see the original diary and other notebooks of Anne’s which are on display in addition to walk through the building, up the steep stairs, behind the hidden entrance to the annex.

Just across the street from Anne Frank House is Westerkerk Church, which is mentioned frequently in Anne’s diary – its clock-face on the tower could be seen from the attic and she described the chiming as a source of comfort. This church is also significant as Rembrandt is buried here. Climbing to the top of the bell tower, the students had the opportunity to walk around the balcony which encircles the tower. This afforded them a great 360 degree view of all of Amsterdam.

Also nearby is the Homomonuement which the group visited next. This monument is shaped as a triangle to correspond with the use of the pink triangle gays were forced to wear during the Holocaust (similar to the yellow star Jews were forced to wear). Having learned about this on our trip to Germany, the students were able to connect their experiences in the different countries.

Heading into the afternoon, the group set out beyond Amsterdam to visit the town of Zaanse Schans, a small village on the banks of the Zaan River.

Here, 17th and 18th century houses, windmills, and crafts shops have been preserved for visitors. The town is simply beautiful and everyone enjoyed wandering through the area. Everyone especially loved the cheese farm and Abby and Kira had a great time feeding the sheep and goats. Mason made his own traditional hot chocolate from scratch (which we hope he will make again for everyone when he gets back!) The group also had the chance to see how clogs are made, see the inner workings of a windmill, and pick up cute souvenirs.

After returning to Amsterdam, the group enjoyed a great dinner at an Italian restaurant. The pasta and gnocchi were huge hits.

A bigger hit though were the classic pinball machines for use at Boom Chicago! Although the name of this comedy club suggests American influence, the show they saw was very Dutch – it was called “The Seven Dutch Deadly Sins” and the comedians made light of all things Dutch. Although there were some references the students weren’t yet familiar with from Dutch culture, they found it an enculturating experience and had a great laugh.

Tomorrow, the group is headed to the Hague where they will visit with the Israeli Ambassador to the Netherlands as well as visit several sites within the city. There’s so much more to come!

Day 3

Today the group has had another wonderful day! They started off by heading out by train to The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government and parliament, the Supreme Court, and the Council of State, but the city is not the capital of the Netherlands which constitutionally is Amsterdam. Before visiting some of the Dutch government buildings, the group headed off to the Israeli Embassy to meet with the Ambassador and two Diplomats representing the Press, Culture and Public Affairs. Ambassador Haim Divon has served as the Israeli Ambassador to the Netherlands since 2011.

Prior to this post, he also served as an Ambassador to Canada and to Ethiopia, plus he has had diplomatic posts in Bombay and Sri Lanka. He was very friendly and interesting as he shared with the students a bit about Israel’s relationship with Holland. He made it clear that the Netherlands has one of the best diplomatic relations with Israel, just behind Germany. He was also very interested in the students’ experience in Israel and made it clear to them that he considers them ambassadors for Israel as well. It was a wonderful and informative visit.

After a delicious lunch, the group headed over to the Prison Gate Museum. This museum proves that the way politics is conducted has changed immensely over time!

Between 1428 and 1828, the gatehouse was a prison. While touring the site, the students heard exciting stories of political conspiracies, punishments of prisoners and life in the cells. They also learned about The Hague as the International City of Peace and Justice and about the history of criminal justice in the Netherlands. The students enjoyed visiting the prison despite seeing the horrible cells and hearing about the punishments which included fines, pain, humiliation, corporal punishment and capital punishment. In addition they visited the torture chamber which was used to get confessions. Gil tried out one of the prison’s tools as you’ll see in the photo attached.

On a lighter note, the next stop was the Escher in the Palace Museum, which as you can probably guess is a museum of Dutch artist Escher’s work housed in a former Dutch royal palace.

The Escher works seemed so modern against the traditional palace furnishings. At the museum, the students learned about his themes of infinity and nature. They were able to see his development from landscapes to mindscapes and the transition was amazing. The illusions were interesting to all! And, does anyone know what Escher’s full name is? No one ever talks about his first or middle names: Maurits Cornelis Escher.

The Hague itself is a nice balance of history and the modern world. There are many crucial political forums take place there and it was a fascinating day for the group.

After returning to Amsterdam, the group is heading out to dinner in the Leidseplein area, a central square which often is filled with street performers and is a popular area with many restaurants and shops. They’ll have time to explore the area as well.


Day 4

Today started out with a sweet morning, complete with a visit to Weinkel – the most famous place in Amsterdam to get apple cake. Everyone enjoyed the treat! Then keeping with a tasting theme, the group decided rather than visit the Waterlooplein Flea Market, they instead headed for the Heineken Experience.

This interactive museum was a huge hit with the students (and not only because of the free glass of beer!) They learned about the history of the brand, about the brewing process, and felt what it is like to be brewed and bottled through a special interactive ride.

The group also visited the Jewish Historical Museum today. This museum has an interesting history actually. It first opened its doors in 1932, but later closed during WWII and much of its collection was lost. It reopened again in 1955, but then in 1987 relocated to its current location in four former synagogues just across the road from the Portuguese Synagogue (which is a functioning shul still today unlike the four housing the museum.) The museum was informative and the students enjoyed seeing the architecture of the buildings which were once synagogues. They also were impressed by the enormity of the Portuguese Synagogue’s building.

After the Museum, they visited the Hollandsche Schouwburg which was once a theater but was converted to a deportation center for the Jews during the Holocaust. It was a haunting site to visit and it was so hard to imagine the realities of what happened there considering it was right in the middle of the center of the city. In the memorial hall 6,700 last names are listed, paying tribute to the 104,000 Jews who were deported from the Netherlands and killed in the concentration camps.

Everyone knows what Amsterdam is famous for… So, in the late afternoon the group headed over to the Hash, Marijuana, and Hemp Museums (no free samples here like at Heineken,) At the Cannabis museum they saw paintings 300 years ago of people smoking. Apparently, the substance was found as a substitute for tobacco which was expensive. at the time. They also learned that jazz musicians were the first to experiment with marijuana in America. Jazz musicians weren’t the only ones to try it out. It seems that Bob Dylan introduced it to the Beatles who introduced the culture on a mass scale. They also saw different plants and strains and as you can imagine a healthy conversation ensued regarding the legalization of marijuana in America. At the hemp museum the group learned about the many uses for hemp which include some plastic like materials, fabric, and even kitty litter.

Nearby to the Hemp Museum is the Sex Museum (also no free samples) but it was closed for some reason so the group instead decided to take some free time to shop (an important part of every trip!) And, finally in the evening, the students all boarded a boat for an evening dinner cruise through the canals. While enjoying the relaxing ride, the boat staff guided them through the city pointing out sites and landmarks. It was informative and fun, and it reinforced for them the beauty and the charm of the city.

Day 5

Everyone arrived back home to Israel safely early this morning. The students are catching up on their beauty sleep before heading off to classes this afternoon. The trip was a great success and yesterday was a very enjoyable day to cap off the trip. In the morning, everyone packed up and headed out to the Bloemenmarkt – the world’s only floating flower market with each stall of the market set up on a houseboat so that the entire market is located in the canal. Founded in 1862 and still popular today, this market sells more tulips than you can imagine, as well as many other types of flowers, bulbs, and seeds. The students had a nice time walking through to see and smell the blossoms.

Their next site was a little less delicate… The Amsterdam Dungeon! Through the interactive adventure, the guides at the dungeon brought to life 500 years of Dutch dark history. Leah was tried and burned at the stake for being a witch. Josh was tried for his crimes against fashion. And all the students were sold to work as a crew on a pirate ship. Needless to say, everyone had fun and even learned something along the way.

In the afternoon, the group visited the House of Bols where they learned all about Lucas Bols and the world’s oldest distilled spirit brand, which has been making liqueurs in Amsterdam since 1575. On the tour, the students had the chance to sample the flavors and smell the various aromas. Bols also is noteworthy for their specially designed bottles which were engineered to be the optimal shape and weight to enable the art of flair bartending (think Tom Cruise in ‘Cocktail’) and the students got to show off their skills (or lack thereof) in throwing the bottles around.

The last major attraction on the trip was a visit to the Van Gogh Museum. Wandering around the museum, the students saw the famous paintings “Sunflowers” and “Almond Blossoms” among others (but those are two of my personal favorites…) Van Gogh is a source of pride for the Dutch and the students could see why of course. It is interesting to think what could have been if this genius of the art world had lived past the young age of 37 and continued painting.

As the day wound down, the group retrieved their luggage and headed off to the airport. They arrived with plenty of time, which worked out well since the El Al security decided that Mason would be subjected to a random luggage search. They searched every inch of his belongings but he was a trooper. Once everyone was settled at the gate, it was time for Aardvark’s Top Tourist (the reality show which has followed our students through eight countries this year.) It’s always a close call to see who will be the winner and this trip was no different. Everyone came on the trip determined to get the most out of their time in Holland and despite the packed schedule, they never fell behind schedule. The students were fun to travel with and even with some rain on the first day, were ready for anything. But the winner of Aardvark Top Tourist Holland, was Gil

The trips may be over, but there are still a couple weeks left of the adventure in Israel and the memories will last a lifetime!