“Caetana… is such a weird and uncommon name… Do you like it or do you have a nickname we can call you?”
My name is not common. I can’t keep count on how many times people commented on this fact, trying to hide the disgusted look in their eyes. I get it, it is a strong name that you either love or hate. There is no in between. Just like the woman I became.
Dating back to 1994 (yes, I am that old..) my father went against the entire family, when he decided to name his first daughter after the spanish Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, the 18th Duchess of Alba. My mother didn’t like it, and my grandmother even said she refused to call me by that horrible name, she would come up with a sweet nickname for me that would save me from total disgrace.
Honestly? I absolutely love it. I dare saying it is one of the details I love the most about myself. I am glad my father won the battle.
The only time of the year when I know I would have some benefit of getting the name my mother wanted, Margarida, is around Christmas. And only because I have a sweet tooth and I love chocolate. Don’t feel confused, you will get why in a minute.
My great uncle is Dutch. He is a regular and cherished presence in our home, and also someone I deeply admire since I was a kid.
Not only his love story with my Portuguese great aunt could be a bestseller novel (they started as pen palls – an ancient version of Tinder, that has absolutely nothing to do with it! – and they made it work, resulting in marriage, seven kids, several grandkids and a lifetime together), but also his personality is absolutely charming.
He is a fount of wisdom and also a pretty active old man. He speaks several languages, knows the best symphony orchestras and the best books, keeps up with international news and talks with simplicity to anyone who is willing to listen and to learn from him. I envy not only his brain, but also his energy. He goes swimming, is part of his church’s choir, travels a lot, and he can still find in his busy schedule the time to come over for dinner with us.
He has always treated me like a granddaughter. Every year, around Christmas time, he brings me a chocolate letter. You see, the Dutch love to give each other chocolate letters for Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas, a Dutch holiday celebrated on the 5th of December). These letters correspond to the first letter of your name, and they are made from dark, milk or white chocolate.
This Dutch tradition always makes me recall that if my mother had been heard, and I was called Margarida, as she insisted at the time, I would get a lot more chocolate for Sinterklaas. Imagine how much chocolate I am missing with my elegant but simple C, when I could get twice as much with an enormous M. Oh well, life is unfair sometimes. Apart from that, Caetana is perfectly ok for the remaining eleven months of the year.
Receiving this sweet gift means a lot to me, as I know my great uncle religiously orders those chocolates every year from his birth city, Amsterdam, to then distribute them among his grandkids and me.
I have been to Amsterdam twice, first with my parents and then with a friend, and I believe those two visits complemented each other. I could appreciate the historical side of the city in one and the busy nightlife and coffeeshop culture in the other.
Amsterdam is one of my favourite cities in Europe. From its canals to its world-famous museums and historical sites, it is both beautiful and a very complete city.
The Rijksmuseum houses more than 8000 works, including those of masters Rembrandt, Vermeer and Rubens. There, you can easily spend an entire afternoon immersed in an ocean of talent. It is nice to visit pretty much throughout the year, as its terrace is a pleasant place to sit in warm seasons and the Museumplein in front becomes a lively ice-skating space in winters.
For a Van Gogh fan like myself, the Van Gogh Museum is the coolest museum in the city. There, you can find Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, drawings and letters, together with art from his contemporaries, like Monet. I walked in great excitement around each room, watching how some of my favourite paintings had escaped from my art book and gained substance in real life. I loved it so much that I revisited the museum, years later, with the same excitement.
Less interesting than these two, their neighbour museum of modern art, the Stedelijk Museum, is also worth a visit if you have the time. I was already quite tired when we got there, which maybe gave a negative flavour to my memories.
Another sad memory I have is from being in the Anne Frank House. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is crucial to visit this place and to get familiar with what was the reality for many Jewish families during World War II. But it is a very emotional experience, especially after reading the diary this young girl kept while hiding from the Nazi in the Secret Annex of that 17th-Century canal house with her family and four other people.
I cried thick and unstoppable tears. In the end of the visit, my parents knew that I needed some comfort food to lighten the mood, so we found a cozy-looking restaurant in Rembrandtplein and devoured a huge plate of french fries with mayonnaise and ketchup. What none of us expected was that each one of us would clearly remember that afternoon sharing french fries in Amsterdam as a strong, bonding family moment.
Also with my parents, I remember walking around the amazing Dam Square, visiting the Royal Palace of Amsterdam, the Hortus Botanicus (a botanical garden with a famous collection of trees from three different tropical climates), the Flower Market (the only floating flower market in the world, with flower stalls standing on houseboats), and shopping at the busy Kalverstraat (the most expensive shopping street in the Netherlands).
With my friend, it was another story. Our trip was much more adventurous.
The first item we wanted to cross off our bucket list was biking on the streets of Amsterdam. I must say I feel lucky to be alive after that scary bike ride. Traffic was busy, trams were fast and showed up from unexpected directions, and everyone else on a bike, who were used to this setting, expected us to know the traffic rules by heart like them. As you can imagine, two uncoordinated clumsy newbies like us survived by miracle.
We managed to get to the peaceful and green Vondelpark and safely biked there for a few hours, building up the courage to return to the stressful traffic outside.
At night, we dared into the famous Red Light District (De Wallen), where semi-naked prostitutes show their generous curves and offer sexual services from behind glass windows, typically illuminated by dim red lights.
This area comprises a network of alleys containing several sex shops (selling the weirdest sex toys I had ever seen), sex theatres and coffeeshops.
We visited the Venustempel (“temple of Venus”), the world’s oldest sex museum, and the Erotic Museum, both displaying collections of erotic sculptures, paintings, drawings and photographs of the various sexual sub-cultures.
A good friend of mine was working at the Hilton skybar, and so our nights always began there, enjoying the amazing and colourful cocktails he prepared for us. The Hilton Hotel is one of the tallest buildings in the city, providing a breathtaking view, together with a glamorous ambience. After a couple of mojitos, we were ready to hit the nightclubs.
Two of my favourite clubs were EXIT and NYX Club. Standing, literally, side by side, these clubs had a good vibe and a simple but powerful motto: to have fun with no pretension, no attitude.
NDSM neighbourhood in Amsterdam Noord was also on my list, and on my second visit I made sure not to miss it. Transformed from an industrial shipyard into a cultural hotspot, this area has become a haven for creatives and a vibrant social space. I hopped on a free ferry and 20 minutes and 200 pictures later I was in the old docks of NDSM, admiring the huge portrait of Anne Frank that the legendary Brazilian street artist, Eduardo Kobra, had painted in his signature kaleidoscopic style. And how impressive it was!
On our last day, me and my friend decided to chill for a bit and to have a hot chocolate at the Dampkring Coffeeshop. As soon as you step inside, De Dampkring (Dutch for “the atmosphere”) transports you into a fluorescent wonderland where sculpted walls, vibrant colours, a 60s decoration and the smoke-saturated air can make you feel high even without smoking a single joint. As I said, we only went there for a hot chocolate and to have a look at the place where some scenes of the Hollywood movie “Ocean’s 12” were filmed, but we definitely felt stoned at some point.
Of course there is a lot more I could say about Amsterdam… I could talk about the colourful, flower-decorated bikes on the streets, the cannabis shops selling space cakes at each corner, the locals mixing “german discipline” with a contrasting warm personality and great sense of humor.
But I did my best to put into words (and in a nutshell!) all my emotional memories and connections with the city and its people. And this was the result.
Wishing everyone safe travels,