Heiligdommen Herinnerd/Sanctuaries Remembered

Shanela Ranaraja
January 7, 2020
Cross-Cultural Still Life

There is a map of Amsterdam folded between the last two pages of my journal; a detailed and colourful guide to the city, dotted with illustrations and criss-crossed by the blue ribbon of the Metro. Two weeks after leaving Amsterdam, I open the map and look for Funenpark, the apartment complex that was my home for the last four months. It takes me mere seconds to find it, a patch of green eight minutes from the IES Abroad Center in Amsterdam-Oost. 

While I’m wildly thankful to be spending the next month at home in Sri Lanka, visiting friends and family and reacquainting myself with the sun, I also have moments of deep nostalgia for my tiny seventh-floor apartment. I wrote my blog posts there in the evenings, sitting in the armchair beside the southwest-facing windows; whenever I paused between paragraphs, I could see the twin spires of the Tropenmuseum, the silhouetted windmill by the Brouwerij, and right on the horizon, the glassy facade of the Roeiterseiland campus where I took classes. The view was a constant reminder to appreciate the breathtaking insanity of where I’d ended up - and also, that it wouldn’t last forever. The sunset moved along the horizon. The leaves were green in August and gone in December. The parrots stopped roosting on the rooftop across the street.  

In my last post, I wrote about how Amsterdam helped me find answers. However, in the two weeks since arriving home, I’ve realized that Amsterdam also gave me sanctuaries - not just my first real apartment, the four walls and fire-proof door over which I had complete control, but also other spaces out in the world that made me feel just as safe. For this last post, I’ve gathered a few memories of the places that I’ll miss the most. Perhaps they'll be someone else's places now. 


stepping into the Basiliek van de Heilige Nicolaas is like being deep in the forest, right at high noon. The air is heavy with the scent of old, seasoned wood. The shadows are sharp and dark, scattered at the base of the giant pillars and among the worn pews, but higher up there are translucent flashes and flares of light, streaming through stained-glass windows the way sunlight flashes through a canopy. The cacophony of Prins Hendrikkade is muffled, as if we’re underwater. People wander among the pews without taking their eyes off the ceilings. I sit very still; I sit long enough to lose track of time. This ground is heilig en veilig - sacred and safe. There are candles flickering somewhere behind me. 


“U singt heel leuk,” I tell the rose-haired man behind the counter. He’s been regaling the entire shop with a selection of bright 2010s pop and I’ve been possessed with the desire to tell him he sings very well. I’m not sure if I’ve got it quite right, but he gives me a wink, a funny bow, says bedankt. I emerge onto Sarphatistraat grinning. Anything can happen at Gideon Italiaander, the thrift store I’ve walked past every day for the last four months. Anything can appear in there - fifty-cent children’s books, the fluffiest bathrobes I’ve ever laid eyes on, all manner of kitchen implements, scarlet stiletto heels. This is where I come after a hard day at class. Once, what I thought was a particularly fluffy coat opened green eyes and blinked at me; after a few seconds, it resolved itself into an enormous and unimpressed black cat, who stared balefully at me as if to say, “Are you going to buy something?” 


the Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam is seven stories high. Today I take the elevator to the second floor, where I take a yellow Nederlands-Engels dictionary from shelf 831 before looking for a place to sit. With the holidays approaching, there is ample space, and I find a padded booth facing a corner window. Thirty feet below, boats drift through the Oosterdok in driving rain. I lose myself to the rhythm of flipping pages, scribbling, ink smudging the heel of my hand. Words rise towards me - vastberaden (determined), geleerde (scholar), schittering (brilliance). An Iphone rings somewhere and is quickly shushed. A librarian passes with a cart of books, jolting me back to the year I was a part-time circulation worker, always eager for shelving days. I squash the urge to go and help.


the Rijksmuseum is not at the centre of Amsterdam, but to me, it might as well be. Its twin turrets are visible from streets away, especially at night, when they rise through a forest of twinkling Christmas lights. Something is always happening in the wide, sweeping spaces beneath its archways - musicians playing with the grace of a full orchestra and touting their EPs, tourists taking selfies or queuing for the museum, and cyclists who are just trying to get to the other side. This place has been both a destination and a landmark for me; the Spiegelgracht tram stop is just across the canal, so the Rijksmuseum bears witness as I return from Vondelpark walks, talks with Van Gogh, Museumplein goodbyes to dear friends. There is always something to discover here - today, it's the small stubborn buds on the trees beside the tram stop, the turrets and traffic lights gleaming through their branches.


the sun has set when I walk out of Vomar. The supermarket’s garden section is closed; a riot of colour slumbers behind the shutter, tulips and succulents and tiny capsicum plants, dotted with ruby-topaz-amethyst peppers. As I shrug on my bags, the sound of hooves heralds the horse-drawn tour carriages that pass this way at dawn and dusk. I’ve never figured out where they go. The windmill is towering across the water, but I’m going the other way. I could make this trip with my eyes closed, but I don’t: in the daytime, there’s always the risk of tripping over the black cats who wander around collarless, leaping into the ivy on the walls when startled. Or else there are magpie pairs - eksters - brilliant iridescent birds, staking out territory against the pigeons. The tram rumbles past on the next street over. I turn into Funenpark, where the wide asymmetrical paving stones are turning silver as evening fades. A few bikes whiz past as I walk slowly east. The trees are yellowing here, still clinging to their leaves; lights are appearing in the buildings all around. Strangely enough, this complex reminds me of my Illinois college campus - quiet, leafy, with many paths to the same place.

My building’s window are lit up too, primary-colored stairwells and hallways turning it into a paper lantern, a jewel-box. I stop a distance away, under the tallest tree in the complex, a sixty-foot, ochre-hued giant. If not for the windmill that somehow looms largest when seen from this spot, I could be anywhere. In a moment I’ll go inside. I'll put away the shopping, start on dinner, maybe go up to the roof to watch the planes. It’s up to me, though. The evening is young. 


To everyone who’s followed my blog this semester - my family, the friends I haven’t seen for nearly a year, everyone at IES Abroad Amsterdam - thank you for taking the journey with me, in spirit. I’m so glad I got to share this place with you. And I hope you get the chance to see it all in person someday. 

Dank je wel en tot ziens,


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Shanela Ranaraja

<p>My name is Lalini Shanela Ranaraja. I grew up in Sri Lanka, a tropical island-nation blessed with perpetual summer, and yet I ended up going to college nine thousand miles away, in Rock Island, Illinois! I’m studying anthropology, journalism and creative writing because I couldn’t pick just one. In my spare time, I dabble in languages (I speak four), browse art supply stores, and people-watch. I require at least one long, rambling walk a day, even if there’s eight inches of snow on the ground.</p>

Home University:
Augustana College - Rock Island IL
Katugastota, Sri Lanka
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