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Amsterdam sign

Let me start at the beginning.

We were on a tour bus in Amsterdam when the guide mentioned Hans Brinker.

“Who’s that?” my daughter asked me.

“You never heard of Hans Brinker? The boy who put his finger in the dyke?”

There was a pause as the kids looked at me in horror, then looked at each other and burst into the kind of obnoxiously loud, hysterical, can’t-catch-your-breath laughter that is absolutely inappropriate in public places – and impossible to control.

kids laughing

“Put his finger in the dyke?!” spurted my son, gasping for air.

“Oh, my God, you guys, you know what I’m talking about,” I said, rolling my eyes and trying to shush them while the other passengers gave us dirty looks and my husband pushed his Earbuds in deeper.

And so began another Mark family vacation.

You see, we are not your typical travelers.

While most people will tell you their vacations begin with the first stop on their carefully- planned schedule, that often becomes a quickly-forgotten prologue to ours. The real adventures – the ones that end up defining our trip – are rarely on our itinerary.

So, although we had already visited the obligatory sights – the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum, the canal – our trip to Amsterdam didn’t really begin until the Hans Brinker incident.

When we finally got off that bus, overcompensating for the kids’ rude behavior by overtipping the guide, we were relieved to find ourselves surrounded by coffee shops. “Just like Starbucks!” we sighed, already dreaming of the Dutch equivalent of a Frappuccino. We knew we had to get a drink for Sara, whose laughing fits always result in equally embarrassing hiccups, so we headed over to the one across the street.

On the way in, we were greeted by this lovely plant.


We didn’t really register what it was until we opened the door and were hit by the potent smell of marijuana. The kids’ eyes lit up as they realized coffee shop was an Amsterdam euphemism for smokeshop – and what people of all ages were smoking in there, openly and legally, was pot.

“Ooh, can we try some?” they pleaded. “You know, when in Rome …”

Uh, no. When we visited Rome, we hadn’t let them fight each other in the Colosseum, gladiator style, had we? (Sadly, that’s not a rhetorical question. I honestly couldn’t remember, and I was afraid there was a chance we actually had.)

We turned them around and pushed them out the door, convinced they had already inhaled enough smoke to get high anyway.

“You know, no one looked like they were having a great time in there,” said Sara. “They seemed like they were just pretty out of it.”

Out of the mouths of babes. I solemnly nodded in agreement, while Michael and I telepathically high-fived each other, happy that this unexpected moment naturally offered a lesson that the kids would have probably rebelled against if we had tried to teach it ourselves.

Back outside, we decided to walk over to the Red Light District. Even though the kids were 12 and 14, we felt it was important to see it.

We were sure we had reached it when we saw the red lights. Duh. You can’t fool us.

It didn’t look like much was happening there but Michael took a picture of me in my best you-can’t-afford-me hooker pose next to the red lights – much to the amusement of the passersby.

Lois in Red Light District

That was the closest we came to seeing any action there because, needless to say, you can fool us. Half an hour later, we finally came across the infamous windows, behind which barely-dressed women were advertising their wares. There were signs all over the place prohibiting photography, and we knew we were in the right place.

I was strolling with the kids, and Michael was ahead of us when a prostitute – a tall, thin, ebony-skinned beauty – came bursting out of her window, wearing a red satin teddy and thong, click-click-clicking on the sidewalk with her stilettos.

“YOU BASTARD!” she screamed as she tore through the street with surprising speed.

“Wow, some guy must have run off without paying her,” I matter-of-factly explained to the kids, secretly impressed that she could run like that in those shoes.

Just as I turned to see who she was chasing, she tackled Michael – MY HUSBAND! – and started pounding her fists into his back.

“WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU, YOU BASTARD?” she kept screaming.

The kids’ eyes were huge, Sara’s hiccups were scared right out of her and I knew in an instant that Michael must have taken a photo of the woman while she was in the window. The thing about Michael is he tends to see rules as suggestions.

“YOU DON’T TAKE A PICTURE!” she yelled at him, continuing to hit him hard.

Ever the faithful wife, I piped up, “He didn’t take any pictures.” I was furious with him but wasn’t going to let some other woman beat him up even if he deserved it. That was my job.

Sticking her finger right in my face – or, more accurately, down into my face, since she was Amazonian in height – she looked me in the eyes and warned, “YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP.”


“GIVE ME THAT CAMERA!” she demanded of my husband.

“I didn’t take a picture of you,” he said, calmly. “Look.”

He held the camera firmly and rewound it to show her his last few shots. Somehow, while I had been heroically defending him, he had managed to get rid of the evidence.

“I only took a picture of the window,” he assured her. “I’ll delete it now.”

“You can’t go messing with our privacy,” she hissed at him. “Our families don’t even know we’re here.”

He apologized and she high-tailed it back to her window, click-click-clicking down the street until she was out of sight.

I was so angry at Michael, I was ready to hit him myself.

It didn’t matter that he had erased that photo. I knew that the image that would forever be embedded in our kids’ heads was of their father being beaten up by a prostitute. I also knew, though, that somewhere in there they had recorded their mother’s loyalty and their father’s acknowledgement of accountability.

And I realized that Alex and Sara would have very different memories of Amsterdam than pretty much anyone else who had ever been there.

Just like they do of many other places they’ve visited.

Although the family albums on our coffee table feature beautiful pictures of historic landmarks and famous sights, our kids’ internal scrapbooks are filled with a random assortment of adventures that can’t be found in any brochure. Adventures that come from living in the moment and taking the detours.

Like the time we let Sara gamble on a Mediterranean cruise – and she hit a jackpot which she couldn’t collect because she was under age. Or when Michael leaned over the rope barrier at the Hermitage in Russia, causing four guards to cock their guns in anticipation.

But those are stories for another post.

At a recent travel conference I attended, Keith Bellows, editor of National Geographic Traveler, proclaimed, “Passports are the new diplomas.”

I totally agree.

There is nothing more educational than travel. And nothing more powerful than the teachings that come when you stray from the lesson plan.


  1. These are the memories they’ll never forget!

  2. Of course your family is different – you are all funny and enjoy each other’s company. It doesn’t get any better than that!

  3. I love this, and your attitude. Just keep having fun!

  4. Hi Lois! My husband and I were in Amsterdam a couple of years ago and I am SO glad that he didn’t try to take a photo like your husband. Now we all know what happens when you do. We loved the city and stayed on a houseboat on one of the canals. That’s cool that you get to travel with your kids and that as you say, the best adventures can’t be found in a brochure. ~Kathy

  5. Oh my gosh!! Lucky no one is hear to listen to me laughing hysterically. My dogs looked at me like I was crazy and ran out the door. I’ll never think of Hans Brinker the same way. Can I travel with you on your next family vacation?

  6. Love the story. Michael sounds like my French husband who seems genetically inclined to disobey all rules, even parking lot directions.

  7. You guys sounds like SO much fun to travel with. My kids would have said the same thing about the dyle lol!!

  8. Boy what an education!!!! 360 degrees almost, and for everyone in the family!!!!
    We actually had a girl at a window insist I took a photo of her and my husband….I just thought it was her marketing sales technique….

  9. OMG this is hysterical. Sounds like you have a lot of fun together 🙂

  10. Regardless of when your trip really began, you look like you had a wonderful time.

  11. I want to get my kids their “diplomas” as a Christmas present! Great story!

  12. Our vacations are never THAT much fun! Your stories are WAY better!

  13. Sounds like quite the vacation! We always have odd & quirky things happen during our trips as well, makes it all the more memorable 😉

  14. I’m still cracking up over your you-can’t-afford-me hooker pose comment. LOL. Too funny. It sounds like your family had quite the adventure in Amster-Damn.

  15. All of this is too funny. What a vacation to remember. I m not sure I want to visit Amster-Damn. But if I do, I will know what to not do, LOL.

  16. I had to giggle at all your stories! What a vacation to truly remember!
    I must take an adventure to Amsterdam! xx

  17. Wow what a great story and such great memories whether good or bad they will be remembered. I always wanted to world travel with my son but due to medical issue we haven’t really started traveling till recently and there’s a whole world out there. you are a lucky family and very blessed. thank you for sharing.

  18. LMAO. This is the best travel post I have read in weeks. Awesome experience. So funny the images of the hooker beating up their Dad. I chortled out loud. The best thing I have read all day for sure. Thanks.

  19. Amsterdam is definitely on my wish list of travel destinations! It sounds so fun…even with the crazy prostitutes. Awesome! 🙂

  20. OH my gosh on him getting beat up. I hope you weren’t too hard on him, I’m sure he suffered enough. 😉

  21. LMBOOOO! That sounds like you had a great time and then it sounds like you had a hilarious memory too! I will make it over there one day, I’m sure of it!

  22. So, your vacations sound awesome. Can you take me next time? LOL

  23. Sounds like it was an eventful vacation you will never forget. Thanks so much for sharing and making me giggle.

  24. My boyfriend desperately wants to visit Amsterdam…and NOT for the Van Gogh museum, lol. Although that’s why I’d want to go! I love your family’s sense of humor.

  25. Thank you for sharing this peek into your family adventures. What stories your family will be able to tell for generations. You are building something special!

  26. That is hilarious. Looks like an interesting place, to say the least.

  27. Well, quite a different lifestyle over there! Ha ha. I suppose men don’t always make the best decisions.

  28. If the rules were to not take pictures he shouldn’t have taken a picture. Yes your kids wills have that image in their heads because their dad broke the rules. I can understand in a situation lying because you are scared your husband is going to be killed. However he should have respected the rules. Regardless of what her job was it wasn’t right what he did and to lie about it.

  29. Can’t wait to go to Amsterdam myself

  30. sherianne says:

    I LOVE THIS POST! You had me laughing the whole time. I took a picture and got yelled at, no one tackled me thank god!

  31. Ha ha nice post! It’s clear that you had loads fun. Keep writing such posts and keep us laughing 😉

  32. Now this is what you call a family vacation! I wish mine were this funny when I travel with my family! They’re not bad, but your stories are brilliant! Amsterdam is a city where really anything goes. It’s got a great mix of history, culture and libertarianism! Thanks for sharing.

  33. Love to read about your adventure in my city! You had quite some experience in the red light, where photos are prohibited for sure and it is a big problem for the ‘girls’. Passports are the new diplomas, love that expression.

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