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Don't You Wish You Could Knock on ... Amsterdam Doors

QUITE possibly there is a book to be done about the doors of Amsterdam. With plenty of photos, some fascinating background about the houses to which the doors are attached, and interviews with the owners, the book would be celebratory in nature, like a small door opening into a Dutch courtyard filled with flowers.

Usually the street attention from tourists in Amsterdam lingers on the canals, those murky strands of water linked and cross-linked that seem to shape and help define the city's ambiance, as water usually does in urban settings.

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Or the rattle of thousands of bicycles ridden everywhere get a lot of attention as a kind of subculture in the city. You seldom see a new bicycle in Amsterdam because so many are "borrowed." It's better to pedal a two-wheeler rattling with rust and looseness, because the rider keeps the bike longer. Perhaps, too, there might be a market for a slim book on the bicyclists of Amsterdam: all ages, sizes, and constituencies are riders here.

People also flock to the Dutch paintings in Amsterdam's several museums, which, happily, are more popular than the infamous red-light district in this permissive city. But perhaps the most frequent stop in Amsterdam is the Anne Frank house at 263 Prinsengracht. Over half a million people a year come to remind themselves that the diary of a young Jewish girl, written in hiding with her family, proved to be as enduring and powerful as all the horrors of World War II.

For 25 months, Anne, her family, and several friends hid from the Nazis in a small annex, up and behind the rooms where Anne's father had a business selling herbs and spices. Who betrayed the Franks and revealed their hiding place to the Nazis is not known. With the exception of Mr. Frank, Anne and her family eventually perished apart from each other in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Neuengamme.

THE door to the Anne Frank house is now necessarily the entrance to a "museum," and not a home. The house, located in the older part of Amsterdam, was built in 1635 when the price of houses were determined by their width. For this reason, most houses in Amsterdam are long and narrow. Many were built one behind another with a courtyard in between. Few front doors were narrow though.

I would suggest to the prospective book publisher that a description and photo of Anne Frank's house be last in this book about Amsterdam doors. Presumably in a book mixing architecture and sociology, and intended to be joyous and celebratory, there is room for her door. It leads to a place where an abundant heart dwelled even if the dark heart of murderous aggression appeared to triumph.

But the rest of the book, from the cover to the backside, should be filled with all kinds of doors, as well as the lives and faces of the people behind the doors. There should be unashamed use of colorful metaphors, symbolism, and anthropormorphic allusions; doors are part of the faces of houses, the closed eye waiting to open and wink, the access to warmth and love, the questions leading to the answer, the prelude to the symphony, the preface to the saga ... and so on.

After all, a door should not be there just to deny entrance to the unacceptable as a moat or an iron gate stops anyone not approaching with the king's business. Despite urban hazards, a city door should not be solely regarded as a security barrier to placate fears and lock out the world. It should not wear a "mask." Nor should it have characteristics which are considered to be exclusively masculine or feminine. Whether of wood, metal, or a combination of both, a door should look as if it is capable of sw inging both ways even if it has a dead bolt on it.

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Years ago, my daughter suggested that front doors of houses should all be decorated like refrigerator doors with family photos, cartoons, children's art, reminders, quotes, and cards from relatives. If not family memorabilia for front doors, then maybe there should be flowers or decorative designs the way some Swiss and Scandinavian houses are adorned.

Walking through Amsterdam, and suddenly noticing all the wonderful doors, and then stopping and really looking at the doors instead of the canals or bicycles, the idea for a book was secondary to me. I simply wanted a plausible reason to knock on the doors, introduce myself to the owner, and congratulate him or her on a distinctive door.

With gently flattery leading the way, and seeing that I was an affable, casual American, they would then invite me in for a cup of tea. We would chat for a half an hour. At door after door, I would repeat my introduction. Tea with dozens of owners would follow. Household cats would rub against my leg. Old family photos would be shown to me. There would be laughter, maybe tears.

Seated behind their doors, the owners would tell me marvelous stories of their family history, of the rascals and renegades, of defining moments, and of all the hopes and dreams hatched or thwarted in the house.

But I never knocked on a single door.

Still, I know there's a book there.

Not just in Amsterdam, but anywhere a line of handsome or well-worn doors look closed to the world, there's an abundant book just waiting for me as soon as I can get there.

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