“Hey Ma.. No, everything is fine. I just wanted to call to say if you give me something of his, it looks like Grampy will be making it to the tulips after all.” The phone went silent after that, but not before hearing my mom heave into sobs as she passed the phone to my dad to continue the conversation.
One regret my entire family holds is not getting my grandfather to the tulip fields in the Netherlands before he passed away. He would get pamphlets on the various cruises down the rivers with magnificent views of the tulips and forever mentioned seeing them for himself. As a graduate of King’s Point, with a rank of LTJG, and first mate on a ship that sailed around the world during his time in the Navy, he was able to view a lot the world from the seas. He was drawn by the call of distant lands, and was lucky enough to stop in some of the most beautiful ports in the world. When my family first protested my need to travel, he was the one who encouraged me.
“Acta Non Verba” or “actions not words” was the most common phrase I heard him say, a motto he adopted at King’s Point. Surrounded by people who talked of one day’s, or maybe’s, he was the one person in my life who always followed through with what he said. He had a lifelong love of the ocean, constantly fixing up boats well into his 80’s and hosting illegal cocktail parties on said boats when the price of a martini became too high at the yacht club he was a member of.
So when his health declined rapidly over a period of a few weeks, I mourned even before he was gone.
I grieved for the strong person who I had forever looked up to and knew his inability to no longer do things on his own became a big source of embarrassment for him. No longer could he uphold Acta Non Verba he was known to embody. Going from someone who could drive himself around, run his own errands, to another who felt ashamed to ask for help, it was upsetting to watch. Slowly, he resigned himself to needing assistance with everything. It was during then I realized things were not going to get better, and the trip we talked about on and off would never happen.
God, I can’t stop crying as I write this.
His passing wasn’t a surprise in the end. Even he, with his twisted sense of humor, kept wondering when it’d all be over. “Just kill me already” he proclaimed, chuckling, not once really afraid of what may come next. He was ready, and I found myself crying less after he died. Tears wouldn’t have been what he wanted. He was free of the pain and embarrassment that plagued him in those last few weeks, never expecting it to be this way. I regret not being older, or not having the foresight to take charge and plan a trip with him way before life happened. I kept the tulips in the back of my mind for the next few years, attempting to find the right time.
The right time eventually came in the form of a Black Friday flight deal. April was determined as optimal for my boyfriend Tim’s schedule and Amsterdam had some of the cheapest round-trip tickets online. So as I debated buying a flight to a city that wasn’t near the top on my list, I remembered. April was the best time to see the tulip fields in the Netherlands. All those brochures my grandfather would get mailed to him would go into detail about the colors that could be seen in every direction mid-April. Dates were checked, flights were secured, and the phone call to my parents was made.
Searching for tulip fields in the Netherlands seemed easy enough, right?
Initially, I had a hard time finding out about where to see these candy-colored flowers. They just seemed to be scattered all over the place. There seemed to be more questions on my plate than answers. Where exactly were these damn tulip fields? Most websites just mentioned the fields were scattered everywhere in the Netherlands, without naming too many specific towns.
Some suggested renting bikes for an afternoon and simply exploring. This also brought up a dozen questions. Would it be easier to rent the bikes in Amsterdam or elsewhere? Would it be hard to bike in a different country? What were the rules? Better yet, how the hell was I supposed to convince my boyfriend to rent a bike with me and just ride around aimlessly looking for them?
My anxiety began to kick in as it got closer to our departure date and I still didn’t have all of this figured out. It had been cold for the past few weeks in Europe and all the bloom radars didn’t seem to have much popped up on them. I grew increasingly nervous when the hashtags on Instagram were filled with still-bare fields and leafless trees. It didn’t feel like a good sign.
Fearing the worst, I hurriedly bought tickets to the Keukenhof gardens in the town of Lisse, unsure of what else to do. It was within an hour of where we were staying in Amsterdam, they guaranteed the blooms, and I didn’t have to call the entire thing a wash if I couldn’t come up with another place. Satisfied, I kept the idea of renting bikes and exploring the area of Lisse in the back of my mind as a just-in-case option.
But first, a few speed bumps.
On our way to JFK, we learned our departure flight to Amsterdam was canceled. And after a few stressful hours in line, we were to arrive the next day, narrowing our options to a single day for a trip to the tulips. Now only having one real option to explore the tulip fields, I became frantic. It was supposed to rain most of that Sunday, and biking would certainly be out. Once more, I so hoped this garden would be worth it.
The morning of, I woke several times in a panic. My boyfriend and I had decided the night before to make our way to Keukenhof Gardens around 9 or 10 am, seeing as it was to rain all day anyway. He sensed my anxiety when I woke a third time around 5 am and sleepily told me he would get up whenever I had wanted, knowing it was important to me. Upon checking the weather for Lisse, instead of just Amsterdam, there was a block of time between 7-11 am where the rain would subside. Little did he know, I would be gently waking him again, 45 minutes later, to tell him this “good” news. Normally Tim’s the morning person, yet jet lag and general exhaustion had his face telling me a different story at that moment.
The (long) journey to Keukenhof.
We were situated in the middle of De Pijp neighborhood which meant getting to the Keukenhof garden was a bit more involved. Everything is straightforward if you can get yourself to the airport to take the Keukenhof Express bus, it’s just a matter of how you get there.
For us, there were three different modes of transportation, all of which were separate tickets. The tram to the train took credit cards. The train to the airport, we found out, did not. We missed said train because it took us two minutes too long to figure out they only accepted cash or debit cards. Because it was so early, this train was running every thirty minutes. Once arriving at the airport, the process of finding the Keukenhof shuttle bus and buying the round trip ticket was painless, the buses come frequently and leave even with just a few people on them.
Yet as we neared our end destination, my heart sank.
In my travels, 10 am seems to be the universal time for tour buses to begin shuttling dozens of people to popular destinations, and we passed close to a hundred all parked and unloaded.
This was going to be a disaster.
Everywhere I read, people mentioned getting to the gardens either as soon as it opens, or near closing to avoid the hordes of tourists. At first, the park didn’t feel too crowded, and we veered to the side with fewer people. To our dismay, it quickly became packed, and bumping into extended selfie sticks became our reality.
Swarms of people made it impossible to walk comfortably on the paths, and the iconic windmill was overflowing with people hanging off the side trying to get a picture. This was Yi Peng lantern festival all over again. I reminded myself I was here to live out a dream of my grandfather, yet it felt so very wrong.
The gardens themselves were beautifully landscaped, something I would have loved to of taken the time to properly admire. I couldn’t imagine all the time and energy it takes to pull off these designs. Although some of the flowers weren’t in bloom, one could tell how brilliant it would become once they did. The indoor displays brought massive blooms the size of my hand in all shapes and colors.
As we walked around for the next two hours, my feet grew tired and that not-right feeling inside began to grow. This was a crowded, curated display that I know my grandfather wouldn’t have wanted to battle the other pushy tourists to just look at the flowers. Towards the exit, I contemplated calling it quits and nixing the biking part altogether. I was disheartened and allowing the anxiety of having the “perfect” experience take hold.
There had to be more than just curated gardens.
Even as my feet led me to the bike rental shack in the parking lot, I had warily asked Tim if he still wanted to bike around. The idea of getting lost in a foreign country with spotty service was slightly terrifying. Was it even going to be worth it? I found the strength outside of the crowded paths of Keukenhof, but my resolve seemed to slip with every step. Fortunately, he said yes, despite the hell we had just walked through. I honestly believe if his voice had faltered even a little, I would have quickly turned to walk towards the buses carting people back to Amsterdam.
My anxiety increased tenfold when we arrived at the bike rentals and both bikes I was given to try out were too tall for my short legs. I felt a lump in my throat form as I nodded to the attendant when he told me he thought it was a good match. I warily took the second bike, unable to touch the ground even on my tip-toes. I just wanted to get out there, and unsteadily I raced to keep up with Tim.
We passed field after field that I yearned to stop at, yet afraid to even try to slow down, knowing I’d most likely fall over in the process when I couldn’t find the ground with my toes. Tim reminded me, softly, that we could stop any time I wanted. Never one to be good on anything other than my own two feet, my hands would begin to shake when I tried to raise them to use as a turn signal. My throat tightened as I struggled to quickly get back on the bike at one stop, dipping dangerously into the busy bike lane. It suddenly became too much, this was so far from what I had hoped when I initially had the idea to come here. It now felt like a stupid idea, one I maybe should have researched better, or done differently. I burst into tears, surprising Tim and another biker slowing to use the cross walk.
This was the moment that I had waited for years to experience. But at this moment, I found I was carrying the weight of my grandfather and the loss of him on my shoulders, and it all felt like too much on a bike I was unsteady riding. I had wanted this to be perfect, yet I couldn’t even take a moment to stop and (cough) enjoy the flowers because I was afraid of crashing when I slowed down. Nothing had felt like it had gone right that morning, from missing the train to getting to the garden too late, to the overcrowded displays. Now, I had become completely unraveled by a too-tall bike and a bike attendant that didn’t listen to my concerns.
Somehow, the same strength that kept me walking towards the bikes in the first place, allowed that voice to pipe up once more and decide to turn around. To go back, get a third bike now, and do this the right damn way. The way I had intended. There was no way I’d planned for months and come all the way here to give up now.
Acta Non Verba.
And then we were flying. Just like Goldilocks, this bike was just right. We raced by still-green areas and rode down hills to the fields in bloom, taking it all in. The brilliant yellows of the daffodils shone in the sun, and the fragrance from the hyacinths hung in the air as we passed their fields of pinks and purples.
As the wind blew through my hair and all around me were fields of color, I was proud I pushed past the anxiety and had let the idea of “upsetting” or “inconveniencing” a stranger go. I had spoken up, and the world hadn’t stopped spinning. My mood lifted, and I couldn’t stop smiling as Tim looked back now and then to make sure I was still there. Even as a late bloomer to learning how to ride a bike, I now felt comfortable lifting both legs up from the pedals and out wildly to the sides as we coasted downhill.
Soon it grew darker and we began to feel the drops of rain that were supposed to have taken over hours before, it began to dawn on me. All of the beautiful, yet limited tulip blooms inside Keukenhof were nowhere to be seen on the route. We biked over to the road the attendant told us were the only tulips in bloom, only to find most of the petals were on the ground.
“It wouldn’t be perfect if it wasn’t a little messed up somehow,” I could hear my mother saying in my ear. Later in his years, my grandfather adopted this newfound attitude to his formerly rigid life. Excess paint drips and blotches of wood stain could be found on his final projects at home and on his boat. He would shrug and continue on. I had Tim take a picture of me in front of the dying tulips, because it would make sense. We came all the way here for what I built up to be this incredibly emotional and stunning bucket-list item, only to find what we thought would be the only little patch of red King’s Blood tulips, mostly on the ground. If this was all I got, I was satisfied.
But as we rounded the final corner to the road back to Keukenhof, I spied a completely different color in the distance. My voice got a little higher as I asked Tim what they could possibly be, half-hoping and half-knowing what they were. The fields we had previously biked past were mainly soft pinks, or magentas, paired with deep purples and yellows. This was a brilliant spectrum of reds, yellows, and oranges, and I began to pedal a little harder. Getting closer, we parked the bikes and I immediately lost it. Only this time, they were happy tears.
Finally, we had found the damn tulips.
Rows upon rows of beautiful tulips bobbed gently in the breeze, the sight was magnetic and difficult to know where to look next. The sun began to poke out and the fiery colors became even more intense in the light. Some had ripples of peach and orange stripes, while others appeared almost neon. I was witnessing a sea of happiness in front of me, unable to tear myself away from something so anticipated and well-worth the effort.
Something began to click as I experienced the highs of seeing the tulips my grandfather and I talked about for years. Amidst all packing, planning, and frantic measures to get here, I never did grab something of his to bring along with me. It felt silly now, to think that carrying an item he loved or used to wear would be like “him” being there when his quick wit and strong presence was absent that day. The air felt heavy for a moment before I realized I hadn’t needed to carry a talisman to represent him. The words he oft-repeated, had propelled me in the moments I felt discouraged getting to this place.
“Acta Non Verba,” I whispered, knowing these words were all I had needed to bring with me in the end.
Was it all worth the effort?
Regret for the things we never get around to, or all the words left unsaid weighs a lot heavier than we realize. I don’t regret the times I choose to speak up, yet, before that happens, I find my anxiety tries to tell me otherwise. I have spent so much of my 20’s so far frozen in inaction, wondering if things will ever change. It’s prevented me from seizing opportunities, letting days slip by where all I’ve felt is fear for what may happen if I say yes to the unknown more.
This time, I practiced my own “Acta Non Verba” by taking the leap to fly to a new country and bike through the tulip fields my grandfather was unable to. There, I found the courage, as strange as it sounds, to speak up instead of settling for once. For every moment I decide to do something instead of just talking about it I hope I can make him proud, if he’s somewhere watching down. It was a beautiful experience to have shared with someone I cared about, and I’m glad I didn’t give up at the first sign of setbacks to the original plan. Constant little misfortunes along the way have a tendency to make it all a lot harder, but again, it wouldn’t be perfect if it wasn’t a little messed up somehow.
If you’ve been, how was your experience with the tulip fields in the Netherlands? Better yet, have you ever taken a trip in memory of another only to have nothing go as planned? Let me know in the comments!