I went to Amsterdam in the middle of the pandemic: My trip, in photos

For many across Canada, as spring fades and summer comes to light, ideas of vacations on the beach or in the countryside begin to blossom. As COVID-19 became the new reality, that blossom wilted. The pandemic has been in our lives for what—to some—may seem like an eternity. New policies, new restrictions, and the lifting of old ones, have become the norm. To many, including myself, the loss of summer also saw the loss of reunions with loved ones around the world. For the past few months, it meant not being able to see my girlfriend, Frederike, a quiet yet energetic woman who lives in the east end of Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Frederike and I met in high school in Nairobi, Kenya, but didn’t start dating until three years ago, when I moved from Australia to Canada for university. We’ve relied heavily on international travel to see one another over the years, and in-person visits make our long-distance relationship bearable.

As Canadian border closures were extended, hopes of reuniting with Frederike in Europe started to fade. Stress, anxiety, and the thought that our relationship might end, hung over me like a cloud. Hope eventually reignited as restrictions surrounding international travel throughout the European Union (EU) began to lift: I could see Frederike again.

As a photojournalist, I spend nearly every day documenting the effects of COVID-19 in Ottawa, Ont., photographing the streets, people, and the pandemic’s effect on our society. When borders finally opened, I soon found my way—camera in hand—to the Netherlands.

A woman uses a public hand sanitizer station, located in Old Montreal. Photo by: Spencer Colby

In an effort to limit the spread of the virus, Canada limited international destination airports to Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, and Edmonton. Before leaving for Amsterdam from Montreal, I spent a couple of days documenting the effects of COVID-19 on the city’s streets. Pictured above, a woman uses an outdoor hand sanitizer dispenser in Montreal, where these dispensers have been put up city-wide to combat the spread of COVID-19.

A store owner in Chinatown, Montreal wears a mask while waiting outside for customers. Photo by: Spencer Colby

The City of Montreal has also adopted a mandatory face mask policy for anyone inside a public building. This applies to all customers, and includes store owners. Pictured above, a store owner in Montreal’s Chinatown wears a face mask while standing outside of his business, waiting for customers.

The area surrounding Place Des Arts remains largely empty. Photo by: Spencer Colby

Day-to-day activities—like visiting downtown areas or hanging out at local malls—have been stopped due to the pandemic’s spread. Pictured above, the Place Des Arts on Rue Saint-Catherine remains largely deserted.

The spread of COVID-19, and its subsequent restrictions, have affected everyone differently. In Canada, cases have been reported in every province and territory except Nunavut. In March, the World Health Organization, the leading body on information surrounding the pandemic, declared Europe the new “epicenter” of the pandemic, with Italy and Spain being some of the countries with the most cases.

Early in the pandemic, the Netherlands took on the approach of herd immunity and intelligent” or “targeted” lockdowns, and this approach is still evident in the streets of Amsterdam.

On June 15, the EU, which the Netherlands belongs to, opened their borders to third party countries, including Canada. Canada’s borders still remain closed to all nations, except for essential travel. Unlike the Canadian Government, the Dutch Government and its health ministry are not recommending nor enforcing quarantine measures upon arrival to the country.

Pedestrians walk past a banner in Nijmegen. Photo by: Spencer Colby

Camera in hand and suitcase packed, I took off from Montreal to the Netherlands, documenting the effects of COVID-19 on tourism and the country. Pictured above, pedestrians walk past a banner reading, “Take Care of Each Other” in Dutch.

A community member wearing a face mask mourns the death of van Wijk. Photo by: Spencer Colby

After the shooting death of 24-year-old Bas van Wijk, who died after trying to stop an armed robbery, a vigil and protest was held at Museumplein, a park in Amsterdam’s Museumkwartier neighbourhood, to protest gun violence and rising crime in the Netherlands. Despite a heavy police presence, the protest was calm. Despite COVID-19, many people did not wear face masks to the event. Pictured above, a community member wearing a face mask mourns the death of van Wijk.

An English version of a mandatory mask sign is displayed at the entrance to a crowded area in central Amsterdam. Photo by: Spencer Colby

As part of Amsterdam’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, the Dutch government designated certain areas, both indoors and outdoors, as mandatory mask zones. These areas were marked by street signs in both English and Dutch. Pictured above, tourists walk near a mandatory face mask zone sign near Dam Square in Amsterdam.

The City of Amsterdam is urging, but not requiring, people to wear masks in crowded areas. Photo by: Spencer Colby

The Netherlands is a tourism hotspot for visitors not only within the EU, but across the globe. When the EU allowed the Netherlands to open their borders to tourists, visitors started streaming back into the country. Pictured above, tourists gather at Dam Square. In the background, LED panels instruct people that the area is a mandatory mask zone.

A member of the municipality of Amsterdam (right) stops pedestrians near the Red Light District who are not wearing face masks. Photo by: Spencer Colby

The famed Red-Light District in Amsterdam, which attracts thousands of tourist each year, was declared a mandatory mask zone. Pictured above, a City of Amsterdam official hands out brochures informing tourists and residents that they must wear masks.

The IJ-Hallen market in Amsterdam. Photo by: Spencer Colby

The IJ-Hallen—Europe’s largest flea market, located in northern Amsterdam—re-opened after weeks of delay due to COVID-19. The market was moved outside to allow for greater social distancing. Pictured above, part of the IJ-Hallen market is seen set up outside near the Johan van Hasselt canal.

A man walks through IJ-Hallen market. Photo by: Spencer Colby

Although IJ-Hallen attracts plenty of locals from around Amsterdam, mandatory mask policies were not in place. Pictured above, a man is seen wearing a mask while walking at the IJ-Hallen.

A woman wears a face mask as she waits for a train at the Nijmegen Central Station. Photo by: Spencer Colby

Traveling to the eastern province of Gelderland to visit Frederike’s parents, where COVID-19 cases and tourism levels are low, I spent time documenting physical distancing requirements. In the Netherlands, it is advised to maintain 1.5 meters (4.9 ft) apart, and, like in many parts of Canada, masks are mandatory on all forms of public transportation. For the Netherlands, this means trams, trains, buses, and ferries require riders to wear masks at all times. Pictured above, a woman wears a mask while waiting for her train at Nijmegen Central Station.

A restaurant customer fills out her contact information as part of the Netherland’s ongoing effort to maintain contract tracing. Photo by: Spencer Colby

To improve contact tracing and allow for businesses to safely serve customers, all patrons in Dutch restaurants are asked to write down their contact information. Pictured above, Frederike writes down our contact information at a restaurant near the centre of Nijmegen.

A shipping boat passes a nearby beach on the Waal River in the Netherlands. Photo by: Spencer Colby

As Covid-19 restrictions continued, a series of heatwaves hit the Netherlands, which saw dozens of people hit the beaches to cool off. Gathering limitations were not always enforced by the Dutch or provincial governments. Like Canada, policies are suggested on a federal level, while provincial and municipal governments set regulations and determine enforcement. Pictured above, locals from Nijmegen and the surrounding area gather at a stretch of beach on the Waal river as a shipping boat passes by.

Stepping away from documenting the effects of COVID-19 on the Netherlands as a whole, I focused my camera on Frederike and my day-to-day life in a country gripped by the pandemic. Her school, Amsterdam University College (AUC), announced the transition from in-person to online school with limited in-person attendance. For Frederike, this meant learning and studying from home, a new norm many of us have yet to get used to.

While I missed being able to visit public spaces and explore Frederike’s neighbourhood, I cherished our time spent together in isolation.

Frederike looks out at the rainfall. Photo by: Spencer Colby

In June 2019, heatwaves both in the Netherlands and France set records. Although records were not broken this year, temperatures were expected to rise to 32 degrees. Thankfully, after two weeks of intense heatwaves, rain suddenly descended upon Amsterdam in late August. Pictured above, Frederike looks down the road as rain pours over East Amsterdam.  

Frederike cooking. Photo by: Spencer Colby

To prevent our exposure to COVID-19, we limited our visits to restaurants and crowded areas. Pictured above, Frederike cuts potatoes in the kitchen of her apartment and prepares ingredients for our enchiladas night.

Frederike taking an online university course. Photo by: Spencer Colby

As thousands of students both in Canada and across the globe transitioned to online education, new challenges of remote learning came to life. Pictured above, Frederike takes notes for one of her classes hosted via Zoom.

Frederike looks in the mirror. Photo by: Spencer Colby

Pictured above, Frederike checks her eyelashes after applying mascara before heading outside for the day.

Socially-distanced airport seating at the Toronto International Airport. Photo by: Spencer Colby

Returning home from seeing Frederike is never easy. Every time I leave, I wish the seat beside me on the plane is filled, not by a stranger, but by her. Pictured here, seats with stickers at Toronto International Airport inform passengers to leave the next seat empty in an effort to maintain social distancing.

After saying our unwanted goodbyes, we parted ways. Upon returning to Ottawa, I entered quarantine at home, where I will remain for the next 7 days. Frederike and I long for the days when the Canadian borders will re-open and stay that way, when we no longer have to hug and kiss each other goodbye, and when our lives can return to normal.

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