I loved many things about Amsterdam. Really the only thing I didn’t like, and it was no one’s fault but my own, was that I couldn’t understand the language. It sounded like so much gargling and throat clearing to me. I learned how to say please and thank you – barely – because I feel like it is simply courteous to at least try to say rudimentary things in a host country’s language, and not to just assume that everyone speaks English. But in Amsterdam, they do.
I hadn’t been there in 30 years, and then only for a short time on the way to and from Kenya. All I really remember was eating pancakes and feeling bereft at the Anne Frank House. So this Reading Week excursion (for which I had to request formal permission from the Uni to leave the country) felt like an initial visit. It was also the first time I’d been out of England since arriving.
When I asked my Dutch Uni friend what to do in Amsterdam, she gave me the best advice: “Just walk around.” Although I’d perused my copy of TOP TEN AMSTERDAM, and clearly wanted to see some major attractions, she was spot on. The best way to see a city is, well, just to see it.
I could wax poetic about its many virtues, but in the interest of time, space, and deadline, I will mimic the guidebook in a Top Ten list – not in any particular order:
1. The Beer. Kidding aside, I find brewery tours to be very interesting. They include information about engineering, manufacturing, economics, logistics, society, history, and culture. Like the Guinness and Two Roads tours before them, this one did not disappoint. And, OK, there were the two golden, frosty, fresh-from-the tap Heinekens waiting for me at the end. A tip of the hat, too, to the dark and sweet Grimbergen that I tried on my last night in a café with a friendly black cat at my table.
2. The Oude Kerk. This immense, historic church hosts a series of art exhibitions in its cavernous interior. On the day I visited, the subject was death. Large black plastic-covered obelisks throughout immediately darkened the mood inside the vast church and drew attention to the deceased beneath our feet. Like those under similar slate stones in so many cathedrals that we often tread while touring, mindlessly ignoring those resting – decaying - whatever they are doing – below. The black jackets spread over the floor, haunting music playing throughout and disembodied voices whispering from hanging coats (“Did you leave your mother behind?” “What is it like being dead?” “Did you shit yourself when you died?”) made for a stunning, haunting exhibition.
3. Pancakes. Enough said.
4. The Shape. The inner city sits in a semi-circle situated around a ring of canals, transversed by pretty bridges. This makes for a naturally beautiful and navigable-without-being-a-grid layout. I took a canal boat trip the first day to get my bearings, and it gave me a delightful perspective of the curved city.
5. Rembrandt and Van Gogh. I cried standing in front of Night Watch. This will not surprise my Uni friends who watched me cry as I touched the First Folio. Art is meant, at least in part, to evoke emotion, and this massive, vibrant, and moving piece certainly does. I spoke at length with two lovely Rijksmuseum guards about its history and provenance, and learned so much. At Rembrandt’s home, I made a print from one of his etchings, and could imagine him standing at that very same press. The Van Gogh Museum was an overwhelming, emotional, educational odyssey through that genius’s oeuvre and mind.
6. Waffle Cookies. Small, just sweet enough, caramel sandwiches that come with every cup of tea and coffee. Again, enough said.
7. Efficiency. Trains run on time. The train from Schipol to The Central Station runs every ten minutes and takes fifteen minutes, for about $7. The trams cover the city smoothly, thoroughly, and often. The ferry across the Ij from the “Nord” area, where my hotel was, to the Central Station (with its 45,000-piece glass arched roof) took three minutes, ran every three minutes, and costs nothing. Crowds were orderly and polite. Just like getting around New York City… Not.
8. The Live-and-Let-Live Attitude. The Dutch seem to treat adults like adults, assuming they can make good, or at least their own, choices. I chose not to spend time with a prostitute or get high in a coffee bar, but I had those legal options. Making prostitution and pot legal protects both the purveyors and the consumers, and generates income for the city.
9. The Bicycles. Like in Copenhagen, bicycles seemed to outnumber cars, which is a really good thing for the air and for their riders. They are stacked three levels high in many spots around the city as most people choose them as their mode of transportation, and store them once they get where they’re going. I understand that the theft rate is high, and that’s a shame, but even in the bitter cold weather, I saw people riding all over the city.
10. The Right Side. While not unique to Amsterdam, I was delighted to be reoriented to the driving pattern I’m used to. Even after five months here, I still find the left side of the road thing very disconcerting. In Amsterdam, I knew with certainty which way to look so as not to get run over by cars or bikes and did not want to shout out at every single driver “Careful, you’re in the wrong lane!”
I only regret that I hadn’t more time to spend there, because there was still so much that I didn’t get to do. But when I arrived back in rainy, dreary, cold Stratford, I felt the warmth of home.
Photos (click to enlarge) by Diane Lowman