Awash in Amsterdam

August 25, 2010

I've always wanted to go to Amsterdam. Not simply for its reputation of wanton permissiveness, but for its ecological consciousness and relaxing pace. It always seems to rank as one of the top 20 best cities to live and with good reason. It's a city that's largely tolerant of diversity, lovely to look at, and a marvel of urban planning.

Because the summer tickets were ridiculously expensive, I had to catch a taxi at 4am for a 6am plane. The cab driver told me all about his homeland of Romania where they grow plums in bottles to make ţuică, a kind of plum brandy. There were old Irish people drinking Guinness at the airport at 5 in the morning. God bless.

Jeanette flew in from Copenhagan and because she works in the hotel industry, got us a room at the InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam, which first opened in 1867 as a destination for royalty and noblesa, more recently hosting the likes of Queen Elizabeth, The Rolling Stones, and U2. It was a gorgeous hotel right on the water and within walking distance to the center of town. We grabbed some ham and gruyere pancakes with a crowd of Dutch senior citizens and then strolled through the city. We walked around Albert Cuyp Market sampling cheeses and drooling over the smoked fish and pastries, then headed toward Westerpark to the Westergasfabriek, a former gasworks with galleries, cafes, and performance spaces.

We found ourselves in a crowd that looked suspiciously like The Hell's Angels -- lots of leather, large beards, and tattoos. Jeanette looked at me nervously, wondering exactly what I'd gotten her into, until we intrepidly entered a hall to find... well, a biker rally. These were bikers alright, but of the distinctly Amsterdam variety who had tricked out their bicycles in the most bad ass ways. We walked around stunned at the amazing design, a testament to the commitment that Amsterdammers have for cycling.

Everywhere you go, you find bikes lined across canals, corralled into corners, chained to public property. The sidewalks were the only part of the city I found truly challenging, as they negotiate with bikes, mopeds, motorcycles, light rail, pedestrians, other bicycles, and at intersections: cars. But the commitment to being energy efficient is impressive, especially considering the frequency with which it rains.

After dinner we walked down to the red light district to see what all the fuss was about. To be honest, I was disappointed. Though larger than I'd imagined, it appeared to simply be a lot of women in windows wearing bikinis. I'm sure if we'd taken in a show or something I would have had my boundaries challenged, but I found the red light district to be surprisingly sanitary. That probably shouldn't surprise me, as the rest of the city seems just as efficiently managed.

The next day we did a canal tour and hung out in the luscious Vondelpark where we caught a free show -- some inoffensive bluesy music that made it a fine family affair for a Sunday. Still, it's hard to get used to the amount of marijuana smoke wafting through the air at any given time. Though not unusual in New York, the frequency is just ridiculous in Amsterdam. Literally, everywhere you go. But there's also something liberating in knowing that the state isn't wasting precious resources busting people for drugs as they're going through museum security checks. They're able to focus on what's truly harmful. It's hard to realize how tense it is to live in a security state when it comes about so gradually.

Jeanette flew back and I checked into the humble, but clean, Zandbergen Hotel. Not sure why they would put such a menacing clown painting over the bed, especially in the one city where you don't need to be going to bed with menacing clown paintings over the bed... but I digress.

The next day I rented a bike and rode to the Riksmuseum to see some amazing Dutch painting. The Rembrandts were absolutely breathtaking. Some of the colors and textures looked so surreal, they seemed to be popping off the canvas. Amazing that those kinds of effects could be created hundreds of years ago. Makes me think that most digital art strives to achieve the same affect with less than half the effort. Maybe that's efficiency or maybe just laziness, I'm not sure. I then popped over to the Van Gogh museum where I saw many of his early works I'd never seen and learned much more about his life. Those textures and colors of the French countryside are gorgeous and I found myself eager to travel through the south of France.

I walked around the canals, visiting antique stores full of well designed porcelain and Napoleanic memorabilia. Sat in cafes on the water and watched people enjoying the warm weather and boats drifting lazily through the canals. As the sun went down, turning the canals a dusky gold and the strains of accordion players wafted through the air, the scene around each corner seemed lovelier than the last and I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually here.



It made me think that I could easily chill in Amsterdam for a year or two. It's hard to imagine the quality of life being much better with such kind people who seemed so content. I worked out of the Amsterdam office on Monday which is small and has communal tables for lunch. As I was taking a cab back to the airport, the driver asked me if I had any coffeeshop contraband on me, for he would be happy to take it off my hands.

"I don't smoke myself, you see, but people forget it at the airport and can get in some trouble. I usually offer to take it off their hands and just give it to my friends."

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2 comments:

A. Jesse Jiryu Davis said...

Wow, sounds like a packed coupla days. Your Amsterdam is exactly as I remember it -- clean, relaxed, charming.

Yeah, the Red Light District is a tourist attraction, they keep it pretty clean. If you'd gone to a sex show you wouldn't have come out feeling any more seedily genuine: it's just live porn, and the audience is full of Japanese tourists.

"It's hard to realize how tense it is to live in a security state when it comes about so gradually." -- amen, brother. It's one of the many reasons that I, too, fantasize about moving to Amsterdam every time I go there.

A. Jesse Jiryu Davis said...

Wow, sounds like a packed coupla days. Your Amsterdam is exactly as I remember it -- clean, relaxed, charming.

Yeah, the Red Light District is a tourist attraction, they keep it pretty clean. If you'd gone to a sex show you wouldn't have come out feeling any more seedily genuine: it's just live porn, and the audience is full of Japanese tourists.

"It's hard to realize how tense it is to live in a security state when it comes about so gradually." -- amen, brother. It's one of the many reasons that I, too, fantasize about moving to Amsterdam every time I go there.