Starting in the 80s I visited friends in Amsterdam a number of times and something edgy and entertaining was always going on. I remember when I was living in London going with a posse to Amsterdam for the 1994 EuroPride. When we weren’t marching or partying, we hit the sights, including the venerable museums. I believe it was at the box office of the Rijksmuseum that a “family” price was posted – much cheaper than paying for six or seven adult tickets for our gaggle of queers. “This is my family,” I said to the woman. She looked up at the pink boas and studded leather wristbands and thought for about two seconds before ringing up a family ticket and turning it over. My love affair with Amsterdam was established in that moment.
I recall the train from Schiphol Airport as one of those wonders of Dutch design and ease. But how things have changed. Today, chatting with my partner as we huddle around our suitcases on the train from the airport to the Central Station, a young man sitting nearby overhears us. He leans over and tells us that there has been a train breakdown and in fact this one has been shuffled onto another track and is heading to a place 40 miles away from Amsterdam.
Luckily, he is big-hearted and allows us to follow him off the train miles from the Center at a stop where we can switch to the Metro. Alas, our train tickets won’t work because, he laments, the two systems are now owned by separate companies. I flash back to Thatcher’s disastrous privatization of the British train network, where getting from point A to a distant point B would involve multiple companies who did not manage to communicate with each other.
We need to buy separate tickets – but the dispensers, hidden in a corner, are a mystery to our guide. Another Amsterdamer intervenes to help. Then we follow our new friend, a physician, onto the Metro and finally out to the street at Central. In the meantime, he talks about why he has chosen to be a general practitioner: only GPs can refer a person to a specialist who, while making much more money, works many more hours under greater stress.
A few more transportation twists and turns get us to the apartment a friend has lent us in the non-touristy residential area of Jordaan. It was built during Amsterdam’s great expansion in the 17th C as the crowded home of the workers. By 1900 there were four times the present 20,000 inhabitants. Even Rembrandt spent the last years of his life in the Jordaan, because of the cheap rents. In the 70s the locals stopped the government from tearing the neighborhood down. Instead a new generation of artists moved in and transformed the area. Now it is the most peaceful and lovely of Amsterdam’s neighborhoods, hip and artistic, with a palpable sense of community on the streets. Markets, sidewalk cafes and lovely shops abound and we even saw some older people and some children – groups not hugely in evidence in the more hectic areas of Amsterdam.
At the farm fruit stand just at the end of the street, I get the makings for that which I most miss when traveling: a delicious fruit salad. Then I walk down Haarlemmerstraat, a frenetic commercial road catering to tourists, trying to find a bank that will accept American Express Travelers Checks. Like Prague, there is no such thing. Nor do the non-touristy areas accept American credit cards. The locals use mostly cash and occasionally their debit card (which they call a “pin card”). If they have a credit card, it is for trips abroad. They cannot understand the concept of paying what one young Dutch woman called “rent” (i.e. interest) on money that is more wisely simply deducted from your account.
I scope out the smoking scene, having earlier researched various “coffeeshops” – over 700 places where you can legally buy and smoke weed, hash and baked goods. Possession and transportation of a small amount is legal from age 18+ and those who work behind the bar – often feisty young women and men – don’t hesitate to demand to see kids’ ID. Coffeeshops differ: some places in the heart of touristville are full of drunken youth from Britain or elsewhere, and others are littered with unhappy regulars hanging onto the bars. Every neighborhood seems to have a coffeeshop every couple of blocks, often with a theme – whether it’s goth or pirate or a cartoon character.
The densest concentration of coffeeshops is in the tourist areas. They cater to visitors, including a nice sprinkling of American boomers. I make a special point of checking out Betty Boop, the unique coffeeshop started by a feminist with a commitment to making it woman-friendly – light and safe. I am also impressed with The Dolphins coffeeshop where the friendly barwoman with the luscious curls plays a wonderful mix of reggae and Latin music, the giant fish tank gurgles and they lend you one of their vaporizers for a 10 euro returnable deposit if you purchase your goods from them.
Every bar person and head shop clerk is happy to rhapsodize on their strong opinions about vaporizers. They are a smokeless, healthier delivery device in which the weed is baked, not burned. The high is more like eating dope than smoking it, and it requires a fraction of a joint’s-worth to equal the buzz. It is to a surprising degree more cost-efficient and physically harmless than pipes, bongs or cigarettes.
A number of those who work in the coffeeshops are themselves from abroad. Visitors from countries where the punishments for smoking weed are draconian, including the States, feel like they are on another planet in the Netherlands. They are giddy with this unaccustomed sense of freedom from paranoia. They peruse the menu that every coffeeshop provides, choose among the different kinds of high the workers are happy to explain, purchase a little pipe for under 5 euro or some papers for rolling joints and sit down to indulge, often at a window table overlooking a tourist lane, an outside table in a busy square or a back room with couches to lounge on. And if you haven’t bought your goods in that particular place or on that particular day, there’s no problem: you need only buy a drink to be welcome.
Even though an individual can have up to five grams or grow five plants without prosecution, the people of Holland aren’t particularly into soft drugs. I read in globalpost.com that, “A report from [the] European Union’s drug monitoring center made headlines in November when it showed young Dutch people lagged well behind many of their European neighbors when it came to smoking weed.”
My research complete, I have a very pleasant walk back the few miles to where I am staying. I meet up with my partner for a delicious steak dinner at “Vlaming” in the Jordaan which offers “Eten & Drinken.” We sit outside and marvel at the quiet that results when a city’s transportation system is built on the bicycle and not the car.
Perhaps more than any other aspect of life in Amsterdam, city transportation is profoundly different from urban America. Bike paths are the main streets and they are shared by scooters and the occasional motorcycles – the only type of noisy vehicle to be found. Cars move in the center of the roads, but bikes have the right-of-way. The cars are small and seem beleaguered. No one honks or revs their motor. Pedestrians are squeezed onto sidewalks crowded with rows of parked bikes and the tables and chairs of eateries and bars.
The bikes are quiet – only ringing bells with exasperation at tourists who neglect to move their butts off the bike roads. One woman quite rightly hissed “Stupid!” in my ear as I stood twisting and turning a map in confusion while blocking her lane. Rush hour is a quiet affair, accompanied by a kind of breezy whoosh as the bikes – thick wheels, old-fashioned, simple and utilitarian – go by holding one or two people in suits, briefcases or shopping bags hanging off the handlebars. When it rains, riders hoist their umbrellas as a matter of course and continue on with their other hand on the handlebars.
Biking is not a sport – it is just the regular way to get from here to there. There are no helmets or other safety equipment (people get on and off their bikes at the bank, the shops, the café, etc), even though there are apparently several hundred accidents (few fatalities) per year – usually bikers getting hit by trams, buses and scooters. I never saw a bike go down – or even teeter. There are other forms of transportation, including an underground metro (under which an additional system is being built), canal boats used for pleasure not transportation and pedal carts.
Bikes are stolen quite regularly and so many end up in the canals that the municipality periodically dredges to remove them. Here is a brief clip showing that:
To fresh tourist eyes, the whole thing looks like a confusing mishmash. My partner is unwilling to rent bikes because the system of sharing the space among the varied vehicles seems impenetrable. On previous trips I have rented a bike, but I was probably a massive irritant to those who were simply going from A to B in that smooth, calm stream of traffic.
The St Nicolaas Boat Club is a non-profit organization founded in 1997 to preserve a few older boats and give folks free rides in them –donations welcome. It’s not a tour; the volunteer captains know what they know. Ours was a guy named Ken from Chicago. He was a bit crisp to begin with but loosened up when asked questions – about himself or about Amsterdam. Unfortunately, when I later fact-checked his answers, I found them to be thoroughly unreliable, seemingly plucked from his imagination. When one passenger asked how he ended up in Amsterdam, Ken divulges that he had had a one-night stand with a Dutch woman, and ended up waking up next to her for eight years. He devotes about 30 hours / week – on top of a paying job – to driving tourists through the canals. He is single again, and the big perk is that captains get to use the boats themselves, a great help, says Ken, when you’re trying to get laid.
Our open 1920s boat “Athena” can take us into the tiny canals and under low bridges that regular tour boats, with their enclosed cabins, cannot reach, but it cannot protect us from the rain, so too much of the ride is spent hovering under a bridge waiting for the rain to pass. We’re about a dozen passengers, ranging from the drunk to the stoned to the arrogant wanker. Ken invites everyone to eat, drink or smoke as much as they want.
We pass the rows of houseboats (2,400 in total according to Wikipedia) which started out as hippy alternatives to rentals and have now turned into one of the most elite forms of housing, many of them worth half a million euro, mainly because moorings today are very expensive and their finite number has been reached. The boats are individualized, eccentric and beloved, many sporting wonderful gardens on deck. We pass one that was left to the cats of Amsterdam by a woman who died; it now serves as a shelter for street cats. There is a strangely public aspect to life on houseboats, not the least when the residents are having drinks on their deck.
The canals are fresh water, fed from rainwater collected in the north, and the city controls the levels so there is no flooding. They are 7 or 8 feet deep and run for about 100 kilometers, crisscrossed by nearly 1,500 bridges. One big difference with Venice is that the buildings are constructed on islands, rather than sunk into the water itself.
Our somewhat disappointing boat ride ends in a tumble of the other riders’ beer bottles, and we head for Rijksmuseum, home of about a million art objects, including the old Masters. However, it is undergoing such extensive renovations that it wont fully re-open until late 2013. One annex with their A-rated canvases is open to the public, with this defensive promise on the sign outside: Yes, don’t worry; we are displaying “The Night Watchman.” Luckily, that is not the only Rembrandt on display (it’s scarcely my favorite) – there are a couple of self-portraits and at least a dozen other of his magnificent paintings. I am mesmerized, not for the first time, by “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem” (1630), with the elder collapsed in despair on a gold-embroidered carpet and the fire of the burning city behind him.
Johannes Vermeer’s work is among the chosen, as well as the charming “keyhole” paintings of Pieter de Hooch whose Amsterdam home interiors generally include an open door through which there is a keyhole view of the street or the canal. Judith Leyster, a rare 17th C woman artist, is represented by “The Serenade.” There are even a few contemporary artworks, not the least Maarten Baas’s disconcerting clock at human height with the projection of a person inside the clock face erasing the hands and re-drawing them with each passing minute.
Rain breaks out on our way home and we dip into various kiosks and shops whenever it gets bad. We pick up some food to cook and use translation software on my laptop to figure out the cooking instructions. I have a quiet evening at home writing, while my partner goes out on the prowl to check out the night life.
Hallelujah. We discover the Stop and Go Bus which runs from the Central Station along a nearby canal road all the way to the Waterlooplein flea market, which I remember fondly from decades ago. We just stand on the road and wave the mini-bus down, pay one euro and join the white-haired women passengers who are laughing with the driver with a familiarity one rarely sees on public transportation in Boston.
Other than the frites (French fries with a special mayonnaise sauce), the market is a disappointment – a lot of cheap goods from the countries that make particularly cheap goods and daunting piles of rags you need time and desperation to pick through. There is plenty of smoking paraphernalia. I get the impression that more Dutch smoke cigarettes than dope, and they do it everywhere.
We catch the last Stop and Go back to the Jordaan at 5:30 and a rather posh silver-haired woman honors us with chosen pieces of advice about Amsterdam. A Texan who bought a home on the canal twenty years ago “for pennies,” she identifies herself as “an internationally famous psychologist who speaks around the world.” I stop her tirade against all the illiterate immigrants in the Netherlands who want to change the country’s culture instead of adapting to it, by mentioning my own grandmother, illiterate on her arrival to Ellis Island. Oh, but she’s talking about the Turks and lectures me about their universal homophobia. I remind her that there are many gay Turks, of course, and mention that she herself is an immigrant to Holland. To everyone’s relief we arrive at our stop.
Saturday, September 4
We spend most of our last day in the neighborhood, beginning with the long street market set up around the corner from our flat. The problem is that the whole time I’ve been abroad I have not had a single serious retail moment – well not of the clothing or accessory sort, at least. But instead of finding a glorious garment, I pick up fabulous fresh bread, cheese, fruit, nuts, raisins and other components essential to our return trip. Although our flight is transatlantic, not a single free morsel is included in the price and the idea of being locked inside a steel cylinder above the earth without sufficient provisions brings out what some call my “holocaust mentality.” Got to have culinary stash.
We saunter around the Jordaan in the afternoon, and fantasize about living here. The buildings are beautiful and different. For example, many buildings have hoist beams protruding from the roof above the façade, a regular element from centuries ago that still comes in handy when folks are moving in or out. The canals are calming and the street life – even outside the bars – is relaxed.
The housing system is very different from the almost exclusively private market in the States, where everyone is encouraged to buy. There is private ownership (24% in Amsterdam – double that overall in Holland), there is private rental, but it is social housing which dominates the market – 35% overall in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, though, it is more like 55% of the total stock. Social housing is provided by non-profit housing associations, with low turnover and long waiting lists.
Over 90% of the 11,000 apartments in the Jordaan are three rooms or less, and that probably helps to preserve its present character as the hotspot for creative people. You can see that sensibility in the commercial properties where the shopkeepers take presentation to heart. We find intriguing specialist antique stores, a storefront called Kitsch Kitchen that seems to keep its own hours, and a formerly-feminist bookstore that maintains a display of books by women in the window.
We have our last vacation dinner at the rather posh, if not pretentious, de Luwte where the fish is fantastic and the steak is made from the cook’s grandfather’s old shoe. But dinner is just an excuse to go on to the most famous apple pie venue in the city, Winkel, tucked away in the corner of the Noordermarkt. At first we get one giant piece to share, but within a bite or two I know that I will not be able to be generous, so we get another. We gorge on the delicacy, sitting outside on a picnic table bench watching the nighttime traffic. It is the perfect final Amsterdam experience, our tongues delighted, our eyes entertained and our feeling mellow.
This article first appeared on OpenMediaBoston.com.
All photos courtesy of Barry Hock.